Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

  ErN 129, entry Mar 2008  revise Dec 2014    

The Cavern of Mithra

Hercules, Thou Shouldst Be Living at this Hour

Well before the construction of the New City (“Neapolis”) in the fifth century B.C., Greeks built the original settlement of Parthenope on what is now called Pizzofalcone or Mt. Echia. It is the height that overlooks the small island of Megaride (where the Castel dell’Ovo now stands). At the time —the seventh century B.C.— that height commanded a view of the entire coast; the cliff was pristine and washed by the sea and there were no neighbors. It was the perfect place to put an acropolis and town.

Today, of course, even the mythical powers of Hercules would be hard-pressed to perform a thirteenth labor of clearing away 2,500 years of urbanization, including, but not limited to (as my lawyer friends like to say), the Nunziatella military academy, a dozen or so churches, and a long row of modern hotels that now totally obstruct the ancient view of the sea —indeed, obstruct the ancient view of the cliff from (!) the sea. So if Hercules can come forward in time —or back or sideways or whatever he does— I really want to see things the way they used to look.

A print from the 1700s, when the cavern
was used for rope-making

n order to build the town on top, the Greeks quarried the tufaceous rock directly beneath them in the hill itself, producing a man-made cavern 60 meters by 30 meters, and 25 meters high. For centuries the space was a mithraion (from whence the later Latin mithraeum), a chamber dedicated to the Greek version of the cult of Mithra, their own syncretistic blend based on the Persian (Zoroastrian) religion dedicated to the deity Mithra. Later, Mithraism spread throughout the Roman Empire and was a rival to Christianity until banned by the edict of Theodosius I in 394  A.D.

The mithraion was typically a natural or man-made cavern, meant to be dark and mysterious; there were benches for participants, an altar, and the vast ceiling surfaces were often adorned with signs of the zodiac. There are still examples of such chambers throughout Europe, some of which, over the ages, have been converted to crypts beneath Christian places of worship. The mithraion of Parthenope (image, above, right) was a large and important one among the settlements of Magna Grecia, one which welcomed worshippers from throughout the Mediterranean and even from Persia, itself.

As recently as the 1890s (the years of the photo on the left), the old cavern was largely unused, except for random storage. (The prominent dome in the photo is the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli a Pizzofalcone.) Today, the cavern of Mithra is a parking structure (image, right). You can still see the many ladder-like hand and footholds dug into the walls over the centuries by workmen as they scurried up and down to dig out and fix up. The current owners have put in an extra ramp and floor for parking such that you now have a two-tier parking garage. The cavern is supported by eleven giant, arched columns built in 1800 and maintained since then. This reflects the older concern (since the time of the Spanish in the 1500s) that you can’t keep taking out rock from below your house and putting it on top of your house for another floor forever and ever. Mt. Echia rests on many thousands of cubic meters of nothing.

Entrance to the cavern is from the small street of Santa Maria a Cappella Vecchia at Piazza dei Martiri; you walk along the side of the large Feltrinelli book shop, past the old residence of Admiral Nelson (and Lady Hamilton), turning in on the left and following the P for “parking” arrows. You really can’t miss it. It’s that big. (It is marked as #2 on the map on this page.)

photo credit: 1890s b&w, above, courtesy of Napoli Underground (NUg).

Also see Proud to be a Troglodyte!
             Beneath Mt. Echia
             The Bourbon Tunnel
             The Roman Amphitheater in downtown Naples


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