A sunny chap


Gaze upon the god Mithras.

He is dressed in eastern garb, a curved cap on his head. He grips a ceremonial bundle of twigs in one hand (the barsom). With his other, broken and lost, he grasps the hand of a king (?).* He is frozen in stone at the site of Arsameia.

There are hundreds of depictions of Mithras across the Roman world—nude, clothed, bearded, beardless, riding on a horse, driving a chariot, and most famously of all, wrestling a bull—but in the midst of all this action, his story has failed to keep up. Consequently, much of what is known of Mithras or Mithraism is conjectural.**

It was once faddish to seek the origins of Christian theology amid the rubble of this fragmented landscape. Not any more.

It is clear that Mithras was a big deal in the Kingdom of the Commagenê in the Taurus Mountains of southeast Turkey. His image retains elements of his Persian roots, but it also shows elements of the new West. Sun rays emanating from his head are suggestive of the Mithras-Apollo-Helios-Sol blend.

*This presentation of two figures gripping hands is an old one in both Greek and Near Eastern cultures. It bespeaks cooperation, friendship, and fidelity. Academics refer to the pose as a dexiosis (δεξίωσις). The Greek verb behind the noun suggests the act of offering the right hand.

**See Jack Finegan’s helpful survey in Myth & Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Religions of the Biblical World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989): 203-209.


Travel in Eastern Turkey is tough these days, but trips to Israel-Palestine are in full swing. We have openings right now for a trip scheduled May 25 through June 4, 2019. Inclusive price out of Washington Dulles is $3,963. Other departure cities are possible. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.