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10 oldest churches in the world

Nave of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Nave of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. / 7777777kz, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

WorldBlue  About this list

This article is a honest attempt to find the oldest known churches in the world.

Finding the oldest churches is not an easy task because:

  • The meaning of a term “church” is somewhat vague. Purpose-built Christian site of worship is clearly a church. But, what if this is a worship room in a private house (many house churches) or gradually transformed shrine of other religion?
  • Frequently the assumed construction time is based on legends. Thus, the founding of more than 80 churches is attributed to Helena, mother of Roman emperor Constantine I. She made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in AD 326-327 to find the Christian relics. She ordered the construction of numerous chapels and churches, but in many cases it is unclear whether the church was built immediately or some years of even decades later. Frequently as a source of information serves a report of medieval chroniclers, disregarding the fact that the chronicler lived many centuries later and did not provide sources of information.
  • Archaeological excavations frequently can not provide construction data either. The planning of the church and its art might show that it could be built in the late 3rd or early 4th century… but are we certain? No.

Map of the sites

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WorldYellow Some sites that were not included among the 10 oldest churches

  • Cenacle – Israel, Jerusalem. In a way, this is the original church: the location where Jesus for the last time met with apostles for the Last Supper (most likely, AD 33), where they gathered after his death and saw many miracles. In the coming centuries Cenacle turned into a site of pilgrimage. Nevertheless, formally this site is not a church.
    Entrance in St. Mark's Church, Jerusalem
    Entrance in St. Mark’s Church, Jerusalem. / momo, Flickr / CC BY 2.0
  • Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem, Palestinian part, is one more possible place where the Last Supper (AD 33) could happen. A formal church was built there in AD 518.
  • Rihab Church of St. George in Jordan is a very old church that was constructed around AD 530. In 2008 there was found a catacomb under the floor of the church – a small auditorium that was reported to be constructed as a church around AD 33-70. Unfortunately, there is not enough material to prove whether this is a church or not.
  • Antakya Church of Saint Peter in Turkey is a small cave church. According to legends (eagerly repeated by some local tourist guides) this church was made by the Apostle Peter around AD 40. The fact is that there, in the ancient Antioch, the apostles were active indeed and this might be the first place where a community of Christians was established by Apostle Peter. Christians gathered at this former pagan shrine already around AD 38-39. But the church was made there much later: in the 16th-17th century or even in 1863.
    Palayoor Church
    Palayoor Church. / Tim Schapker, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
  • Palayoor Church of St. Thomas in Kerala, India was built between 1600 and 1607. But folk tales tell that in this part of India arrived Apostle Thomas to spread the new religion. According to local tales, Saint Thomas built seven churches around AD 52 and it is not quite clear, which was the first. Generally, it is assumed that the one in Palayoor is the most important. Unfortunately, there is no documentary or archaeological evidence to this.
  • Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt in Homs in Syria is another legendary site. The current church was built in 1852. But, according to a legend, a piece of the belt of St. Mary was brought to Homs in AD 59 and a shrine was built to store it. During the reconstruction in 1953-1954 a piece of Roman cloth was found at the altar indeed. Unfortunately, there is not much else to support the hypothesis about the extreme age of the church.
    Spring in the Monastery of Saint Anthony
    Spring in the Monastery of Saint Anthony. / Berthold Werner, Wikimedia commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
  • The history of the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Egypt started in AD 311 when there arrived and in a cave started to live Saint Anthony. He was a well known man then and many Christians visited him in the cave. But a true monastery was founded there some decades later when disciples of Saint Anthony started to live in other cells around the cave.
  • Pharan Lavra in Palestine has been mentioned as the oldest monastery in the world, founded in the time period between AD 323 and 330. Unfortunately, its exact location is not known.
  • Yabroud Cathedral in Syria, for the most part, is a much newer building that was built mainly in the 19th century. But its history is unusually long – this place served as a Canaanite shrine to the Sun long before Jesus. Later it was a temple of Jupiter and, according to a tradition, in AD 326 it was transformed into a church upon the order of Helena. Unfortunately, there is not much else to prove this, although a little later the Yabroud Cathedral was a seat of the bishop.
  • The construction of the Old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Vatican, started in the time period between AD 319 and 333, but it was built around AD 360.
    Restoration works of Jesus tomb in Aedicule in 2021
    Restoration works of Jesus tomb in Aedicule in 2021, Church of the Holy Sepulchre / Nuno Luciano, Flickr / CC BY 2.0
  • Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Palestinian part of Jerusalem was built in AD 333-335. This is an outstanding monument due to the fact that parts of the original church still are in the present-day church and it has operated without interruptions. Thus, in a way, this is the oldest active church in the world with an enormous complex of other historical structures around it.

Besides these churches there are numerous other possible oldest churches in the world. Wondermondo would love to see them mentioned by you in the comments below – and they may end up in the list of 10 oldest churches in the world!

WorldViolet The list of 10 oldest churches in the world


St. Peter’s Church in Capernaum

4.4 out of 10 stars 43.5%

Location: Israel

Founded: Around AD 50

In short: There still is some discussion if this is the oldest church because there is a possibility that it was not a true house church. But there is a high probability that around AD 50 in the house, where Jesus was a frequent guest, the large guest room was transformed into a shrine of the new religion – Christianity.

The church was several times rebuilt and extended, until it was demolished, most likely, in the early 7th century. Current church over it was built in 1989-1990.

Pilgrimage Church of Saint Peter in Capernaum
Pilgrimage Church of Saint Peter in Capernaum./ random exposure, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Dura-Europos house church

4.5 out of 10 stars 44.5%

Location: Syria, Deiz ez-Zor

Founded: Soon after AD 233

In short: There are many ruins of possible house churches in the region. Most likely, in numerous villages Christians gathered in a more or less secret shrines in private houses.

The oldest documented house church, though, is located in the abandoned, ancient Dura-Europos city at Euphrates. It was built in AD 233 or a little later. In the church were found simple frescoes – some of the oldest Christian art in the world.

Remnants of Dura-Europos house church, Syria
Remnants of Dura-Europos house church, Syria / Marsyas, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Megiddo Church

4 out of 10 stars 40.0%

Location: Israel

Founded: Late 3rd century AD

In short: Just some 1.5 km from the famous Armageddon in 2005 was discovered a fine, extensive mosaic floor with Greek inscriptions from an ancient Christian prayer hall. This is a somewhat puzzling find because analysis shows that this house church was built in the late 3rd century AD, or, the very latest, very beginning of the early 4th century. Thus, it was built well before the churches were allowed in Roman Empire. But, this Christian shrine was inside a Roman built house, in a Roman military camp!

Mosaic on the floor of Megiddo church
Mosaic on the floor of Megiddo church. The incription is in Greek and reads “The God loving Aketous has offered this altar to the God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” / Vesafis Tzferris, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Aqaba Church

3.7 out of 10 stars 36.5%

Location: Jordan

Founded: Between AD 293 and 303

In short: Numerous house churches existed before this structure, but Aqaba Church seems to be the oldest known purpose-built church.

It was built shortly before the more intense persecution of Christians in Roman Empire started in AD 303. It seems, this church by this time was abandoned and somehow left standing. It was destroyed, most likely, by an eartquake in AD 363.

Remnants of Aqaba Church
Remnants of Aqaba Church. / Bel Adone, Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Etchmiadzin Cathedral

4.8 out of 10 stars 48.0%

Location: Armenia

Founded: Around AD 301-303 (most likely)

In short: The currently visible church in the former capital city of Ancient Armenia was gradually constructed since the AD 483/484. But in its site already in AD 301-303 was built the first cathedral in the world – a mark that Armenia was the first Christian country in the world.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral
Etchmiadzin Cathedral. / Areg Amirkhanian, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Archbasilica of St John Lateran

6 out of 10 stars 59.5%

Location: Italy, Rome

Founded: AD 318 or 324

In short: This is the oldest church in Europe and, formally, the most important Catholic church in the world. It was built in 313-318 (or 324?) as the main seat of bishop in Rome. The current magnificent church building is much newer, built in 1370-1735.

Interior of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Rome
Interior of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Rome / Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Qirqbize church

3.1 out of 10 stars 31.0%

Location: Syria

Founded: The first third of the 3rd century AD (or later?)

In short: One of the numerous ancient churches in the unique cultural landscape of the Northern Syria, where in the ancient times was a very prosperous land. Qirqbize church, most likely, was built as a church next to an affluent villa, possibly by the owner of this posh house. Specialists have a discussion about its age, but it is quite possible that the church was built in the beginning of the 3rd century AD.

Qirqbize house church
Qirqbize house church from the northeast. / Frank Kidner, Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Panagia Ekatontapyliani

3.6 out of 10 stars 36.0%

Location: Greece

Founded: AD 326 (according to a legend, in reality – some years later)

In short: One of the numerous churches that, according to a legend, were founded by the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, Helena during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Most likely, though, it was built some years later. At least some parts of the building are from the 6th century, but, it seems, nothing from the original structure remains.

Panagia Ekatontapyliani
Panagia Ekatontapyliani. / Zde, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Stavrovouni Monastery

4.6 out of 10 stars 46.4%

Location: Cyprus

Founded: AD 327-329 (according to a legend)

In short: One more site, that, according to a legend, was visited by Helen, mother of emperor Constantine I. A wonder happened there and she ordered to build a chapel there. The monastery in this site was established soon after as one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Present-day buildings are much younger – built in the late 19th century and 20th century.

Stavrovouni Monastery
Stavrovouni Monastery. / Zairon, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Church of the Nativity

5.1 out of 10 stars 51.4%

Location: Palestine, West Bank, Bethlehem

Founded: Around AD 326-330

In short: The church in the possible birthplace of Jesus (the Nativity Grotto under the church) was constructed sometime between AD 326 and 330, although the location was a pilgrimage site long before this. The current church was built around 565 and since then there has evolved a whole complex of religious buildings. Nevertheless, the mosaic floors have been preserved from the original church. This church seems to have the longest history of a continuous use among all the churches of the world.

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. / David Pirmann – republished photo of C. E. Hablutzel, Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

WorldYellow Recommended books

Paul’s Idea of Community: Spirit and Culture in Early House Churches

This highly readable investigation of the early church explores the revolutionary nature, dynamics, and effects of the earliest Christian communities. It introduces readers to the cultural setting of the house churches of biblical times, examines the apostle Paul’s vision of life in the Christian church, and explores how the New Testament model of community applies to Christian practice today.

The World’s Oldest Church

Michael Peppard provides a historical and theological reassessment of the oldest Christian building ever discovered, the third-century house-church at Dura-Europos. Contrary to commonly held assumptions about Christian initiation, Peppard contends that rituals here did not primarily embody notions of death and resurrection. Rather, he portrays the motifs of the church’s wall paintings as those of empowerment, healing, marriage, and incarnation, while boldly reidentifying the figure of a woman formerly believed to be a repentant sinner as the Virgin Mary. This richly illustrated volume is a breakthrough work that enhances our understanding of early Christianity at the nexus of Bible, art, and ritual.

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