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The Oldest Churches in the World

Determining the oldest church in the world definitively is not possible. Moreover, many countries would like their church to be recognized as the oldest in the world. Therefore, various historical manipulations are undertaken just to prove that their church is the oldest.


1st century.

However, according to tradition, the Cenacle is considered the oldest church in the world. It is where the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the apostles took place, during which Jesus ate the Passover lamb before his crucifixion. The Cenacle (Latin: cēnāculum, „dining room“), also known as the Upper Room (from Koine Greek anagaion and hyperōion, both meaning „upper room“), is a room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, just outside the walls of the Old City. It is traditionally believed to be the site of the Last Supper, the final meal that, according to the Gospels, Jesus shared with his apostles.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, the Cenacle was a place where the apostles gathered even after the Last Supper, and it was also where the Holy Spirit descended upon the eleven apostles on Pentecost. The place is part of a building in which the so-called „Tomb of David“ is located.

However, the question remains about how original the current Cenacle is. According to some hypotheses, the original structure might have been a synagogue, later possibly used by Jewish-Christians. However, there are no architectural features in the lower chamber of the tomb associated with early synagogues, such as columns, benches, or other accessories. According to Epiphanius, the Bishop of Salamis writing in the late 4th century, the building and its surroundings were spared during the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD.

Nevertheless, many scholars date the oldest wall construction to the Byzantine period and identify the Cenacle as remnants of the no longer existing Basilica of Hagia Sion („Holy Zion“). The five-aisled Basilica of Hagia Sion was likely built by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I between 379 and 381 AD.

Artistic depictions from the 6th century, such as the mosaics found in Madaba, Jordan („Madaba Map“), and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, portray a smaller structure south of the basilica. Some identify this smaller structure as the Cenacle, suggesting its independence from the basilica and its possible prior existence. The basilica (and perhaps the Cenacle) suffered damage from Persian invaders in 614 AD, but Patriarch Modestus restored it. In 1009 AD, the church was destroyed by the Muslim Caliph Al-Hakim. Soon after, it was replaced by a cathedral named after the Virgin Mary, which had a central nave and two side aisles. The Cenacle was either repaired or attached to the Crusader church. The Crusader cathedral was destroyed at the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century, but the Cenacle remained.

Syrian Christians maintained the Cenacle until the 1930s when it passed into the care of the Franciscan order, which managed it until 1524. At that time (during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent), the Ottoman authorities seized the Cenacle and converted it into a mosque – the Mosque of the Prophet David. The Franciscans were evicted from the surrounding buildings in 1550. Architectural traces from the Muslim rule remain, including an elaborate mihrab in the Room of the Last Supper, Arabic inscriptions on the walls and minaret, and a dome on the roof. Christians could only return after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The historic building is currently managed by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior.

The fact that the Cenacle hosted the first mass ever held in it adds to its inclusion among the oldest churches, but on the other hand, the room was not originally designed as a church from the beginning of its construction, let alone talking about its approval for use :-)

However, a few other ancient churches are also noteworthy.


Beginning of the 3rd century.

Dura-Europos was the oldest identified Christian house church (converted from a residential building). It was located in the Syrian city of Dura-Europos and was one of the earliest known Christian churches. It is believed to have been a converted common house that was adapted for worship sometime between 233 and 256 AD. After the Persian siege of the city in 256 AD, it was abandoned.

The church was uncovered by a French-American archaeological team during two excavations in the city from 1931 to 1932. The frescoes were removed after their discovery and are preserved in the Yale University Art Gallery. The preserved frescoes are probably the oldest known Christian paintings. „Good Shepherd,“ „Healing of the Paralytic,“ and „Christ and Peter Walking on Water“ are considered the earliest depictions of Jesus.

Good Shepherd Healing of the Paralytic Christ and Peter Walking on Water

Another image from this church is considered the oldest depiction of the Virgin Mary, although experts differ on this – according to some, it represents the biblical story of the Samaritan woman who talks to Jesus at Jacob's well (John 4:1-42).

Photo: Yale University Art Gallery.

The fate of the church after the occupation of Syrian territory by the Islamic State during the Syrian Civil War is not known; it is assumed that the building was destroyed.

Jordan, Aqaba

3rd–4th century.

Perhaps most blatantly, the Jordanians claim to have the oldest church in the world. According to them, the oldest Christian church in the world is in Aqaba. It was built between 293 and 303, making it older than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine, West Bank, which were built in the late 320s. The church is the first purpose-built Christian church discovered in the period before Christianity found favour with the Roman imperial government. In fact, it predates the greatest Roman anti-Christian persecution, that of Diocletian in 303-313. The church, the ruins of which were excavated in 1998, is in the form of an east-west basilica with an apse and aisles. It also had a narthex and a choir. The excavations revealed walls up to 4.5 metres high. In its first phase, the church could hold about 60 worshippers, later it was enlarged to hold 100 worshippers. The building seems to have been abandoned during the persecutions of 303-311, then rebuilt in 313-330. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 363.
Ruins of a church in Aqaba
Ruins of a church in Aqaba

Tel Megiddo, Palestine / Israel

3rd century.

The Israelis did not want to be left behind by the Jordanians, and so the oldest church in the world is in Israel. The Church of Megiddo, near Tel Megiddo in Israel, is an archaeological site that preserves the foundations of a church building from perhaps the 3rd century AD. However, some archaeologists have suggested a later date, placing the church in the first quarter of the 4th century.

In 2005, Israeli archaeologist Yotam Tepper of Tel Aviv University discovered the remains of a church believed to date from the third century, when Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire. Among the finds is a 54-square-metre mosaic with a Greek inscription that reads: „God's beloved Akeptous offered a table to the memory of Jesus Christ“. The mosaic is very well preserved and features geometric figures and depictions of fish, an early Christian symbol. An inscription in the church of Megiddo mentions a Roman officer „Gaianus“ who donated „his own money“ to make the mosaic.


The oldest monasteries in the world

Mar Mattai - Monastery of St. Matthew


The oldest existing monastery is believed to be Mar Mattai or Monastery of Saint Matthew from the 4th century (GPS 36°29'24 „N 43°26'34.001 „E).

Mar Mattai, which belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church, is located 20 km from Mosul and 97 km north-west of the Kurdish capital Erbil, on top of Mount Alfaf in northern Iraq (no longer in Kurdistan, but in the Nineveh Governorate). It is said to be the oldest surviving Christian monastery, founded in 363. The monastery was founded in that year (363) by the hermit Mar Mattai, who had fled persecution in Amid under the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate. According to Syriac tradition, he was instrumental in the healing of Sister Mora Behnama and the conversion of her brother and sister to Christianity. Their father, King Sinharib of Assyria, initially killed his son and daughter, but later granted Matthai a place on Mount Alphaeus to establish his monastery. A small group of Syrian followers soon joined Matthai and under his leadership a true monastic life developed in this community.

Today the monastery offers 35 rooms for visitors and daily services are held at 4pm in Syriac, the mother tongue of all Christians in Iraq. Syriac is the modern form of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

While the Catholic Church in Iraq is represented by the Chaldean Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church is more closely associated with the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches.

As the oldest surviving Christian monastery, Mar Mattai is also renowned for its library and extensive collection of rare Syriac manuscripts.

Monastery of Mor Gabriel (St. Gabriel)

GPS: 37.3210453N, 41.5364247E

The monastery of Mor Gabriel also dates from the 4th century, but from its end - it was founded in 397 by Mor Samuel and his disciple Mor Shemun on the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple. It took its current name from Mor Gabriel, the metropolitan of Tur Abdin at the time, who is buried in the monastery.

Tomb of St. Gabriel

The monastery's fame gradually grew and the Roman emperors Arcadius and Honorius, then Theodosius II and the Byzantine emperor Anastasius I made gifts to the sanctuary.

The monastery belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church and is considered to be the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. It is located in modern-day Turkey, in Turkish Kurdistan, not far from the town of Midyat in the province of Mardin. The Tur Abdin plateau on which the monastery stands is sometimes referred to as the homeland of the Assyrians. Along with this monastery, the Syriac Orthodox culture in the area was centred around the Deyrulzafaran Monastery.

Deyrulzafaran Monastery (GPS 37.2993600N, 40.7927178E)

Between 615 and 1049 it was the seat of the bishop of Tur Abdin, and from 1049 to 1915 it had its own diocese.

In the late 14th century, 140 monks were killed by the Central Asian army led by the Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur (Tamerlane). In 1919, the monastery was attacked again and the monks were killed, allegedly by Kurdish militias during the Assyrian massacre.

The monastery is an important centre for Syriac Orthodox Christians in Tur Abdin, where about fifteen nuns and two monks live in separate wings, along with several local lay workers. It maintained a substantial library, of which almost nothing has survived. The monastery is now the seat of the metropolitan bishop of Tur Abdin. Throughout its history, the monastery has produced many prominent clerics and scholars, including four patriarchs and 84 bishops. Its main purpose is to maintain Syriac Orthodoxy in the land of its origin by providing education and ordaining clergy. Sometimes it also offers physical protection to the Christian population.

Today the monastery is open to visitors and tourists. Despite the presence of monks, it looks more like a museum than a monastery.

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2017/the_oldest_churches_in_the_world.txt · Poslední úprava: 27. 08. 2023 (01:25) autor: kokaisl