Delving into the origins of ancient churches reveals a huge amount about the societies that constructed them – and the subsequent communities that continued to use and adapt these churches afterwards. And when looked at through a global lens, it’s an even more fascinating picture.
Examining these churches also reveals multiple examples of truly stunning architectural work. Some of the churches on our list only have remains to be shown after weathering natural disasters, mighty storms and battle-scars from across the centuries, while some still stand tall today. Here are ten historical churches from around the world that have endured the passage of time in one form or another
1. Aqaba Church, Jordan
Although no longer in use, Aqaba is cited by Guinness World Records as the “oldest known purpose-built Christian church in the world” and is thought to have been built between 293 and 303 AD. At some point in the late 4th century, it’s believed that the church was rebuilt to make more room for worshippers, creating space for around 100 people in its new form.
A well-documented earthquake in 363 AD around Galilee destroyed the church and its remains lay dormant for over 1,500 years, becoming buried in the process. The remnants were eventually uncovered by a team of archaeologists in 1998.
With its many towers, turrets and spires climbing into the sky, the oldest church in Germany is an impressive sight. The first church on the site dates back to the 4th century, and various incarnations have been built, destroyed and rebuilt since then, although some features from the very first church remain at the current-day site.
One particularly notable item held by the church is the ‘Holy Robe’, a tunic said to have been worn by Christ before or during his crucifixion, which is occasionally – but rarely – exhibited for public display. Trier Cathedral is still a functioning church and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
As the ruins come from a building that dates all the way back to around 233-235 AD, the Dura-Europos Church is widely namechecked as the oldest church in the world. But since the building seems to have been originally constructed as a house – then converted for use as a church – some argue that it can’t be the oldest church in a pure sense. It’s now often referred to as the earliest ‘house church’, albeit one no longer in use.
The ruins were discovered by a team of archaeologists when the site was excavated during the 1920s and 1930s. This also uncovered various frescoes (now housed at a gallery in Yale University, who sponsored the original excavation) that are believed to be some of the earliest Christian paintings ever found.
4. San Miguel Chapel, United States
This distinctive chapel in New Mexico’s Santa Fe is claimed to be the oldest Catholic church in the United States. It’s believed to have been built between 1610 (the year that Santa Fe was founded) and 1626 by Tlaxcalan communities who came to New Mexico from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala. The church is initially thought to have been used by Tlaxcalan workers and Spanish soldiers who also arrived from Mexico.
The church was badly damaged multiple times (once as a result of a feud between New Mexico’s Governor and church authorities, and later during the Pueblo Revolt, where indigenous Pueblo people overthrew Spanish colonisers), but was always repaired and rebuilt. A three-storey bell tower added in 1848 was destroyed in a strong storm in 1872, but the ‘San Jose Bell’ survived and is on display inside the church.
5. Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Ethiopia
As one of the first regions in the world to adopt Christianity as a national religion, it’s no surprise to hear that Ethiopia contains numerous ancient churches. Of these, the oldest is thought to be the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, believed to date back to the mid-4th century. The church has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, and it’s not known how much of the original structure – if any – survives as part of the modern-day building, which is still used as a functioning church.
The Ark of the Covenant (a gold-plated wooden box said to hold the two tablets that the Ten Commandments are engraved on) is also claimed to be held in a chapel on the church grounds, although this is difficult to verify, as no-one except an appointed guardian is allowed to see it.
6. Megiddo Church, Israel
The location of this late 3rd-century church now houses a prison, and it was the inmates who first discovered parts of the remains in 2005. An Israeli archaeologist from Tel Aviv University uncovered the site more fully. Various artifacts were discovered, including a huge mosaic featuring a picture of a fish (an early Christian symbol) and several inscriptions written in Greek.
One of these inscriptions mentions a woman named Aketous donating a table to the church, presumably to be used as an altar. This suggests it predated the Byzantine era (when altars became more commonly used), which began in approximately 330 AD.
The second-largest church in the world (the largest until 2015, when a newly built Ivory Coast church took the title) is also one of the oldest and most well-known. The original church was completed around 333 AD (commissioned by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great) and is traditionally said to have been built on the site of the tomb of St. Peter, one of Jesus’s disciples.
The building eventually fell into disrepair and a new basilica (the existing modern-day structure) was commissioned by Pope Nicholas V, completed in 1615. Renaissance artist Michelangelo was appointed chief architect for part of its construction and the basilica contains various works by the artist, including ‘Pietà’, a marble sculpture which was the only piece he ever signed.
8. Church of St. Peter, Turkey
The only church on our list to be carved into the side of a mountain is this architectural feat located in the Turkish city of Antakya, formerly known as Antioch. Its exact origins and founding are difficult to pin down and continue to be disputed. Some say that an area was carved out from the cave to create a covert place of worship for early Christian followers – where St. Peter the Apostle would also preach – perhaps as early as 40 AD.
When Antakya was captured by crusaders in 1098, further parts of the church were constructed and extended. However, the earliest surviving parts of the church – including mosaic flooring and remnants of frescoes – date back to the 4th or 5th centuries and can still be viewed when visiting the site today.
This marvel of a building in Italy’s capital, Rome, holds many accolades – some supported, others less so. It’s quite possibly the world’s oldest Roman building still in use, and it seems fairly certain that the structure also contains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome – a truly enchanting sight to stare up at. But the claim by some that it’s the world’s oldest functioning church isn’t quite as clear-cut.
For example, it was first built as a temple for Roman gods, and only became a Christian church in the 7th century. This was during the Pantheon’s third incarnation (the version that stands today), built around 125 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, after two previous versions were destroyed by fire. The original Pantheon was built by noted Roman military general Marcus Agrippa around 27 BC. The Pantheon also became a place of burial, holding the tombs of Renaissance painter Raphael and several Italian monarchs. It continues to operate as a church today and Mass is still celebrated on Sundays.
10. Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Armenia
The first church to have been built on this site was originally constructed between 301 and 303 AD (making it one of the oldest churches in Armenia – some claim it to be the oldest, although this is now disputed), built by King Tiridates III and St. Gregory the Illuminator, the Patron Saint of the Armenian Church. The church in its current form was largely the result of a major renovation in 483 AD, perhaps due to damage caused during battle or from a fire.
The innovation and artistry behind its construction – and its influence on Christian architecture around the region – helped the church to become recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.