The world’s oldest churches and ruins, which still exist, remind us of the glorious evolution of civilizations and cultures rooted in the doctrine of Christianity. They are a testament to the early Christian traditions, customs, and faith. Historians regard them as significant landmarks in world history due to their cultural and architectural importance.
Explore the world’s top 10 oldest churches for a firsthand historical experience.
10Pantheon, Rome, Italy
The Pantheon is an ancient Roman Catholic church in Rome, Italy. Built by Emperor Hadrian on the site of a former Roman temple, it worships St. Mary and the Martyrs. So, informally, the church is popular as “Santa Maria Rotonda.” Pantheon’s dome, made of concrete, remains the world’s largest unreinforced dome.
Managed by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, it features unique architectural elements like circular domed naos and a large portico with granite columns, designed in Corinthian order. During the Renaissance period, Pantheon served as an important burial site for several renowned individuals, including painters Raphael and Annibale Carracci, architect Baldassare Peruzzi, and composer Arcangelo Corelli.
9Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
This antique sixth-century church in Ravenna, Italy, boasts early Christian Byzantine art and architectural features. Despite its unconventional design for a basilica, an inscription within the church identifies it as such, giving it the honorary title. Its main building is octagonal and has rich Byzantine mosaic patterns that add to its beauty.
Ecclesius, the Bishop of Ravenna, ordered the church’s commission in 526 AD. And its construction began under architect Julius Argentarius using a combination of Byzantine and Roman elements. This church is the only one to survive Emperor Justinian I’s reign without any damage.
8Basilica of San Lorenzo, Milan, Italy
Better known as Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, Basilica of San Lorenzo is a Roman Catholic church located in Milan, Northern Italy. Being one of the oldest churches in Milan, it has undergone several restructuring over the centuries. The exact reason behind its construction remains a mystery, with various hypotheses based on archaeology and inscriptions.
However, the basilica had the West’s largest, centrally planned structure. Also, it symbolized the Roman Empire’s legacy in Milan during the Middle Ages. Its construction was completed between 390 AD and 402 AD and survived many disasters, including fires, such as the terrible “fire of the Stork” in 1071 that devastated all its internal decorations.
7Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Trier, Germany
Trier Cathedral is the oldest and largest Roman Catholic church in Trier, Germany, due to its magnificent design and long life span. Built of Roman bricks, the central portion of the church, which spans from the main entrance to the transepts or chancel, has undergone various additions throughout different eras.
The Cathedral Treasury houses a valuable collection of Christian artwork. Commissioned by Emperor Constantine the Great, the Cathedral is built on top of his mother’s palace, Saint Helen. The church has undergone several renovations throughout the centuries. It reflects the styles of different periods, such as Renaissance sculptures, Gothic vaults, and Baroque chapels. Still, the overall style has maintained the Romanesque style with a Roman core.
6Church of Nativity, West Bank, Palestine
Church of Nativity is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. It is one of the holiest sites for the Christian community. Built in the 4th century AD by Emperor Constantine I over a cave, the church considers being the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The church has a basilica plan with a nave, transepts, and an apse leading to the grotto.
Remaining almost unchanged after the Justinianic reconstruction, several repairs and additions were incorporated into its structure from the Crusader period, including wall mosaics, two bell towers, and paintings. The surrounding compound has expanded three different monasteries: one Roman Catholic, one Armenian Apostolic, and one Greek Orthodox.
5Mar Sarkis, Maaloula, Syria
Mar Sarkis Church is one of the oldest churches in Maaloula, Syria. Its construction began in the fourth century AD, replacing a former Roman temple and incorporating elements of Byzantine architecture. The church venerates Saint Sarkis, a Christian martyr killed during the persecution of Diocletian.
The church has a simple basilica plan with two aisles and a nave separated by columns. The interior has decorations with frescoes that depict the life of Christ and the saints. The church also contains a crypt that preserves the relics of Saint Sarkis and his son. It is a famous pilgrimage site for Christians, especially on the feast day of Saint Sarkis, which falls on February 9th.
4Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Vagharshapat, Armenia
Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest operational Christian Cathedral in the city of Vagharshapat, Armenia. Built over a pagan temple by Saint Gregory the Illuminator after adopting Christianity as the state religion by King Tiridates III, the church has a religious significance. It symbolizes the triumph of Christianity over paganism.
After several renovations and expansions over the centuries, the church reflects different styles of Armenian architecture. The church has incorporated Its dome, sacristy, belfries, and other features between the 17th and 19th centuries. Apart from being an architectural and historical monument, it is a significant spiritual and cultural center for Armenians.
3Aqaba Church, Aqaba, Jordan
Aqaba Church is the world’s oldest-known, purposely-built, historical 3rd-century Christian church. Found in 1998 by the effort of a group of archaeologists, its first phase of construction is believed to be between 293 AD and 303 AD. Aqaba church resembles the mud-brick churches obtained from Egypt.
The church holds a unique architectural style. It incorporates features like a basilical structure, eastward orientation, and some specific remains of glass lamps. The marginal position of Aqaba Church within the Roman Empire saved it from demolition during the great persecution period that broke out a few years after the church’s construction.
2Megiddo Church, Tel Megiddo, Israel
The remains of the oldest church buildings of Megiddo Church are preserved in Tel Megiddo, a famous archaeological site in Israel. Earlier, it was an area that belonged to the ancient Roman Empire. The Megiddo church offers a rare glimpse into the early development of Christianity.
Archaeologists believe the construction of Megiddo Church began in 230 AD based on coins, pottery, and inscriptions. The site’s abandonment around 305 AD is evident in the purposeful covering of the mosaic and the crisis of 303 AD. During that time, Christian communities experienced persecution instituted by the emperor Diocletian of Palestine.
1Dura-Europos Church, Dura Europos, Syria
Dura-Europos Church is the world’s oldest church identified so far. The church was originally a private house in the ancient city of Dura Europos. It is then transformed into a place of worship between 233 and 256 CE.
The church walls had decorations with frescoes depicting various Bible scenes, such as the good shepherd, the women at the tomb, and the healing of the paralytic. The Romans buried the church under a defensive rampart to avoid a siege by the Persians in 256 CE. It is a remarkable example of earlier Christian art and architecture revealing how Christians adapted to their cultural and historical context.