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15 of the Oldest Religious Buildings in the World

Architectural works that have stood the test of centuries!
howchoo   (467)
September 25, 2023
42 minutes


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In our yearning for meaning, our enduring quest for connection, we humans often turn to architecture for our release, placing into the buildings around us all our emotional turmoil, hopes, dreams, and beliefs. A temple or a skyscraper can be seen as a reflection of our innermost desires, a monument to our capacity for connection, and our vast imaginations have allowed us to construct works of architecture so complex and awe-inspiring that they serve as art as much, or more, as they serve a functional purpose.

The power of the human imagination is incredible. The great philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote, in his book Sapiens, “There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.” The power of human imagination allows us to spend entire generations dedicated to projects that serve some unified purpose, spending our energies and attention in acts of dedication that are glorious and outstanding.

Of all our building efforts, it is perhaps through our various religious feelings that some of the grandest and most gorgeous have come into being. Architectural works that have stood the test of centuries and will stand the test of many more, works that remind all who look upon them (regardless of religion) that our capacity for the construction of grace and beauty at least matches our capacity for dissonance or destruction.

Cathedral, churches, monasteries, temples: what’s the difference?

  • Churches are places of worship in the Christian religion, with the earliest types of church being “house churches,” which were simple gathering spaces in homes.
  • Cathedrals are a type of church that contains the “cathedra”, which is Latin for “seat”, of a Christian bishop.
  • Monasteries are private religious communities designed to provide a spiritual living environment for those who live there. Not Christian in origin, many belief systems incorporate monastic traditions.
  • Temple is a generic term for a building reserved for spiritual rituals. It may be superseded by a term preferred by a specific religion, such as “church” or “mosque”.

1 – Megiddo Church

Two fish lying side by side, one of the earliest Christian symbols used. Pinterest
  • Established: 3rd century CE
  • Location: Legio near Tel Megiddo, Israel
  • Can I visit?: To some degree. An official archaeological park is planned but not yet built.

In 2005 prisoners in Isreal made a startling discovery. In the ancient city Megiddo, purported site of the biblical Armageddon, and a location that has seen three thousand years of violent conflict, directly underneath one of the country’s maximum-security prisons, is the remains of what might potentially be the oldest Christian church yet discovered in the Holy Land.

A time of persecution

Megiddo Church. Pinterest

In its earliest days, Christianity was heavily and severely persecuted by Rome, and those who wished to practice were forced to do so in secret. Such was apparently the case with this church, which featured an inscribed table that likely served as an altar, and an incredible mosaic on the floor that was apparently constructed using the funds of a Roman officer named Gaianus who donated his money to the cause (many soldiers were secretly Christian).

The mosaic is gorgeous and, instead of a cross, is rendered with two fish lying side by side, one of the earliest Christian symbols used.

2 – Etchmiadzin Cathedral

“The focal point of Armenians everywhere.” Pinterest
  • Established: 301-313 CE
  • Location: Etchmiadzin, Armenia
  • Can I visit?: Absolutely! It’s a massive tourist center, a UNESCO site, and a point of pilgrimage for Christians.

The mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Etchmiadzin Cathedral was the first cathedral built in ancient Armenia and has been considered as the oldest cathedral in the world. Following the adoption of Christianity, the cathedral was built by Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s patron saint.

Called “the focal point of Armenians everywhere,” the cathedral has held massive cultural as well as religious importance for the Armenian people. Considering that the Armenian people were one of the first nations to adopt Christianity as the official state religion (the Roman Empire didn’t convert until Constantine’s baptism in 337), it makes sense that some of the oldest churches would be found there.

A deeper and more ancient background

Etchmiadzin Cathedral Pinterest

As far back as Christianity goes for Etchmiadzin, the roots of worship go deeper, and the Etchmiadzin Cathedral actually rests on the ruins of a temple to the goddess Artemis. In fact, the Etchmiadzin Cathedral has been partially destroyed many times in its history, so the current version rests upon a deep sedimentary layer of historical significance.

3 – Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia remains the single greatest example of Byzantine architecture in existence. Pinterest
  • Established: 537 CE
  • Location: Istanbul, Turkey
  • Can I visit?: Yes, it’s open as both a mosque and a tourist center, at least for the time being.

Officially known as the Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as the patriarchal cathedral for Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the cathedral was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Empire after the initial sack of the historical site by Ottoman forces. Though it enjoyed a brief period as a museum under the secular Turkish Republic, it was controversially re-declared as a mosque quite recently in 2020.

An artistic treasure

Hagia Sophia. Pinterest

Hagia Sophia remains the single greatest example of Byzantine architecture in existence and the complex mathematics required to ensure that the cathedral dome is supported. Using four pendentives (triangular segments of a sphere), the great dome was constructed over the square main building, making it one of the most impressive architectural works of the era.

4 – Basilica of San Lorenzo

For three hundred years, the Basilica served as the official cathedral for all of Florence. Pinterest
  • Established: 364 CE
  • Location: Florence
  • Can I visit?: Absolutely!

The Basilica of San Lorenzo was originally constructed outside of Florence, but was slowly swallowed up by the city’s expansion. For three hundred years, the Basilica served as the official cathedral for all of Florence, and during its reconstruction in the 1500s, it saw the influence of some of the most important architects and artists of the age.

Medici and Michelangelo

Basilica of San Lorenzo. Pinterest

The powerful Medici family, a financial and political dynasty that swayed the course of events in Europe for centuries, claimed the Basilica of San Lorenzo as their parish church. In the early 1500s, Pope Leo X commissioned the brilliant artist Michelangelo to design the interior and exterior façades. While the interior was constructed, the exterior design remained unbuilt, with only a wooden model remaining.

5 – Santa Maria in Trastevere

The first sanctuary in this location was built in 221 by Pope Callixtus I. Pinterest
  • Established: 221 CE
  • Location: Rome, Italy
  • Can I visit?: Yes! It’s a major attraction.

The first sanctuary in this location was built in 221 by Pope Callixtus I, right around the same time that the Roman Emperor Elagabalus was being marked for assassination due to sex scandals and his worship of the Syrian sun god Elagabal. It’s easy to forget how many religions were coexisting in Rome during this period in history!

A site of modern joy

Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pinterest

In 2014, the wedding of Prince Amedeo of Belgium, Archduke of Austria-Este to Elisabetta Rosboch von Wolkenstein took place in Santa Maria in Trastevere in a lavish ceremony that followed a Christian tradition where the wedding should take place in the bride’s hometown.

6 – Cathedral of Trier

The oldest church in Germany, the Cathedral of Trier looks like something from a fairytale. Pinterest
  • Established: 340 CE
  • Location: Trier, Germany
  • Can I visit?: Yes! It’s a major attraction.

The oldest church in Germany, the Cathedral of Trier looks like something from a fairytale. Said to have been originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine the Great on the site of a palace dedicated to his mother, Saint Helen. Though it was sacked and destroyed twice, first by the Franks and later by the Vikings, the cathedral was rebuilt grander than ever, and now holds some of the most important relics of Christiandom.

The relics of the Cathedral of Trier

Cathedral of Trier. Pinterest

Of the relics preserved within the Cathedral of Trier, the Seamless Robe of Jesus and one of the Holy Nails that were used in the crucifixion itself. The robe was supposedly worn by Jesus shortly before or maybe even during his crucifixion, and legend has it that Saint Helena discovered it and bequeathed it to the city of Trier. Another relic is the skull of Saint Helena herself!

7 – St. Peter’s Basilica

Built over a small shrine believed to be the final burial place of the Apostle St. Peter. Pinterest
  • Established: 333 CE
  • Location: Vatican City
  • Can I visit?: Yes! It’s a major attraction.

St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world by interior measure, at almost 6 total acres, and is considered to be one of the most important holy sites in all of Christianity. The original design for the cathedral was commissioned by Emperor Constantine the Great. Eventually, the church fell into disrepair and was rebuilt in the 1500s. Now, it stands as the largest building in Vatican City and a prominent feature of the Rome skyline.

St. Perter’s is more than just a name

St. Peter’s Basilica. Pinterest

Built over a small shrine believed to be the final burial place of the Apostle St. Peter. His tomb was smashed by Arab invaders during the 9th century, but tradition has retained the importance of this location and a number of other Popes have been interred nearby.

8 – Little Hagia Sophia

An important relic of Byzantine architecture, the church was commissioned in the 6th century. Pinterest
  • Established: 536 CE
  • Location: Istanbul, Turkey
  • Can I visit?: Yes! It’s a major attraction.

An important relic of Byzantine architecture, the church was commissioned in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian and existed as one of the most important centers in Istanbul for centuries, protecting those fleeing from religious persecution, and existing as a monument to Christian worship. In the 16th century, after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, the church was converted into a mosque and its internal designs were reconfigured to match the Islamic aesthetic, resulting in the destruction of all of the original interior edifice with its marble mosaics.

A dramatic beginning

Little Hagia Sophia. Pinterest

Legend says that Justinian was accused of plotting to overthrow his uncle, Emperor Justin I, and was sentenced to death. However, before this occurred, the Saints Sergius and Bacchus appeared before the emperor and convinced him of his nephew’s innocence. In gratitude, Justinian promised to build a temple in their honor upon ascending to the throne.

9 – Church of the Nativity

In the Christian canon, the church rests over the grotto where Jesus was born. Pinterest
  • Established: 325 CE
  • Location: Bethlehem, Palestine
  • Can I visit?: Yes.

Built during the reign of Constantine the Great, the original basilica was destroyed in the mid-6th century and rebuilt in the Justinian period a few years later. Incredibly, much of the original architecture remains intact from this second building and has been faithfully restored and preserved throughout the centuries.

Ancient origins

Church of the Nativity. Pinterest

In the Christian canon, the church rests over the grotto where Jesus was born. Constantine was attempting to build Christian monuments that connected to the life of Jesus, leading to the first basilica’s construction. However, modern scholarship suggests that a cult to the Roman mythic figure Adonis (formerly the Sumerian god Tammuz) originally claimed the grotto and that it was only later taken over by Christian worshippers.

10 – Dura-Europos Church

The Dura-Europos church is the oldest Christian house church yet discovered. Pinterest
  • Established: 233-256
  • Location: Syria
  • Can I visit?: Sadly, no, but the art found there is preserved at Yale University!

In the earliest days of Christianity, people gathered in “house churches” which were simply private residencies, many converted on the interior to provide dedicated services. This allowed people to gather in safety, since Christianity, and many other cults active during the period, were illegal in the Roman Empire.

The Dura-Europos church is the oldest Christian house church yet discovered. Located in the former fortified city of Dura-Europos in Syria, the site was unearthed in the early part of the 20th century and is remarkable for containing the oldest surviving Christian paintings! These include frescos of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, but the true treasures are the paintings of “The Good Shepherd,” the “Healing of the paralytic,” and “Christ and Peter walking on the Water,” which are probably the earliest depictions of Jesus Christ to exist.

The cost of conflict

Dura-Europos Church. Pinterest

Between 2011-2015 the terrorist group “ISIS” embarked on a propaganda campaign to recapture their idea of “Islamic history”, which included the destruction of many ancient historical sites and artifacts, including the Dura-Europos church. The structure was heavily damaged, and a nearby ancient synagogue was destroyed. ISIS profited from sales of the artifacts it pillaged, selling them to support its flagging terrorist activities.

Luckily, the frescos from the Dura-Europos church had already been safely removed and ensconced in the Yale University art collection, where they can still be enjoyed today.

11 – Temple of Augustus and Livia

One of the oldest and most impressive religious buildings from ancient times. Canva
  • Established: 1st Century CE
  • Location: Vienne, France
  • Can I visit?: Yes! It’s quite central to the city and remains a major draw for tourism.

One of the oldest and most impressive religious buildings from ancient times, the Temple of Augustus and Livia was dedicated to the deified Roman Imperial couple. A large section of the rear part of the original temple remains intact today, though the rest is a meticulous reconstruction that took almost three decades to complete. Once the seat of political and religious power for the area, it remains central to Vienne, and at night it takes on an otherworldly glow provided by ground lights placed to show off its magnificence.

Preserved by Christianity, restored by revolution

Temple of Augustus and Livia. Pinterest

Sometime during the 5th century CE, the temple was converted into a church, from then on known as the Sainte-Marie-la-Vieille or Notre-Dame-de-la-Vie. The destruction of some parts of the temple followed, as did the addition of interior walls. This led to the accidental preservation of the rest of the original temple structure.

Then, following the French Revolution, the site was secularized, and between 1853 and 1870 was restored to its original glory. Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson passed through during his visit to France in 1784 and fell in love with the style, later ensuring that it would become a foundation for the design of the United States Capitol.

12 – Debre Sina

The State of Eritrea in Eastern Africa boasts one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Pinterest
  • Established: 4th century CE
  • Location: Anseba, Eritrea
  • Can I visit?: Yes, though reaching it is difficult due to poor road conditions. Yearly pilgrimages are a major facet of the region.

The State of Eritrea in Eastern Africa boasts one of the oldest monasteries in the world, dating to the 3rd century CE. Every June, thousands of Christians from the Eritrean Orthodox tradition travel to the remote location in the highlands east of the town of Elabered to camp for a night, sing, chant, and celebrate the Virgin Mary who, legend has it, has a special connection to the area.

A retreat for Saint Mary

Debre Sina. Pinterest

An ancient legend says that Saint Mary, fleeing King Herod of Judea, with her child Jesus in hand, stayed in the caves of Debre Sina for forty days before moving on and that the big rock there was touched by the hand of God afterward, making it a sacred space. Other legends surrounding the rock claim that Saint Mary appeared there in a vision to a group of shepherd girls, and the modern church is built adjacent to this site.

13 – Abu Mena Basilica and Complex

First excavated in 1905, this site is the purported burial ground of Menas of Alexandria. Pinterest
  • Established: 3rd Century CE
  • Location: Alexandria, Egypt
  • Can I visit?: Yes, but for how long? Since it’s on the danger list, there might not be much left of this ancient ruin. A visitor on the World Heritage Site describes it as a bit disappointing considering how deeply in disrepair it is and offers the following advice: “Pro-tip: you don’t have to drive THROUGH the new church area to reach this, and in fact, you don’t want to due to police checkpoints. There is a small paved road turning off right just before the first checkpoint that leads to the old church”.

First excavated in 1905, this site is the purported burial ground of Menas of Alexandria (or Menas of Egypt), a Roman soldier who was martyred for refusing to give up his Christian faith. Though little remains standing today, the base of the buildings are still intact, and archaeologists have uncovered signs of numerous buildings, including a Roman bath, the main basilica church, a smaller church dedicated to Menas’ remains, and several extended living complexes. The site is on the World Heritage Danger list due to poor governmental handling, but plans are in the works to surround the ruins with a protective membrane that will keep them safe from climate and agricultural changes.

Holy ground

Abu Mena Basilica and Complex. Pinterest

According to the tales, a shepherd who later found the site of this burial discovered that the dust of the ground and the nearby water both offered healing for those who were sick and wounded. When word of his ability to heal people spread, Constantine the Great sent his sick daughter there to be healed. She found the body of Menas and, afterward, Constantine ordered that a church be built on the site.

14 – Jubail Church

One of the world’s oldest historical monuments. Pinterest
  • Established: 4th century CE
  • Location: Al-Jubail, Saudi Arabia
  • Can I visit?: No legal entry is permitted, even for scientific study.

Imagine being on a picnic and discovering one of the world’s oldest historical monuments? That’s what happened in 1986 when picnic-goers in Suadi Arabia discovered the ruins of the church near the city of Jubail while getting a truck tire free from a sandbank.

Will the desert be victorious?

Jubail Church. Pinterest

Since its discovery the government of Saudi Arabia has done little in the way of protecting the ruins, providing only a meager (and easily penetrated, according to some online commentators) wire fence, which only went up after continued vandalism put the ruins at serious risk. Tourists are not allowed to visit, either, but more interesting is that the government has barred access to archaeologists who would be interested in studying the ruins.

15 – Cathedral of Saint Domnius

The cathedral was originally built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Canva
  • Established: 3rd century CE
  • Location: Split, Croatia
  • Can I visit?: Yes! It’s a popular location for visiting tourists.

The oldest Catholic cathedral and second oldest cathedral used by any Christian denomination, Saint Domnius in Croatia is a wonder of the ages. Built near the end of the 3rd century, the original building remains intact today, serving function with very little alteration save for the addition of a late bell tower and some minor restructuring in the 17th century. A number of valuable relics and Christian artistic works reside there today.

Turnabout is fair play

Cathedral of Saint Domnius. Pinterest

The cathedral was originally built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian heavily persecuted Christians during his reign. Saint Domnius was the Bishop of Salona and was beheaded in those same persecutions. It seems somehow fitting that the cathedral dedicated to his name should be built on the resting place of the Emperor who had him killed.


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