Oldest Churches in the world

Before most churches were built, early Christians would gather in tiny neighborhood homes called house churches. The word “church” comes from the Greek word “assembly,” which refers to the entire Christian community. By the first century CE, various religious centers already existed in the Holy Land, but the establishment of traditional churches worldwide didn’t occur until the next century. From the famous St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, these are some of the world’s oldest and most historic churches. Whether you are interested in history or seeking a spiritual experience, visiting these 10 oldest churches in the world is a must-do.

10. Mor Gabriel Monastery (397)

The Mor Gabriel Monastery, also known as Deyrulumur, is a true testament to the strength and endurance of Christianity. Dating back to 397, this ancient Syriac Orthodox monastery is the oldest functioning one still in existence. Located on the picturesque Tur Abdin plateau in southeastern Turkey, surrounded by rolling orchards and olive groves, this Christian church and the fortress-like compound have been a place of refuge for thousands of Coptic monks throughout the centuries.

In its long history, the Mor Gabriel Monastery served as the home and sacred space for many Coptic monks and, at one point, even had its diocese. Despite facing invasions by Timur Mongols in the 14th century and later, the monastery remains a symbol of resilience. In the 1990s, hundreds of buried monks were discovered in caves beneath the building, adding to its rich history and legacy.

Today, the Mor Gabriel Monastery is still home to a dedicated group of monks and nuns and serves as the seat of the metropolitan bishop of Turabdin. Visitors are welcome to visit during daylight hours, but if you’re interested in staying overnight, you’ll need to get advanced permission. Experience the ancient history and rich spiritual legacy of one of the oldest churches in the world.

9. Monastery of Saint Anthony (356)

The Monastery of Saint Anthony is one of the oldest churches in the world, with roots dating back to the 4th century. The origins of this gathering can be traced back to a small and informal group of followers of Saint Anthony, the first Christian monk, who used to meet in a cave near the base of Gebel Al Galala Al Qibliya in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Over time, the monastery grew to encompass five historic churches, a bakery, a library, and a lush garden, all within fortified walls.

Currently, the monastery is home to over 100 monks who have devoted their lives to meditation, prayer, and upholding the practices established by the original disciples of Saint Anthony centuries ago. The monks live in cells within the complex and maintain this way of life.

Several original churches have been beautifully restored, including the Monastery of St. Anthony, the oldest building and the main draw for visitors. This historic church is built over the saint’s tomb and features a collection of ancient Coptic wall paintings.

Visitors can take a tour led by resident monks and join the hundreds of pilgrims who visit the Monastery of Saint Anthony daily. The time takes you through the monastery’s fortified walls, providing a unique glimpse into the world of monastic life.

8. Santa Maria in Trastevere (340)

Santa Maria in Trastevere, located in Rome, is one of the oldest churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with roots dating back to 340. While the original parts of the church date to the 3rd century, several additional features were added in the 12th century, such as the Romanesque bell tower, stunning interior mosaics, and a gleaming golden façade. An entrance was also added in the 18th century.

Historians and pilgrims alike are drawn to the captivating highlights of this Roman church. The 12th-century mosaics are especially noteworthy, a series of six breathtaking pieces by Pietro Cavallini that depict the life of the Virgin Mary. These magnificent mosaics, along with the other historical features of the church, make Santa Maria in Trastevere one of the world’s oldest and most visited churches.

7. Cathedral of Trier (340)

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Trier is a historical masterpiece with a history dating back to the 4th century. Throughout its history, the church has undergone numerous expansions and has now earned the title of the oldest bishop’s church in Germany and the largest religious structure in Trier. The cathedral is built on the grounds of a former palace that was transformed into a Christian church. One of the earliest known Early Christian rooms is buried beneath it, located north of the Alps.

The Cathedral of Trier is proud to possess the Holy Robe, which is thought to have fragments of Jesus Christ’s tunic. This sacred relic was first mentioned by religious scholars in the 12th century and was later discovered when the high altar was opened. The Holy Robe is kept in an annex and is only shown on special occasions.

Aside from its exceptional Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the Cathedral of Trier is also home to another important relic – the Holy Nail believed to have been used during the Crucifixion. If you’re a history buff or just seeking a spiritual experience, visiting the Cathedral of Trier and discovering its rich history is a must. The oldest churches in the world offer a unique glimpse into the past, making them a must-visit for anyone interested in history, architecture, and spirituality.

6. Church of the Nativity (339)

The birthplace of Jesus Christ is widely believed by many to be the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A popular pilgrimage destination visited by millions of people every year, the Church of the Nativity is one of Christianity’s most revered holy sites and one of the oldest churches still in use.

Constructed at the mouth of a historic cave, the church was rebuilt after the original structure was destroyed during a 6th-century uprising. The church retains its original red and white limestone columns and floor mosaics despite its renovation.

Visitors must enter through the Door of Humility, a low entranceway resized to prevent looters from entering on horseback. The church offers access to the Grotto of the Nativity, a lantern-lit space that houses the Chapel of the Manger and the famous 14-pointed silver star marking the exact spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. If you’re interested in the history of Christianity and its oldest churches, the Church of the Nativity is a must-visit destination.

5. Church of the Holy Sepulchre (335)

The Church of Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a beautiful beige-colored structure crafted from wood and stone, is a stunning example of religious architecture. Its striking arches are adorned with Crusader crosses, and it was consecrated in 335 AD. The church stands on two of the most important sites in Christianity: the Rock of Calvary (Golgotha), where Jesus was crucified, and the Tomb of the Sepulchre.

As one of the world’s most famous pilgrimage destinations, millions of visitors flock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre each year. This church, also known as the Church of the Resurrection, is the final stop for the last four to five stations of the Via Dolorosa, which depicts the final moments of Jesus’ Passion. The most famous of these stations is the 12th, the Rock of Calvary, with its glass altar of the Crucifixion, and the 14th, the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was buried and resurrected.

Visitors to this historically and religiously significant church are asked to dress conservatively. Touching the sacred rock through the protective glass altar at the Rock of Calvary is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should not be missed by those interested in visiting the oldest churches in the world.

4. Peter’s Basilica (333)

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City stands out among this city-state’s many impressive churches and religious buildings. Dating back to 333 AD, though rebuilt in the 16th century, it is one of the oldest and largest basilicas in Rome. It is believed to have been built over the tomb of St. Peter, making it a significant site for history and faith.

The central balcony, the Loggia della Benedizione, is a notable feature where the Pope addresses the public on special occasions. The basilica’s façade is equally impressive, with 13 statues, including St. John the Baptist and Christ the Redeemer. Inside the walls of this grand church, there are many remarkable works of art, including Michelangelo’s famous Renaissance sculpture, Pieta. This sculpture is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, representing the Madonna grieving the loss of her son.

Another impressive work of art within St. Peter’s Basilica is Bernini’s Baldachin, crafted from bronze from the Pantheon, and above that is Michelangelo’s iconic dome. Visitors to the basilica can also climb to the rooftop for breathtaking views of the Vatican and beyond. Regarding the oldest churches in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is undoubtedly one worth visiting.

3. Stavrovouni Monastery (327-329)

The Stavrovouni Monastery, located atop the “Mountain of the Cross,” is considered one of the oldest churches in the world, with origins dating back to the early 4th century. This historic site draws pilgrims from far and wide, primarily due to the piece of the Holy Cross kept inside the church, which is said to have been brought back by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, from her pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, women are not permitted to enter the monastery, but the breathtaking views of the Mesaoria plain stretching towards the Mediterranean make the steep journey up the mountain well worth it. While men can tour the ancient monastery with its bell tower and arched cloisters, female visitors can still admire the beauty of the smaller Church of the All Saints located just outside. A visit to the Stavrovouni Monastery is an opportunity to immerse yourself in history and spirituality, making it a must-visit for everyone interested in the oldest churches in the world.

2. Panagia Ekatontapiliani (326)

The Panagia Ekatontapiliani, also known as “the Church with a Hundred Doors,” is a remarkable and ancient example of Paleo-Christian architecture located on the island of Paros in Greece. It consists of multiple churches and chapels, some dating back to 326 AD.

There’s a legend that the complex contains 99 doors, with the last one being a secret door that will only open when the Hagia Sofia church in Constantinople is restored as an Orthodox church. Visitors can explore the main church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the large Agios Nikolaos church and its impressive Parian marble columns, and the historic Baptistery. This site is a must-see for ancient architecture and religious history.

1. Etchmiadzin Cathedral (301)

The Etchmiadzin Cathedral, consecrated in 301 AD, is widely recognized as the oldest Christian cathedral in the world and is considered the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The first church was built on the site of a pagan temple when Christianity was declared the state religion by King Tiridates III. Over time, the church fell into disrepair and was reconstructed several times, incorporating elements of Armenian architectural styles from different periods. Today, the cathedral is surrounded by well-manicured gardens and 19th-century buildings and features a central dome decorated with shimmering frescoes. The Treasury houses several sacred relics, including the Holy Lance and a piece of Noah’s ark. The Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the headquarters of the Catholicos, the leader of the Armenian Church, and provided shelter for Armenian refugees during the Armenian Genocide. Visitors can also find a Genocide Monument in the cathedral’s beautiful gardens.

These ancient churches are not only historical landmarks but they are also sacred places of worship for people from all over the world. From the Mor Gabriel Monastery to the Church of the Nativity, these structures stand as a testament to the endurance of religious faith and the resilience of the human spirit.

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