The World’s Oldest Church -- By: Aqaba, Jordan
BSP 11:2 (Spring 1998) p. 48
The World’s Oldest Church
In July 1998, after four seasons of excavations and research, U.S. archaeologist Thomas Parker believes he may have uncovered the oldest church on earth in Aqaba, Jordan. Aqaba is Jordan’s only port city and as such is economically important to the entire nation. The city also serves as a popular resort city on the Red Sea and is locked in fierce competition with nearby Eilat, Israel’s seaside resort across the border. As in neighboring Israel, the church’s discovery could impact the region’s plans for the year 2000 and the year-long celebration of two millennia of Christianity.
“There is a real possibility that the church will prove to be from the late third century,” said Parker, professor of history at North Carolina State University and head of the Roman Aqaba Project. “If that is the case, it would be the oldest church in the world built as a church,” he told the Jordan Times newspaper. While no one suggests this was the first church building ever built, it would be the oldest yet discovered.
Earlier house-churches have already been unearthed by archaeologists in the eastern Mediterranean. At Dura-Europas, Syria, a large house was converted into a church from the mid-third century. In Biblical Capernaum there is the Church of St. Peter, a first-century house eventually turned into a church.
The earliest public buildings constructed as churches known today are the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, both of which date from early in the fourth century. The earliest churches in Jordan were thought to date to the late fifth or early sixth century, until the unprecedented discovery earlier this year of a five-aisle basilica in Um Qais, ancient Gadara, which archaeologists say was built in the fourth century.
The difference is that these structures were originally constructed as places of public meeting while the other were built as houses and only later used as churches.
The Aqaba church, a mud-brick building of 85x52 ft with traces of “dipinto” that could have represented a procession of figures, would be slightly more ancient than any of the known public meeting church buildings. It is also unique because of it subsequent history. Said Parker, “other early churches like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or the Church in Um Qais had long periods of re-use and re-building, and understanding what the original fourth-century church was like becomes difficult.” The Aqaba church was destroyed by an earthquake in 363, and subsequently filled up with sand and never touched again, “so the entire
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