Soaring On A Mountain, Hanging On A Fortress, & Bringing The People Together: 5 Of The Oldest Churches In The Middle East

The Middle East is the birthplace of the major Abrahamic religions that spread all over the world. The churches and mosques were the seeds of something larger, hubs for the faithful, and a place to learn more about their religion. In this article, we’re going to look at some of the oldest churches within the MENA region, their history, and the stories that led to their construction.

Egypt

The Hanging Church

Also named Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, people can find it in the country’s capital Cairo, in the famous Coptic Cairo district.

It’s name is thanks to its location since the church was built on top of a gatehouse belonging to a Roman fort called the Babylon fortress. The Hanging Church was erected over the citadel’s old south bastions, which marked the main gate to the fortress and also gave the church its “hanging” feature and name.

Many consider it one of the holiest and oldest churches in the country. Several reports state that the church was either first-founded in the third century or that the founders of the current church built it in the sixth century on the ruins of one from the third century. In any case, there was a church in the same spot from that era.

The Hanging Church had a significant position among others throughout the years, including being the seat of the Coptic Pope in 1047, it’s the first to be built in the basilica style, and it’s a site of several reported Marian apparitions.

The building was renovated several times over the centuries, with the latest ending in 2011, when the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) launched a comprehensive restoration project to preserve Egypt’s Coptic shrine, restoring it to its former glory.

Iraq

Mor Mattai Monastery

We’re cheating a little bit with this one, as it’s a monastery more than a church. Still, there is a church inside, so it counts. Located 20 kilometers northwest of the city of Mosul, Iraq. The Mor Mattai Monastery is recognized as one of the oldest Christian monasteries in existence.

Founded in the fourth century by Saint Matthew the Hermit (locally known as Mor Mattai) in 363 AD, he escaped Roman persecution, traveling east to Northern Iraq, where he settled with fellow monks in Mount Alfaf. 

The legend states that Mor Mattai had converted the area’s prince and princess after miraculously treating the princess’ leprosy. Unfortunately, when the king found out about the conversion, he murdered his heirs, leading to him to go mad and requiring the saint’s help to treat it. Once the saint healed the king, the latter built a proper monastery for the saint and the monks within the mountain, which still stands today.

The building survived several attacks during regional disputes throughout the centuries thanks to its elevated and highly defensible position; it would also get an expansion to cater to the increasing number of monks in the following years.

Jordan

Aqaba Church

Located in the coastal city of Aqaba, the church is a third-century first-unearthed in 1998 by a group of archaeologists, who after studying the remains considered it to be the world’s oldest-known purpose-built Christian church.

Since the building’s construction date ranges between 293 and 303 AD, this makes it older than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity, two of the oldest ever.

Considering the location of its construction, the church was on the periphery of the Roman empire during the “Great Persecution” era of 303-313 AD, which saw the Romans absolutely decimate the Christian population in their empire; that almost hidden position led to the church being saved from complete destruction, and yet worshippers still abandoned the church for some time during that period to stay undiscovered.

According to the coins and findings nearby, the church would see use again for decades, until 361 AD, when an earthquake hit the area, damaging it, and leading many worshippers to leave it. Over the following years, the church got buried under the literal sands of time, preserving it until its rediscovery.

While people can’t go worship inside it anymore, large portions of the structure, walls, and columns are still visible, and people can visit it as a historical landmark.

Palestine

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It was obvious that one of the oldest Christian churches was going to be at the birthplace of the religion in Palestine. The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre was built back in 335 AD in the Old City of Jerusalem.

According to Christian beliefs, the church contains two of the holiest sites in Christianity, the crucifixion’s location and Jesus’ tomb. The story of its construction goes back to 312 AD when Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalized the religion after years of persecution. He later sent his mother to find Jesus’ tomb, and when she believed she found the location in 326 AD, a temple dedicated to one of the Greek gods was torn down, and the church was built in its stead.

The Church faced several dangers throughout the centuries, including damage from a huge fire in 614 AD when the Sassanids took the city, two earthquakes, one in 746 AD, the other in 810 AD, another fire in 841 AD, and finally, the most devastating one was in 1009 AD, which led to the church’s complete destruction.

Thankfully, the church was rebuilt during the 1100th century after the Fatimid Caliph Ali az-Zahir accepted its reconstruction in collaboration with Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople in 1048 AD. However, even after its reconstruction, the building was not safe from damage due to the conflicts in the region, such as the crusades and many more, something that it still faces to this day.

Saudi Arabia

Jubail Church

One of the lesser known churches in the world, Christian priests escaping the continuing conflicts between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanids pushed them to the southeast of the Arabian peninsula, where they finally settled and built the Jubail Church.

The story of its re-discovery changes depending on who you ask, but the most prevalent one dates back to 1986 when a traveller’s car got stuck in the sand, and while they tried to get it out, they unearthed the top of one of the buried walls. The traveller later notified authorities, who unearthed the landmark and dated it to the fourth century.

It’s one of the few landmarks relating to Christianity in the country and shows that several people settled in that area for hundreds of years. The authorities would later wall the area with a fence, limiting access to the church for its protection and preservation.

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