History, Art & Culture, Holy Jordan

Aqaba: the origins of Christian architectural heritage

May 7, 2024

To say that Jordan is a land of rich religious and cultural history is an understatement. Since biblical times, this land has attracted pilgrims and travelers from all over the world.Among the many renowned religious destinations found in Jordan, one stands out as one of the most remarkable testaments to the earliest days of Christianity. The coastal city of Aqaba is home to the world’s oldest known purpose-built Christian church –just rediscovered in 1998. This extraordinary archaeological site offers a fascinating insight into the origins of Christian practice.


Aqaba is a city with a rich history, with evidence of human habitation dating back to the Neolithic period. The city was once part of the Decapolis, the famous league of ten prosperous Roman cities founded in the 1st century CE by the Roman general Pompey. These urban centers thrived as commercial hubs, fostering cultural exchange and development throughout the region, as they were no longer considered part of the Herodian kingdom –that is, these cities were considered “free,” “autonomous,” or even “sacred.” Aqaba, strategically located on the shores of the Red Sea, served as a vital port, welcoming goods and travelers from throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.


A glimpse of early Christianity

The Church of Aqaba, dated between 293 and 303 AD, predates such iconic Christian landmarks as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This remarkable chronology places the Church of Aqaba at the forefront of Christianity’s architectural legacy.


The church serves as a window into the life of early Christian communities. It offers invaluable insights into the practices and gatherings of those who embraced Christianity as it emerged in these regions of the Roman Empire. Its relatively remote location within the Decapolis (and especially from Rome) probably saved the structure from destruction during the Great Persecution (303-313 AD), a decade of intense Roman repression against Christians.

Historical Aqaba old Church

(Historical Church of Aqaba)

During this period, Roman emperors such as Diocletian issued decrees ordering the destruction of Christian churches and religious texts and the persecution of Christians throughout the empire. The fact that this structure remained standing suggests that while Christian communities were persecuted elsewhere in the Roman world, they somewhat thrived in Jordan. In fact, early Christians may have sought refuge in this relatively far outpost.


It is noteworthy that the Church of Aqaba bears architectural similarities to another early Christian structure, the famous house church at Dura-Europos in Syria. This other well-preserved 3rd-century church was discovered in the 1920s. Both structures share a comparable basilical layout, with a central assembly hall and flanking rooms, suggesting a common architectural vocabulary among early Christian communities throughout the region.


In the 4th century AD, the entire region came under Byzantine rule. As is well known, Christianity went from being a persecuted faith to becoming the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. During this period, Christian monasticism flourished in Jordan, with numerous monasteries and churches being built throughout the country.


However, after the earthquake of 363 AD, the Church of Aqaba was no longer used as a place of worship. The structure itself, however, remained relatively intact. Over time, windblown sand filled the ruins, helping to preserve the walls to a remarkable height. The exceptional preservation of the structure allowed archaeologists to excavate the church in the late 20th century, as if traveling back in time to the earliest days of Christianity.



Aqaba: A city with a rich religious tradition

But Aqaba’s religious heritage does not begin with Christianity. It goes back even further. Local tradition holds that the city’s harbor served as a landing place for Moses as he fled Egypt. While the historical accuracy of this belief is open to question, it serves to illustrate Aqaba’s long-standing importance as a place of religious pilgrimage.


A testament to faith

The Church of Aqaba is renowned for its exceptional historical significance. This archaeological site reinforces Jordan’s position as a leading destination for religious tourism and as one of the earliest cradles of Christianity, not only in the region, but in the world. The site is open to the public, offering pilgrims a unique opportunity to connect with the roots of a faith practiced by billions of people worldwide.


(Aqaba, Jordan)

The discovery of the Church of Aqaba serves to illustrate Jordan’s rich religious and cultural heritage. Those interested in history, archaeology, or the long and varied history of Christianity will find this ancient site an essential stop on their Jordan itinerary.


Let this remarkable monument be one of the many sites that showcase the diverse legacies that have shaped the Jordanian landscape for centuries. The Church of Aqaba offers visitors the opportunity to explore the echoes of early Christian worship within its walls and gain a deeper understanding of the country’s unparalleled historical, cultural and religious heritage.

By Daniel Esparza
Daniel Esparza

Daniel Esparza is currently an associate professor of communication ethics and aesthetics at the Ramon Llull University in Barcelona. He holds a PhD in Religion from Columbia University (NYC). He is also an art historian who has developed communicational projects and campaigns for online and print media to promote the cultural and religious heritage of the Americas and the Mediterranean. He is a founding member of Viator Media and the Pilgrimaps project.

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