Many of the most fascinating historic sites on the planet are sacred and religious sites – among them are the ancient churches of the world which have survived to this day.
While many of the historical places we associate with Christianity are grand Cathedrals and inspiring churches, these historic sites tend to be medieval in their origin or of a more modern construction. To find ancient churches you have to look back to antiquity and explore those examples of ancient Roman or Greek era churches which have managed to survive intact.
This list of ancient churches can throw up examples which are quite different from the churches we are used to today. Rather than taking on the more standard church architecture which we recognise, many are in fact converted pagan temples or churches built from scratch by Roman engineers. And while some of these ancient churches have survived intact, others are simply the ruins of these intriguing early Christian places of worship.
Check out our ancient church list to explore more.
Among the earliest Byzantine churches still consisting of its ancient structure, the Church of the Nativity is thought to have first been built by Roman Emperor Constantine in 326 AD. Whilst some of the flooring of this original church survives, the present site dates to 530 AD and was built by the Emperor Justinian.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest Christian churches in existence and is believed to be located on the site where Jesus Christ was born. The first church on this site is thought to have been built by Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother St. Helena... Read More
A beautifully frescoed twelfth century basilica in Rome, San Clemente sits atop a wealth of history including the remains of a fourth century church and a third century Temple of Mithras, both of which can be seen underneath the current incarnation.
San Clemente is a beautifully frescoed twelfth century historic basilica in Rome. However, whilst interesting in its own right, it is what lies underneath San Clemente which is a highlight to historians. In the mid-nineteenth century, when San Clemente was excavated, it was discovered to have been built over both a... Read More
One of the most famous religious buildings in the world, the current incarnation of the Hagia Sophia dates back to between 532 and 537 AD, when it was built under the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The building was converted to a mosque in 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.
The Hagia Sophia, or ‘Ayasofya’ in Turkish, is a world famous sixth century church turned mosque in Istanbul, which now operates as a museum. Whilst the original Hagia Sofia was built in the fourth century AD by Constantine the Great, very little remains of this structure nor the one built... Read More
The ancient Nabatean ruins at Avdat contain the remains of a number of fourth century churches. Within one of these sites you can still see the cross-shaped baptistery, while Christian carvings can be seen in several other places among the ruins.
Avdat or “Ovdat” is an archaeological site in Israel which houses the pretty remains of an ancient Nabatean city later inhabited by the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs. It initially formed part of the trading route known as the Incense Route which ran from the Mediterranean to south Arabia... Read More
Though today’s structure is of 17th century construction, the Church of St Mary of Zion in Axum is believed to have been founded in the 4th century AD. It is most famous for being one of the supposed sites of the Ark of the Covenant.
Axum (Aksum) is a city in the North of Ethiopia. Once the capital of the region, it is still a comparatively large city, with a population of around 50,000 people. Axum is most famous for being one of the supposed sites of the Ark of the Covenant, in the care of... Read More
Baalbek is home to a range of magnificent ancient structures. Included in the ruins is the Roman Temple of Venus which was later incorporated into a Byzantine church. This and other sites date from the reign of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius, who destroyed many of the Roman temples in favour of churches and basilicas.
Baalbek is a hugely impressive Roman site in Lebanon which is home to the largest Roman temple ever built, as well as a range of other magnificent ancient structures. Initially a Phoenician settlement dedicated to the worship of the deity of the sun, Baal, the city was known as Heliopolis (City... Read More
The Basilica of Constantine in Trier was the Roman Emperor’s audience hall and the biggest surviving single room from Ancient Rome.
The Basilica of Constantine or “Konstantin Basilika” in Trier in Germany is a remnant of this city’s prominent Ancient Roman history. Once the place where Emperor Constantine the Great would meet and greet audiences, the Basilica of Constantine was part of the development of Trier undertaken by the emperor from 306... Read More
Said to be the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, the sites at Bethany Beyond the Jordan include many ancient baptism pools, churches, caves and wells, mostly dating to the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan (al-Maghtas) is considered one of the holiest of Christian sites, it being the officially recognised site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It is also where Elijah is believed to have ascended to heaven and where Mary the Egyptian is believed to have lived as well... Read More
One of England’s most famous cathedrals, Canterbury Cathedral has a prominent history dating back to the sixth century AD. The remains of this original incarnation of Canterbury Cathedral lie underneath the current nave of the cathedral.
Canterbury Cathedral is one of England’s most famous cathedrals, both because of its prominent history dating back to the sixth century AD and due to the famous murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett which took place there. Origins of Canterbury Cathedral In 597AD, a missionary called St Augustine travelled to Kent from... Read More
While the structure of the Church of the Annunciation is a 20th century construct, two previous churches – one Byzantine, one Crusader – have been excavated there, with the earlier one probably dating back to the fourth century AD.
The Church of the Annunciation, often called the Basilica of the Annunciation, is located in Nazareth on the site where it is believed that the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to miraculously conceive the son of G-d. This holy Christian event is known as the Annunciation. While the structure... Read More
One of the holiest sites in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located on what many Christians believe to be the location of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. Built in 325/6AD by Emperor Constantine I, though now mostly dating to the 12th century, it is one of the most important ancient churches in existence.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is holiest site in Christianity due the fact that it encompasses what are thought to be the last five stations travelled through by Christ, ending in his crucifixion. Built in 325/6AD by Roman Emperor Constantine I (the first such emperor to convert to Christianity), the... Read More
The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter is the site where Jesus is believed to have reinstated Peter as the head of the Apostles Though built in 1933, parts of the current structure derive from a 4th century church that once stood there.
The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter is a Franciscan Chapel in Tabgha in Israel built in 1933 on the site where Jesus is believed to have reinstated Peter as the head of the Apostles. This was the third time that Jesus had appeared to his disciples. Parts of the... Read More
Derinkuyu was built by early Christians to escape religious persecution and consists of an astounding network of subterranean houses and communal facilities among which is an ancient church.
Derinkuyu Underground City is the largest and most popular of the Cappadocia underground cities in Nevsehir, Turkey. As with the other underground cities in this region, Derinkuyu was built by early Christians to escape religious persecution. The result is an astounding network of subterranean houses and communal facilities, including food... Read More
Dura Europos was a thriving ancient city in Eastern Syria. As well as a myriad of Greco-Roman ruins the site contains one of the world’s oldest known synagogues and what has been described as the earliest known church yet discovered.
Dura Europos was a thriving ancient city in Eastern Syria occupied by a series of civilisations, now represented by well preserved ruins. It was one of the successor states that emerged after the death of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Greeks, who founded Dura Europos in 300BC, locating it at... Read More
Reconstructed from the original building materials, the Garni Temple started life as a pagan Roman temple. Around the 9th century it was transformed into a Christian church and was used as such until its destruction in an earthquake in 1679.
The Garni Temple is an impressive looking Greco-Roman temple complex probably built in the 1st century AD by King Tiridates I of Armenia with the support of the Roman Emperor Nero. Likely dedicated to the ancient deity Mithras, today the Garni Temple lies about 30km to the East of Yerevan and... Read More
A tiny island located just off the Turkish mainland, Gemiler Island is packed with Byzantine remains including a number of ancient churches.
Beautifully situated in a mountain-girt bay, Gemiler Island is packed with c.1,500 year old Byzantine remains. The island, just 1km long, has been surveyed by Japanese archaeologists who have revealed the existence of a thriving small town clinging to the northern shore. Unlike the classical cities of the region, there... Read More
An ancient Roman city, the ruins of Haidra include the sixth century AD Church of Melleus, which is in a reasonable state of preservation, as well as a Vandal Chapel - dating to the reigns of King Thrasamund and King Hilderic.
One of the earliest Roman settlements in North Africa, Haidra in Tunisia contains the remains of the Roman city of Ammaedara. Well off the beaten track, Haidra – also called Hydrah – attracts few tourists and even the archaeological excavations have been few and far between. Founded in the first century... Read More
Kourion is an impressive archaeological site in Cyprus, which was a thriving Roman city. The site possesses evidence of early Christianity, both at the complex of Eustolios and by way of its fifth century AD early Christian basilica.
Kourion, also known as Curium, is an impressive archaeological site near Limassol in Cyprus containing mostly Ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins. In fact, it is believed that the site of Kourion was first inhabited during Neolithic times, with the earliest evidence dating back to 4500-3900 BC, but that the town itself... Read More
During the late antiquity, many pagan temples were converted to churches rather than being destroyed. One of the best examples of this is the Maison Carree, which due to this transformation is among the best-preserved Roman buildings anywhere in the world.
La Maison Carrée, or Square House, in Nîmes is a staggeringly well preserved Roman temple, and one of the best-preserved examples of a Roman building anywhere in the world – for fans of Ancient Rome, La Maison Carrée is simply a must-see site. Originally built in 16BC by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa... Read More
Leukaspis was a thriving Roman port city founded in the 2nd century BC. One of the most interesting sites to see here is a ruined ancient basilica, which was originally a public hall and then became a church following the rise of Christianity.
Leukaspis (Locassis) was a thriving Greco-Roman port and city founded in the second century BC and which grew to a population of 15,000 residents at its peak. Also known as Antiphrae, Leukaspis was a commercial hub of the Mediterranean olive, wine and wheat industries, conducting trade both inland and overseas.... Read More
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is an early fifth century AD ancient Christian chapel which is thought to have been commissioned by Roman Empress Galla Placidia and, until recently, was also believed to house her tomb.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is an early 5th century Christian chapel in Ravenna that is thought to have been commissioned by Roman Empress Galla Placidia and, until recently, was believed to house her tomb. Galla Placidia was the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I and a major player in... Read More
One of the most famous ancient buildings in the world, the Pantheon was originally built as a temple to the many gods of Rome. In 609AD it was converted to a church and this helped to preserve the building from the destruction of later times.
The Pantheon in Rome is one of the most famous and well-preserved ancient buildings in the world. Originally built by Marcus Agrippa in 25BC, the Pantheon served as a temple to the many gods of Rome. The original Pantheon was destroyed by the great fire of 80AD and the structure which... Read More
One of Sardinia’s oldest churches, San Saturnino Basilica was definitely in existence by the sixth century AD and perhaps even as early as the fourth. The current structure dates back to the twelfth century and contains a Roman necropolis, dating back to the early Christian era.
San Saturnino Basilica (Basilica di San Saturnino) is one of Sardinia’s oldest churches. San Saturnino Basilica was definitely in existence by the sixth century AD and perhaps even as early as the fourth. In fact, the namesake of San Saturnino Basilica is said to have been executed here during the reign... Read More
Santa Maria in Trastevere is thought to have been the first Christian church in Rome. Whilst most of the building dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, elements of the church itself may date back as far as the third century, when it is thought to have been founded by Pope Callixtus.
Santa Maria in Trastevere is thought to have been one of the first – if not actually the first – of the Christian churches in Rome. Whilst most of the building and works contained in Santa Maria in Trastevere date back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the church itself may... Read More
Initially constructed in 141 AD, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was built by Emperor Antoninus Pius in honour of his wife, Faustina. It is one of the best preserved structures in the Roman Forum. This is largely because it was incorporated in the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda sometime between 600 AD and 800 AD.
Initially constructed in 141 AD, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was built by Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius in honour of his wife, Faustina. It is one of the best preserved structures in the Roman Forum. Faustina was deified following her death and the temple – then just the Temple... Read More
A very well preserved Roman temple in Vienne, France, the Temple of Augustus and Livia was incorporated into an ancient church perhaps as early as the fifth century AD and was used as a Christian place of worship for centuries.
The Temple of Augustus and Livia (Temple d'Auguste et de Livie) is a very well preserved Roman temple in Vienne. Whilst probably first built sometime between 20BC and 10BC, several aspects of the Temple of Augustus and Livia date to the first century AD. Yet, the main reason for... Read More
Though mostly dating to medieval times, the site of Trier Cathedral dates back to at least 270 AD and what was probably the first church to have existed at this location. Few remnants of the original ancient Roman church are viewable; however there are extensive underground excavations which can be seen as part of a guided tour.
Trier Cathedral, called Trierer Dom in German, is the main church of the city of Trier. The site of Trier Cathedral has a rich Christian history dating back to at least 270 AD, when worshippers attended what was probably the first church to have existed at this location – a... Read More