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B - 13 : Two Weeks to Go - And Churches!

You may have noticed yesterday that Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper is set in a family home and not in a church where Christians celebrate the holy comunion today.

Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milano (colors retouched)

The painting accurately portraits how mass was celebrated during the first 250 years of Christianity. There were no churches. Christans gathered in family homes to listen to stories from the bible and celebrate mass - dining together in the spirit of the holy comunion. Most Christian communities did not own a manuscript. These hand written copies were rare. Occasionally a bishop had one. Most copies were in the libraries of the early monasteries. The ceremony was thus entirely oral with priests or a bishop telling the stories. Even today’s mass are mainly oral events. Given that only 5% of Roman citizens could read, there was also no other choice.

Abandonded and collapsing church in Anatolia

On our trip we will see many abandoneded and decaying churches. Some of them built inside a Hippodrome like in Caesarea, others on small islands or in empty fields. Many of them were abandoned between 700 AD when Arab armies conquered vast parts of the Byzantine Empire and 1’100 AD, the start of the Turkish invasion of Anatolia.

Spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire

The building boom of churches started somewhere around 250 to 330 AD when the number of Christian parishes started to grow exponentially and mass could not be held any longer in private homes .


In the eastern part of the Roman Empire churches were built as martyria on top of tombs of Christian martyrs who were killed dring prosecution. They were roofed by a dome which symbolised heaven. Often, the dome was surrounded by four little towers or structures in each compass direction which gave the building the shape of a square cross. We can still see this basic shape in today’s big orthodox churches.

Cathedral of Saint Sava in Belgrad, Serbia

In the western part of the empire, a different style developed. As Christians became the majority in towns, they started to use the official basilicas for their gatherings. Basilicas were buildings were courts and public meetings were held. They usually had a large door at one end and an elevated platform and an aps at the other end where magistrates were seated. Basilicas became the blue print for catholic cathedrals and churches as we recognise them today all over the world.

Reconstructed basilica in Trier, Germany

Computer simulation of a Roman basilica

On our little journey, we are not going to see basilica types of churches. But we will discover many built in the eastern style.

Orthodox Church on the Acropolis in Monemvassia, Greece, we visited last summer

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