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H - 188 : Looking for the First Churches

Cupola Fresco on the Crucification of Jesus in the Tokali Church in Central Anatolia


One of my plans for this summer was to visit old churches. Cilicia and Lydia, the shores we will cruise along, have a Christian tradition that dates back to the 1st century BC. Not only did Saint Paul, Saint John and Saint Barnabas pass through this region on their missionary voyages, they were also visited by two early adopters of Christianity: soldiers and sailors. For the soldiers, the concept of afterlife was appealing. The sailors loved the convenience of having to pray to just one God – a God that did not demand material sacrifices. The spread of Christianity followed human travel patterns. The ancient trade routes in place since the age of copper. The language of the early Christians was Greek.


Christianity in the Middle East - Map from World History

My search for ancient churches from the 1st of 2nd century was unsuccessful though. It made me wonder whether there were actually any. Saint Peter’s church in Antioch which we visited in 2018, was an ancient grave site which he was allowed to use. In most places, early Christians met at the house of an elder (presbyter) who was knowledgeable in the story of Jesus Christ. Nobody had a bible. Jesus’s story was transmitted verbally, with songs, rhymes and hymns. Possibly the same way as Homer’s Iliad was passed down from generation to generation. The gatherings of Christians were called “ecclesia” (gathering of those summoned). It was a Greek word used for any gathering of citizens. Also, our word for church derives from Ecclesia. It is most easy to understand in French: Eglise.


We visited the Cave Church of Saint Peter in 2018 on the Way to Jaffa

The selection of presbyters was thus very important to preserve the consistency of the gospel. Acts 14:23 describes how Saint Paul ordained presbyters (Greek for elders). Once the Apostles had passed away, the episkopos (Greek for overseers) assumed responsibility for the ordination. Presbyters became the priests as we know them today. As long as the Christian communities were small, the elder could invite all the church members to their home and serve Holy Communion, which probably still was a full meal with blessed wine and bread. There was no need for a dedicated House of Good.


The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1495 - 1498) in Milan

Let’s keep in mind that Christianity was an underground religion - prosecuted by the Roman Emperors when politically convenient. It started with Nero in 64 AD and became institutionalized under Diocletian in 303 AD – we visited his Palace in Split in 2019. The Roman Emperors did not really know how to deal with Christians. On the one hand they were obedient  citizens (“give to the Emperor what is due to the Emperor”). On the other hand they refused to pray to the deified Emperors. In such uncertain circumstances, it was a bad idea to own fixed assets which could be confiscated. The early Christians remained private and hidden from the public even though they accounted for 10% of Romans by 300 AD. So, no churches for the first 300 years. Makes sense. Explains why I could not find any.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the only Council chaired by a non-christian

All this changed when Constantine the Great signed the Edict of Milan in 313 which ended the prosecution of Christians and respected their religion. Now, it became possible to build churches. As the number of Christians increased, dedicated places for worship became necessary. Meeting at the presbyter’s or episkopos’ house was not feasible any longer. At the same time Constantine the Great streamlined Christian doctrine (Council of Nicaea in 325 AD) and ordered 50 copies of the bible (330 AD). The monasteries which emerged at around the same time were happy to comply and copied the Holy Book. Having a copy was still an extraordinary luxury but all major religious and political centers now could have one.

Ruins of the 4 Ayak Church near Bozyazi - 1st day visit

Church building on the Anatolian coast started at the same time. Sadly, when many towns were abandoned, the church buildings collapsed as well. There were basilicas in Knidos, Kaunas and Anemurium. Others were converted to Mosques but most simply abandoned when the Seljuk Turks took over in the 13th century. The final blow happened with the population exchange in 1923 – this awful word for ethnic cleansing that uprooted 1 million Greek people and  half a million Turks.


Inside the Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra where Saint Paul changed ship

Today, there is still Saint Paul’s church in Taurus – too far east of this year’s journey. But we would look at a 19th century church built on the ruins of a much older basilica. In Myra though (Demre today), where Saint Paul stopped to change ship on his way to Rome, we will find the Church of Saint Nicholas (yes, Santa Clause) who lived here from 273 to 343 AD. He was the town’s bishop. The church we visit was built by Emperor JustinianI in the 6th century on the remains of the original from the 4th century. It gives nonetheless a good idea of how churches looked in early Christianity.


Apsis of the Saint Nicholas Church build under Emperor Justinian in 520 AD

Sadly, it will be the only one we can visit on this trip. But one is better than none.




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