The earliest Christians called their communities ekklesiai, “gatherings,” “congregations,” “assemblies.” Ecclesia was used throughout the period of Late Antiquity to denote both the local community of Christians gathered in a specific place and the worldwide Christian community, the church universal. The early fourth-century adoption of the Greek term kyriakon (“place” or “house” or “temple belonging to the Lord”) to denote the place where Christians gathered to worship is a sign of the heightened awareness of physical place that characterized Christianity at the end of the pre-Constantinian period. From the early fourth century onward, kyriakon and ecclesia came to be used interchangeably (and with some frequency) to denote Christian places of worship.

Before Constantine.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Christians are said to have gathered in private houses in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Jaffa, Damascus, Paphos, Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, Thessalonike, Corinth and Kenchreai, Alexandria in the Troad, and Rome (Finney, 1984, pp. 208, 209). During the period of his missionary activity in western Turkey, Paul aimed his message at heads of households, and it is primarily on this basis that the existence is inferred of mid-first-century communities of Christians or ekklesiai gathered in private houses. Archaeology cannot identify the specific buildings used as meeting places within the Pauline missionary territory because they were left intact. As structural types, it would be impossible to distinguish them from the local residential vernacular.

The oldest surviving house that can be given a positive identification as a building that served a small community of mid-third-century Christians is in Syria, at Dura-Euro-pos, a Roman trading city on the west bank of the Middle Euphrates River. Shortly before the mid-third century, the Christian building at Dura was extensively remodeled on the ground-floor level. Thereafter it no longer served as a residence. Instead, the first-floor space was given over to community-related activities, although the arrangement and assignment of space on the second floor are not known. One of the first-floor rooms was converted into a baptistery; another—a large, rectangular room created by the consolidation of two previously small spaces—probably functioned as the worship room. A celebrating priest would have stood on a raised platform (bema) at the east end and presided in the reading of Scripture and perhaps in a community eucharistic meal.

As argued elsewhere (Finney, 1984, p. 224), once the secular functions of the Durene first-floor space were replaced, the community had to readjust its symbolic associations with its place of worship. The way was opened for a new set of symbolic associations centering on the sacral character of the place and its architectural embodiment.

There are other examples of pre-Constantinian structures (residential, commercial, and possibly municipal) remodeled and retrofitted to make way for an emerging ecclesia, but none is so clear or so dramatic as the Christian building at Dura. Most of the material parallels are found in the West (Rome, Aquileia, Parentium-Poreč, Lullingstone in Kent, England), but there is at least one relatively clear Near Eastern example, the so-called Julianos basilica (cf. Piccirillo, 1981, pp. 54–55) at Umm el-Jimal (Butler, 1919, 2.A.3; Corbett, 1957) 18 km (11 mi.) southwest of Bosra. [See Umm el-Jimal.]

Although surviving literary/documentary sources, together with bits and pieces of material evidence, favor the view that pre-Constantinian Christians gathered for worship mainly in residential buildings and over time adapted and converted those structures into church buildings, it is also true that this pattern alone does not exhaust the totality of the pre-Constantinian evidence. Other kinds of spaces were needed from time to time, particularly where the size of Christian congregations exceeded imposed space limitations. This became a pressing issue late in the tetrarchy (293–312 CE), as urban churches were increasing their numbers on a dramatic scale. It is in the time frame of the late third century that some Christian communities evidently turned to nonresidential architecture (warehouses and rectangular municipal halls) to solve the problem. L. Michael White calls this a transitional phase, sandwiched between the so-called house church (domus ecclesiae) period of Christian worship and the basilical architectural settings that came in the wake of Constantine's building program (White, 1990, pp. 127–139). Two examples of early fourth-century hall-like rectangular structures that fit White's typology were designed and constructed de novo as church buildings: the Roman Church of San Crisogono in Trastevere and the church at Qirk Bize, one of the so-called Dead Cities west of Aleppo (and west of Jebel ῾Ala) in northern Syria (Tchalenko, 1953–1958, pp. 319–332; Donceel-Voûte, 1988, pp. 259–260; also Georges Tate, “Qirk Bizah,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology [hereafter EECAA]).

Geographic Setting.

The geographic extent of the evidence in the Near East is impressive. Church buildings and church-related structures (e.g., baptisteries and martyria) that predate the seventh century survive either intact or in fragments over a broad area. [See Martyrion.] In the north and northwest, churches are found in the Caucasus Mountains (e.g., Georgia [see Kleinbauer, no. 375] and Armenia [see R. Edwards, “Armenia,” EECAA]) and in central and eastern Turkey, including the Pontic region (Kleinbauer, 1992, no. 207), Cappadocia (Restle, 1971– ), and Cilicia (Hild et al., 1971– ). At the other end of the Near East, in Africa to the far south, Early Christian architectural remains are attested in the Nile Delta and on both banks of the Nile River, south to Syene/Aswan (Grossmann, 1991, pp. 552–553; Grossmann, “Egypt,” EECAA) In Nubian territory, from Aswan south to the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, there is little or no material that predates the seventh century and can be positively identified as Christian (Adams, 1991), but east of Khartoum, on Ethiopian soil (M. E. Heldman, “Ethiopia,” EECAA), Early Christian architectural remains of church buildings appear at several sites, the most important being Adulis, Axum, and Maṭara. Across the Gulf of Suez in the southern Sinai (Wadi Feiran and the region of Jebel Musa), there are monastic churches and chapels from Late Antiquity (Tsafrir, 1993, pp. 315–350). For the territories opposite Nubia and Ethiopia across the Red Sea—namely Saudi Arabia, Yemen (especially Najran), southern Yemen, and the island of Socotra (at the eastern end of the Gulf of Aden)—literary traditions and selected epigraphic evidence attest the presence of Christians from the late-fourth century onward but no church architecture (Trimingham, 1979).

Within the central Near East—Cyprus, the Syro-Palestinian littoral (and the adjacent inland territories), Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and the western third of Iran—there is extensive evidence of Early church buildings. The evidence is greatest in roughly the western quarter, from the Mediterranean coastline east for approximately 300 km, or 186 mi.: in Lebanon (Donceel-Voûte, 1988); Israel (Tsafrir, 1993); and Cyprus (Kleinbauer, 1992). There is considerable evidence of pre-seventh-century church buildings on Cyprus. From the late fifth century onward, Cypriot church architecture was substantially influenced by Constantinopolitan models; hence, for the period from about 450 to 650, Cyprus must be studied with particular attention to its Greek progenitors (Megaw, 1974; Papageorghiou, 1986).

Inland from the Syro-Palestinian littoral, the western third of Jordan, from the Gulf of ῾Aqaba north to the Jordanian/Syrian border, also contains numerous early Christian church buildings (Piccirillo, 1981, 1993). This distribution pattern continues northward, also within roughly the western third of Syria (Butler, 1919–1920) from Bosra (Bostra; Butler, 1919, 2.A.4; Dentzer-Feydy 1985) at the southern end of the so-called lava lands (the Hauran; Dentzer-Feydy, 1985) to Jebal Arab (also known as Jebel Druze and Jebel Hauran) in the south to Ḥalab (Aleppo) in the north and to the architecturally extraordinary territory west of Aleppo, the region of the so-called Dead Cities. The region is one of the richest centers of Early Christian architecture in the ancient world. It is there, for example, that the great monastery-church of St. Simeon Stylites is located (at Qal῾at Sim῾an; J.-P. Sodini, “Qal῾at Sema῾an,” EECAA). [See Qal῾at Sim῾an.] Across the Syrian/Turkish border, in south-eastern Anatolia (Osrhoene, fourth–seventh centuries), stretching from Urfa/Edessa to Mardin, Nusaybin, and Cizre on the Tigris River, are remains of numerous church buildings from Late Antiquity (Wiessner, 1981–1993). There are also important Early Christian remains along the Syrian Euphrates River: at Membij/Hierapolis, Rusafa/Sergiopolis (T. Ulbert, “Rusafa,” EECAA), Halabiyya/Zenobia, and, of course, at as-Salihiyeh/Dura-Europos (Kraeling, 1967). [See Rusafa; Dura-Europos.] Both Iraq and Iran, within roughly the western third of the Sasanian Empire (226–651), once contained an extensive Early Christian material culture—church buildings, chapels, baptisteries, monasteries—but the surviving remains are meager (Lerner, 1982– ).


CHURCHES. Figure 1. Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem. (Courtesy Pictorial Archive)

view larger image

The most important urban centers for church architecture in the Near East before the seventh century were Jerusalem and Syrian Antioch (now located in the province of Hatay, Turkey). Alexandria was also an important city for Early Christian culture (Epiphanius and Eusebius; Pearson, 1992) It housed numerous church buildings, but almost no material evidence survives (for a twelfth-century list of Alexandrian churches, many of them alleged to be pre-seventh century, cf. Atiya, 1991). Jerusalem, more firmly rooted (than Constantinople) in tradition, was arguably the most important center of church architecture from the fourth through sixth centuries. Constantine built two churches there, the Holy Sepulcher (now within the city's Christian Quarter; see figure 1) and the Eleona Church on the Mt. of Olives. Each commemorates events in the life of Jesus, and hence both served martyrial purposes. At Antioch, Constantine also became a church builder, of an eight-sided church with a gilded roof, of which nothing survives (Kleinbauer, 1992, no. 2064). In general, direct material evidence of Early Christian church buildings in Syrian Antioch is slight (excluding the martyrion of St. Babylas outside the city in suburban Kaoussie; Kleinbauer, 1992, no. 1894a).

Fourth Century.

The fourth century was a watershed for church design and construction; it was a period of invention, innovation, diversity and creativity. The architectural legacy of Constantine I the Great cast a long shadow beyond his death In 337 (Krautheimer, 1967). Beginning as early as 305, the emperor and his architects had set about creating a tradition of Christian church architecture, in both halves of the empire, but especially in the Byzantine Levant. The degree to which the emperor was directly involved in design is a matter for debate (Krautheimer, 1967), but he provided financial and logistical support and there can be no question about his commitment and determination to see church buildings in virtually all major urban centers: Bishop Paulinus's church in Tyre; the Holy Sepulcher (Church of the Anastasis) and the Eleona Church on the Mt. of Olives (over a cave associated by tradition with the Ascension of Jesus) in Jerusalem (Taylor, 1993, pp. 143–156); the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Taylor, 1993, pp. 86–95); the basilica built at the sacred oak tree in Mamre/Ramat el-Khalil, where God spoke to Abraham; the Hagia Sophia and the Church (or Martyrium) of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople; and the palace church, called the Golden Octagon, in Antioch.

The growth of Christian communities in the fourth century necessitated large interior spaces to accommodate the faithful. Architectural precedents were lacking within pagan tradition, so builders looked to secular spatial and architectonic paradigms that could be adapted. The best solutions were the imperial halls (aulae) and assembly rooms spread throughout the empire that had been designed as indoor markets, law courts, and audience rooms—large interior spaces that served the interests of bureaucrats seeking to govern Rome's subjects.

The Constantinian church building came to be known by the epithet basilica, understood as the building belonging to the basileus, or “king.” The formal architectural precedents of the rectangular building that came to typify it have long been debated (Ward-Perkins, 1954). It is now understood that the term denotes a rectangular building, with two long sides and two short sides, oriented on liturgical and symbolic grounds toward one of the short ends (usually on the east), with or without aisles, with a sanctuary and often an apse (or apses) at one end, and with a gabled roof (often faced with terra-cotta tiles) supported by wooden trusses (Orlandos, 1952–1956). However, for the Constantinian period there was no equivalency between the term basilica and these architectural elements. The Holy Sepulcher, the Church of the Nativity, the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the Golden Octagon are all centrally planned spaces, dominated both spatially and visually by large domes sitting on circular or polygonal perimeters; the domed spaces interrupt the longitudinal flow of space from nave to apse and instead proclaim a rather different symbolic hierarchy. In short, the term basilica does not denote a fixed architectural form until the late fourth century—and even at that late date there is still considerable variation in architectural detail.

From the beginning of the Constantinian architectural program, there was a strong pull toward assimilating two distinct functions: community worship and other veneration and/or commemoration of a sacred person, place, thing or event. The Holy Sepulcher was constructed over places where Jesus was thought to have been crucified, buried, and risen, and the octagonal domed structure at the east end of the Church of the Nativity was constructed over a cave that came to be identified in one tradition as the place where Mary had given birth. In both, the church building functioned at once as a place for liturgical worship and veneration of the hero of the Christian story.

In the second half of the fourth century, a church building was assimilated to a martyrium (begun perhaps early in the reign of Theodosius I, 379–395) and dedicated to St. Babylas at Kaoussie (Donceel-Voûte, 1988, pp. 21–31). Constructed on the model of a Greek cross, this building contained the buried remains of the saint at the center of the cruciform plan; in the same emplacement aboveground was an altar for celebrating the Eucharist.

Fifth–Sixth Centuries.

Architecturally, the fifth century was a period of consolidation and standarization. The Constantinian architectural types were replicated across the Near East. The two basic spatial concepts that animated Early Christian architecture—rectangular, longitudinally oriented, hall-like space and open, centrally planned, domical vertical space—continued to dominate. Fifth-century remains are extensive. Within the Anatolian realm is the remarkable cluster of churches called Bin Bir Kilisse (“the Thousand and One Churches”) in southeastern Lycaonia, approximately 80 km (50 mi.) southeast of Konya/Iconium. The Anatolian churches include a few centrally planned structures, but the majority are longitudinally oriented on a rectagonal grid with an apse at one of the short ends. Northeast of Bin Bir Kilisse, across the Cappadocian highlands (Aksaray, Nevşehir, Kayseri) to the Anti-Taurus range, and then south toward the Cilician coast, and east again across Osrhoene, are numerous remains of church buildings from the late fifth and early sixth centuries.

For centrally planned structures and a common architectural matrix for eastern Anatolia (including Armenia) and the adjacent Levantine territories, especially northern Syria, a fifth-/sixth-century example is the octagonal building (now destroyed) at Sivasa, northeast of Aksaray (Rott, 1908, pp. 249–54). A roofless apse projected from the eastern perimeter of this octagon, reproducing the same plan found in the so-called Church of the House of Peter (Virgilio Corbo in Tsafrir, 1993, pp. 71–76; Taylor, 1993, pp. 268–288) at Capernaum in Galilee and the Church of Mary Theotokos (Yitzhak Magen in Tsafrir, 1993, pp. 83–89) on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria.

As in the fourth century, the sixth was a period of innovation dominated by a powerful patron, Emperor Justinian (482–565). Justinian was more directly involved in the design and execution of church buildings than was Constantine. The result was a building type (centrally planned, vaulted, and domed) that appears throughout the sixth century, especially in the Near East. The paradigm is the centrally planned Hagia Sophia built In 532–537 (Mainstone, 1988). Along with domed and centrally planned buildings, longitudinally planned churches continued to be built throughout the Near East in the sixth century.

[See also Baptisteries; Basilicas; House Churches; Martyrion; and Monasteries. In addition to the sites individually cross-referenced above, many other sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Adams, William Y. “Nubia.” In The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, pp. 1800–1801. New York, 1991.
  • Atiya, A. S. “Alexandria, Historic Churches.” In The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 1, pp. 92–95. New York, 1991.
  • Bell, Gertrude Lowthian. The Churches and Monasteries of the Ṭūr ῾Abdīn. edited by Marlia M. Mango. London, 1982.
  • Butler, Howard Crosby. Publications of the Princeton University Archaeological Expeditions to Syria in 1904–1905 and 1909. Division II, Section A (Southern Syria) Section B (Northern Syria). Leiden, 1919–1920.
    Valuable for its maps, plans, photos, and line-drawn reconstructions
  • Corbett, G. U. S. “Investigations at the ‘Julianos' Church’ at Umm-el-Jemal.” Papers of the British School at Rome 25 (1957): 39–65.
  • Dentzer-Feydy, Jacqueline. “Décor architectural et développement du Hauran du Ier siècle avant J.-C. au VIIe siècle après J.-C.” In Hauran I, edited by Jean-Marie Dentzer, pp. 261–310. Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique, vol. 124. Paris, 1985.
  • Dölger, Franz Joseph. “‘Kirche’ als Name für den christlichen Kultbau.” Antike und Christentum 6 (1950): 161–195.
    Constructive remarks on the terminology of church buildings based on fourth-century literary evidence
  • Donceel-Voûte, Pauline. Les pavements des églises byzantines de Syrie et du Liban: Décor, archéologie et liturgie. 2 vols. Louvain-la-Neuve, 1988.
    Mosaic inventory, useful also as a handbook of Early Christian churches in Syria and Lebanon, with important observations on the liturgical uses of church buildings
  • Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology (EECAA). Grand Rapids, forthcoming.
  • Finney, Paul Corby. “TOPOS HIEROS und christlicher Sakralbau in vorkonstantinischer Überlieferung.” Boreas 7 (1984): 193–225.
    Survey of pre-Constantinian literary evidence for Christian practices and attitudes toward sacred place and sacred space
  • Gerster, Georg. Churches in Rock: Early Christian Art in Ethiopia. London, 1970.
    Well-illustrated book of medieval Ethiopian monuments, with a brief but useful bibliography
  • Grossmann, Peter. “Church Architecture in Egypt.” In The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 2, pp. 552–555. New York, 1991.
  • Heldman, Marilyn E. African Zion. New Haven, 1993.
    Catalog of an exhibition on Ethiopian art, primarily concerned with the pictorial arts but including a brief discussion of architecture and a valuable bibliography
  • Hild, Friedrich, et al. “Kommagene-Kilikein-Isaurien.” In Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst, vol. 4, cols. 182–355. Stuttgart, 1971– .
  • Hirschfeld, Yizhar. The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period. New Haven, 1992.
  • Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture: An Annotated Bibliography and Historiography. Boston, 1992.
    Now the indispensable lexical tool for the study of Early Christian architecture; immensely informative
  • Kraeling, Carl H. The Christian Building. The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report 8, part 2. New Haven, 1967.
  • Krautheimer, Richard. “The Constantinian Basilica.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 21 (1967): 115–140.
  • Krautheimer, Richard, and Slobodan Curcic. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. 4th ed. New Haven, 1986.
    Concise introduction to Early Christian architecture
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  • Mainstone, Rowland J. Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, and Liturgy of Justinian's Great Church. New York, 1988.
  • Mathews, Thomas F. The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy. University Park, Pa., 1971.
    Description and interpretation of nine churches (see Müller-Wiener, below, excluding the church of St. Menas), with a brief evaluation of St. John in Hebdomon, outside Istanbul
  • Megaw, A. H. S. “Byzantine Architecture and Decoration in Cyprus: Metropolitan or Provincial?” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 28 (1974): 57–88.
    An informative survey of church buildings dated before the mid-seventh century
  • Müller-Wiener, Wolfgang. “Kirchen.” In Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls, pp. 72–215. Tübingen, 1977.
    Description with photographs and bibliography of nine Constantinopolitan churches (unnamed buildings in Beyazit and Topkapı Sarayı, Theotokos in Chalkoprateia, St. Sophia, St. Eirene, St. Euphemia, St. John Studios, SS. Peter and Paul/Sergius and Bacchos, St. Polyeuktos), dating to Late Antiquity. A tenth church, by tradition attributed to St. Menas, is perhaps better identified with the lost church of SS. Karpos and Polykarp, a possible early (c. 400) copy of the Holy Sepulcher
  • Munro-Hay, Stuart. Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh, 1991.
  • Orlandos, Anastasios K. He xylostegos palaiochristianike Basilike tes mesogeiakes lekanes. 3 vols. Athens, 1952–1956.
    Wooden-roofed Early Christian basilica in the Mediterranean basin
  • Papageorghiou, Athanasios. “Foreign Influences on the Early Christian Architecture of Cyprus.” In Acts of the International Archaeological Symposium, “Cyprus between the Orient and the Occident,” 8–14 September 1985, edited by Vassos Karageorghis et al., pp. 489–504. Nicosia, 1986.
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  • Piccirillo, Michele. Chiese e mosaici della giordania settentrionale. Jerusalem, 1981.
    Inventory of floor mosaics, also informative as a listing (and in parts a description) of Early Christian church buildings
  • Piccirillo, Michele. The Mosaics of Jordan. Amman, 1993.
    More tessellated floors. An exemplary publication, with splendid photographs, plans of churches, an informative introduction with notes and descriptions of individual monuments, and a good bibliography
  • Ponomarew, Wladimir. “Georgien.” In Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst, vol. 2, cols. 662–734. Stuttgart, 1971– .
  • Restle, Marcell. “Höhlenkirchen.” In Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst, vol. 3, cols. 247–252. Stuttgart, 1971– .
  • Restle, Marcell. “Kappadokien.” In Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst, vol. 3, cols. 975–1116. Stuttgart, 1971– .
    Informative survey of Cappadocian churches, including selected cave churches
  • Rott, Hans. Kleinasiatische Denkmäler aus Pisidien, Pamphylien, Kapodokien und Lykien. Leipzig, 1908.
  • Taylor, J. E. Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins. Oxford, 1993.
    Informative and careful study of the pre-Constantinian cults and religious traditions associated with the sites that came to be venerated as Christian in the fourth century. Highly critical of the theory that Christian material continuity can be traced from the apostolic to Constantinian periods
  • Tchalenko, Georges. Villages antiques de la Syrie du Nord: Le massif du Bélus à l'époque romaine. 3 vols. Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique, vol. 50. Paris, 1953–1958.
  • Thierry, Jean-Michel. Les arts armeniens. Paris, 1987.
  • Thierry, Michel. Répertoire des monastères armémiens. Turnhout, 1993.
    List of Armenian monastic establishments (with churches), most of them medieval
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    Brief, popular introduction based on literary and epigraphic sources, with a useful historical survey and bibliography
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    Brief descriptions and interpretations with a bibliography of churches, most of them pre-Islamic and most (except monuments in southern Sinai) in Israel
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    Intelligent survey of putative architectural models
  • White, L. Michael. Building God's House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptation among Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Baltimore, 1990.
    Informative discussion of the pre-Constantinian period. Advances earlier scholarship by isolating several socioevolutionary stages that set the framework for the gradual development of architectural types
  • Wiessner, Gernot. Nordmespotamische Ruinenstätten. Göttinger Orientforschungen, II. Reihe: Studien zur spätantiken und frühchristlichen Kunst, vol. 2. Wiesbaden, 1980.
    Environs of Diyarbakir/Mardin: two fortresses and two Early Christian churches
  • Wiessner, Gernot. Christliche Kultbauten im Ṭur ῾Abdin. Göttinger Orientforschungen, II. Reihe: Studien zur spätantiken und frühchristlichen Kunst, vol. 4.1–4.8 vols. Wiesbaden, 1981–1993.
    Careful survey of churches with longitudinal and transverse naves (some of the latter are cave churches) within the region of Mardin Dağları/Ṭūr ῾Abdin east to Dicle; includes a bibliography

Paul Corby Finney