A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The remains of the oldest known structure designed and built as a church have been found at the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba. Pottery, such as Tunisian red-slipped tableware, from the building's foundations dates the church to the late third or beginning of the fourth century, according to its excavator, North Carolina State University archaeologist S. Thomas Parker. That the building was a church is indicated by its eastward orientation, overall plan (a basilica with a central nave flanked by side aisles), and artifacts, such as glass oil lamp fragments.
In an adjacent cemetery 24 human skeletons, most interred in simple mud-brick tombs, have been excavated. Pottery and coins indicate that the cemetery, like the church, was in use in the fourth century, and one tomb yielded a fragmentary bronze cross, suggesting the deceased was a Christian. A bishop of Aila, as ancient Aqaba was known, was present at the Council of Nicaea convened by Constantine in 325 to debate the nature of the holy trinity and other matters. Participation of Aila's bishop in the council suggests the city had a significant Christian community.
The church, about 85 feet by 53 feet, had mud-brick walls built on stone foundations with arched doorways. Both the nave and side aisles appear to have been vaulted. Traces of red and black paint are preserved on the white plaster of one wall of the nave, but no images are clearly discernible. Seven stone risers from a staircase suggest the building had a second story. East of the nave are the chancel area and a rectangular apse. Only part of the chancel has been excavated, but two phases of a stone foundation, apparently for the screen, have been revealed.
A few earlier churches are known, but these were originally built for other purposes, such as a house at Dura Europos in Syria that was converted into a church. Usually dated to ca. 230-240, it apparently went out of use when the city was captured by the Persians in 256. Mud-brick churches similar to the one at Aila are known from Egypt, but they are slightly later. Other early Christian churches, like that of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, originally erected ca. 325, have been in continuous use and rebuilt over the centuries, making their original architecture difficult to discern. The church at Aila was used for less than a century. Its latest coins date to 337-361, suggesting the church was a victim of an earthquake that, according to historical sources, devastated the region. The building was then abandoned and quickly filled with wind-blown sand, preserving its walls up to 15 feet in height.