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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The Basilica of Constantine in Trier was the Roman Emperor’s audience hall and the biggest surviving single room from Ancient Rome.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
A tiny island located just off the Turkish mainland, Gemiler Island is packed with Byzantine remains including a number of ancient churches.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.