The discovery, in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, pushes back Christian architectural history by several decades. Built between 293 and 303, the building pre-dates the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, both built in the late 320s.
The Aqaba church is the first purpose-built Christian place of worship discovered from the period before Christianity found favour with the Roman imperial government. Indeed, it pre-dates the greatest of all the Roman anti- Christian persecutions, which was carried out in the reign of Diocletian in 303-313.
Constructed in the form of a large east-west oriented basilica, with apse and aisles, the building also had a narthex and chancel screen as well as an adjoining cemetery. Excavations have unearthed walls up to 4.5 metres high and a collection box with coins. "The discovery is very significant for the history of Christian architecture and of Christianity itself," said the director of the excavation, Professor Thomas Parker, of North Carolina State University.
Historical texts indicate that there were many more such churches built, according to Professor Parker. "It is quite possible, even likely, that other late third-century churches may soon be discovered."
Likely locations include Antioch, Ephesus and Nicomedia (all now in Turkey), Sidon and Tyre (Lebanon), and Alexandria and Carthage (North Africa).
Aqaba church appears to have been abandoned during the great persecution of 303-313, then refurbished sometime between 313 and 330. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 363.
During its first phase, the church would have held about 60 worshippers. After the Great Persecution, phase two would have allowed it to hold up to 100.