There’s something about walking into a cathedral that’s been standing for so many centuries that you can’t help marveling at the architecture and wondering how such craftsmanship and stonework was possible. Questions arise including the era the cathedral was built, how many hands built it, who were the builders, and is the structure standing the original or have renovations occurred? We can’t help wondering how many serves were held in these cathedrals and, in the ones that are still holding service, how many more will be held in the future. While these are all excellent questions, they are best answered when you visit these cathedrals and experience the history that awaits. Visitors can take tours of the oldest cathedrals in the world and, in some locations, still attend church there. Until then, however, we’re going to look at the top six oldest cathedrals in the world.
8. Etchmiadzin Cathedral (c. 301 AD – present)
Age: 1,717 years
Location: Etchmiadzin, Armenia
Notable Fact: Acts as the headquarters for the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Located in the world’s first Christian country, Armenia, the Etchmiadzin cathedral holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest cathedral that was state built. It was built between 301 and 303 AD by Saint Gregory the Illuminator and it still in operation today. This cathedral acts as the headquarters for the Armenian Apostolic Church.
It has an Armenian style that is known for its emphasis on stone materials, height, and beautifully pointed domes. It’s said that St. Gregory came to have the idea for the location in a vision of Christ using a golden hammer to strike the ground. The translation for Etchmiadzin is, “the place where the only begotten descended.”
7. Hagia Sophia (c. 537 AD – present)
Age: 1,481 years
Location: Istanbul, Turkey
Notable Fact: The Hagia Sophia was the largest Christian cathedral in existence for more than 1,000 years.
Built between 532 and 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia is a Christian cathedral located in Istanbul, Turkey. Byzantine Emperor Justinian I built this cathedral and, since then, it’s undergone many renovations and changes. For example, it began as a Christian church.
Throughout its lifetime it’s also been a Greek Orthodox cathedral, and Imperial mosque, and a Roman Catholic cathedral. Despite it no longer being a church, the Hagia Sophia is still standing today as a museum. Those visiting Istanbul can go on museum tours, and an estimated 10,000 visitors visit daily.
6. Basilica of San Lorenzo (c. 364 AD – present)
Age: 899 years
Notable Fact: At the start of its construction, this cathedral was the most significant project that part of the world had ever experienced.
Construction on the Basilica of San Lorenzo began in 364 AD. Located in Milan, Italy, this Roman Catholic Church is still operational and is one of the oldest buildings standing in the city. Upon completion, it became the largest circular cathedral in the world.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo became inspirational for the building of the Hagia Sophia. Over the years, despite this cathedral still being fully operational, some of its original features remain, and the majority have experienced renovations.
5. Santa Maria in Trastevere (c. 340 AD)
Age: 875 years
Location: Rome, Italy
Notable Fact: It’s the first cathedrals where Christians have ever openly celebrated a mass.
The Santa Maria in Trastevere was built in 340 AD and is considered one of the oldest cathedrals in Rome, Italy. The reason why it was built was to honor the mother of Jesus, Mary. It’s notable for the facade’s golden mosaics, as well as the bell tower dating back to the twelfth century.
While there are gorgeous alter pieces, visitors can’t help fixating on the apse’s golden mosaics. Today, it still bears the same Romanesque style architecture.
4. Cathedral of Trier (c. 340 AD – present)
Age: 875 years
Location: Trier, Germany
Notable Fact: The most noteworthy relic is what’s referred to as the “Seamless Robe of Jesus.”
Built in 340 AD, this gorgeous Roman Catholic cathedral is still fully operational with its location in Trier, Germany. Touted as one of Germany’s oldest standing cathedrals, the Cathedral of Trier broke ground during the late third century on a Roman site. Its relics make this cathedral incredibly interesting. While this is not the most remarkable relic, this cathedral holds one of the Holy Nails that’s said to hold Jesus to the cross during the crucifixion.
The most noteworthy relic is what’s referred to as the “Seamless Robe of Jesus.” It’s what’s said to be what was worn by Jesus shortly before he was crucified. While it’s rarely available for the public to view, it did have a display in 2012. While these relics may not be visible often, that doesn’t stop visitors from coming to the cathedral to try to see if they can experience a chance viewing.
3. St. Peter’s Basilica (c. 333 AD)
Age: 512 years
Location: Vatican City
Notable Fact: The site is considered one of the world’s holiest locations among the Catholic religion.
Built during 333 AD, St. Peter’s Basilica attracts millions of visitors to Vatican City, Italy annually. The site is considered one of the world’s holiest locations among the Catholic religion. One of the main reasons for this is because it’s located directly above St. Peter’s tomb. During the 15th century, this cathedral underwent a major renovation which changed much of its appearance.
It isn’t uncommon for visitors to come to experience this cathedral not only for the religious aspects but also to witness its intricate designs as well. Bernini and Michelangelo were two of the art legends who conceptualized this Renaissance architecture. One of Michelangelo’s most famous works, the Pieta, is located at this cathedral. Visitors from all around the world come to see this, as well as many other famous works of art.
2. Mar Sarkis (c. 325 AD – present)
Age: 1,685 years
Location: Maalula, Syria
Notable Fact: This monastery is considered the oldest in all of Christendom.
The Mar Sarkas cathedral was built before 325 AD and is still operational today as the oldest church and monastery. While the exact date of its construction isn’t known, it is a fact that this monastery is the oldest in all of Christendom. The site’s convent still holds many ancient icons, including some dating back to the fourth century.
There are some nuns in the community who speak English and will take visitors on tours upon request. Several festivals also take place throughout the year annually at this cathedral’s site, including the Festival of Mar Sarkis.
1. Church of the Nativity (c. 325 AD – present)
Age: 1,685 years
Location: Bethlehem, Palestine
Notable Fact: Many believe that this is where Jesus was born and this belief dates back to the second century AD.
Construction for the Church of the Nativity began in 325 AD, and today, this cathedral is still under construction and is one of the oldest cathedrals in the world. Many denominations have been within these walls since its inception. However, today it’s home to four monastic communities including those from the Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Syriac Orthodox churches. Because there are many clashes between these communities, this cathedral is often in the news.
Many believe that this is where Jesus was born and this belief dates back to the second century AD. It isn’t uncommon to find many believers taking pilgrimages annually to see where their savior was born and engage in prayer.
While it isn’t uncommon for churchgoers or religious groups to visit cathedrals for fellowship or socialization, they may also participate in discussions regarding forms or service like charity work or how to achieve goals. When wars break out, many will turn to churches to seek safety and protection.
Even though many of the oldest cathedrals in the world are still standing, many of them have been converted so they can have other uses. Because of their beautiful architecture, it would be a shame to leave these structures empty so visitors couldn’t enjoy their beauty. It’s incredible that these buildings have withstood earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, and other natural disasters throughout their histories. Therefore, it’s essential that they’re preserved for many more years to come.