Facts, Travel

5 Oldest Churches and Monasteries in Africa

Christianity has a long and rich tradition in Africa, especially in Ethiopia, where the religion was originally introduced all the way back in the 1st century AD. This makes it one of the first countries in the world to embrace Christianity, alongside Armenia.

That is why there are some incredibly old and beautiful churches in Ethiopia as well as other African nations. All of them well worth exploring if you have an interest in religion, culture or architecture. Let’s take a look!

5. Lalibela: Ethiopia, 12th century

The Lalibela church complex in Ethiopia may not be the oldest in Africa, but it is still very old, and probably the best known around the world. Containing 11 churches in all, the site was entered into the UNESCO World Heritage registry back in 1978.

Lalibela is remarkable because of the way in which the churches were constructed. Each church is set in the ground, because they were excavated directly out of it. The workers did not actually build anything per se—they dug down into the volcanic tuff rock, carving the structure of the churches from what was already there. They then hollowed them out so that they would have functional interiors. There are no other structures like these anywhere on the planet, built from the ground down instead of the ground up.

Bete Abba Libanos - Lalibela

Bete Abba Libanos – Lalibela – Image credit to Bernard Gagnon – CC BY-SA 3.0

4. Debre Damo: Ethiopia, 6th century

Another monastery which was founded during the same century as the Paromeos Monastery is Debre Damo, located in northern Ethiopia. It shares its name with the flat-topped mountain on which it is situated.

In fact, you can only reach the monastery by climbing up a rope (and only if you are a man). Built in the Aksumite style, it is considered the best example of that style still standing. It contains an extensive assortment of manuscripts. The climb is far from easy, but tourists who make it to the top say that the breathtaking view and the beautiful architecture are worth the journey.

Debre Damo monastery church

Debre Damo monastery church – Image credit to Giustino – CC BY 2.0

3. Paromeos Monastery: Egypt, 6th century

The Paromeos Monastery in Wadi El Natrun is also called the “Baramos Monastery.” As a Coptic Orthodox monastery, it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Wadi El Natrun is referred to as “Scetis” in Christian literature, and is often grouped together with two other early Christian monastic communities located in the same desert, called Kellia and Nitria. Kellia and Nitria are both extinct, however—only ruins have stood up to the sands of the desert of time.

Wadi El Natrun is different because its monasteries are still in use today. Of the four monasteries in Scetis which remain, the Paromeos Monastery is the most ancient. The name translates to “that of the Romans,” and would seem to refer to Saint Domitius and Saint Maximus, who reportedly stayed there, achieved spiritual ascension, and died while still young.

Here you can visit five churches, the oldest of which houses relics of Saint Moses the Black (this is the one which was constructed in the 6th century). The other churches are dedicated to Saint Georges, Saint Theodore of Amasea, Saint John the Baptist, and the Archangel Michael.

Paromeos Monastery - oldest monastery in Africa

Paromeos Monastery – El behira – Egypt – Image credit to Dooragaber – CC BY-SA 3.0

2. Church of Our Lady Marion of Zion: Ethiopia, 4th century

Of all the churches you can visit in Ethiopia, the most famous is the Church of Our Lady Marion of Zion in Axum, which is said to hold the Ark of the Covenant. While it has been rebuilt a number of times, it is thought that its original construction dates back to the 4th century under the rule of the Christian ruler Ezana.

Unfortunately for female visitors, the old church is only open to men, with the newer cathedral structure erected by Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1950s open to visitors of both sexes. The reason for this is that the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly inside, symbolizes Mary, who is the only woman permitted within the building.

Access to the Ark itself (if it truly exists within) is even more restricted—indeed, only a lifelong appointed guardian monk is allowed inside—and he never comes out. Whether the church contains the Ark or not can only be guessed, but it certainly does add to the mystique surrounding the ancient house of worship.

The busiest time of year to visit the church is during the Festival of Zion Maryam, which takes place on November 30th. Throughout the year, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and others from around the world pilgrimage here.

Old Church of Our Lady Marion of Zion oldest churches in Africa

Old Church of Our Lady Marion of Zion – Image credit to Fell – CC BY-SA 3.0

1. Monastery of Saint Anthony: Egypt, 356 A.D.

You will find this Coptic Orthodox monastery in a beautiful oasis in the Eastern Desert of Egypt in the Red Sea mountains. Located 334 kilometres southeast of Cairo, it is among the oldest monasteries in existence.

It is named for the first Christian monk, Saint Anthony, whose followers founded it near where he lived during the years 361-3 A.D.

Inside the monastery, you will find a village complete with five different churches, a bakery, a mill, and some gardens. The churches include the Medieval Church of St. Anthony, the Church of the Apostles, the Church of St. Mark the Ascetic, the Church of the Virgin Mary and the Church of St. Michael.

There is also a library which was also originally designed as a church, but currently houses the largest selection of Coptic manuscripts anywhere in the country. If you hike two kilometers from the monastery, you can also see the cave where Saint Anthony lived during his time as a hermit.

Today, the Monastery of Saint Anthony remains an important destination for Coptic Christians and others. More than a million people from Egypt and around the world visit each year, and many retreats, conferences, and youth programs are hosted there, making the monastery a key community center.

Monastery of Saint Anthony, Egypt - Oldest Church in Africa

Monastery of Saint Anthony, Egypt – Oldest Monastery and Church in Africa – Image credit to Berthold Werner – CC BY-SA 3.0

The history of Christianity in Africa is quite extraordinary, and you can explore it through the continent’s ancient, beautiful churches and monasteries, where age-old traditions are carried forward into modern day life.

Be sure to make time to visit one or more of these amazing spiritual destinations on your next Africa vacation!

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