Where Was The First Church in The World Built?

Ali Canip Olgunlu is a graduate of Mimar Sinan University’s Turkology department, but his passion is history, he tells TRT World.

“I have been interested in Anatolian cultural history for 30 years: art history, mythology, symbolism, sufism, all kinds of socio cultural details about Anatolia, a wide spectrum.”

According to Olgunlu, what nurtures him are The Fisherman of Halicarnassus (writer Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli), Yunus Emre and Rumi. He speaks poetically of being composed of two sides, the blue side of “hello” and the red side of “love”.

“I metaphorically dive in with a hello to the land within the sea, and emerge with love from the sea within the land,” he says mystically.

Olgunlu was recently in the news in his native Turkey for claiming that the first church in history was not in Antioch (Hatay), as many sources, including the Ministry of Culture and Tourism say, but in Konya’s Sille premises.

Olgunlu told Independent Turkce that the church in Sille was built in CE 327 by Constantine’s mother Helena, divulging to the website “The first church in the world is what is known as St Helena’s church.”

However Professor Mustafa Sahin, the head of the Archaeology Department at Bursa Uludag University’s Faculty of Arts & Science, disagrees with Olgunlu. Telling TRT World that the church in question, the one that was built in CE 327 according to a Karamanli inscription, is not St Helena’s.

Sahin says even if the church were St Helena’s, it should have been built with a basilica plan architecture, with three or five parallel corridors and in rectangular shape. “This church,” he tells TRT World, has domes and is built in the style of mid-Christianity [of a later period].”

According to Sahin, Eusebius, historian of Christianity, does not mention such a church even though he has accompanied Saint Helena. “I wonder if there are any written sources that indicate that a church was built in Sille?” he voices his doubts.

When asked about written sources that verify his claims, Olgunlu says he has used his expertise and imagination to conceive the idea. “But,” he adds,”I’m not saying the church in Konya is the first church in Christianity. What I’m saying is that the church in Antioch [St. Peter’s Cave Church] is not the first.”

He expands on the idea: “Before Christianity became accepted by the Roman Empire, many disciples of Christ practiced secretly in caves. The cave church in Antioch [‘kenise’, he calls it] is one of many in the area and we cannot tell which was earlier and which was later. Whereas the St Helena church provided a space to worship before Rome accepted Christianity, and it is a proper church [‘kilise’].”

Olgunlu says that the building as it is now has domes because it has been rebuilt on the same site, but then shifts gears. “What’s important is that we give up trying to provide sensational touristic headlines to our treasures,” he says. “Anatolia has many firsts, but we shouldn’t try to find them where there are none,” he continues, referring to St Peter’s Cave Church and a few others.

Olgunlu also mentions that “No other geography in the world can use plural when talking about civilisation, except Anatolia. We talk about Anatolian civilisations.” He goes on to say Turkey is not a mosaic. “A mosaic tile does not give an idea about the whole. Whereas Anatolia is a dough, from Gobeklitepe to the Hittites to the Ionians to the Romans to the Seljuks to the Ottomans.”

According to Olgunlu, “culture is the cause of something, and tourism is its indicator.” He says he wishes tourism professionals wouldn’t comment on historic sites according to their own agendas. “Tourism professionals should consult cultural historians, and the combination would be awe inspiring,” he concludes.

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