June 29, 2008 -- An archaeologist in Jordan claims to have found the earliest-known Christian church anywhere in the world.
I read this online in the Jordan Times while I was next door in Iraq. What was any self-respecting journalist with a persistent pull of curiosity about the world going to do?
So I soon found myself on the road from the Jordanian capital, Amman, to the northern town of Rihab, to meet Dr. Abdul Qader al-Housan, one of the country's top archaeologists. He has been working in the Rihab area for eight years now, and has found 30 churches there, mostly from the Byzantine period that stretches from the fourth to the seventh century. After that Islam sweeps through the region.
Qader is a charming and highly educated man. He studied in Istanbul and in addition to Arabic, Turkish and English, he also speaks or reads Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Nabbatean. Tall, bearded and rangy, he speaks with a great rush of words as if he cannot contain the excitement of all his discoveries.
He took me to a site ringed by a wire fence with a guard. There were some remains of a brick building with Roman columns, mosaics on the floor.
"This is the church of St. Georgeous (St. George)" he said. "Third Century AD."
Very beautiful, but this is not what we came to see.
About a year ago, while he was working on St. Georgeous, his workmen found a hollow-sounding spot. They dug down about two feet and found an old air shaft that opened out into a subterranean compartment.
They excavated further and uncovered a series of rooms hollowed out from a cave, one of which appeared to have an altar.
Qader knew that many early Christians had fled Jerusalem to what is now northern Jordan to escape Roman persecution in the first century AD. Could this underground dwelling and worship space be from that time?
He started carefully collecting and studying debris from the floor of the cave. There were pottery shards and copper coins. He got more and more excited.
It appeared that some of the artifacts indeed came from Jerusalem. And he was able to date some of the coins to 70 A.D., when Herod Antippus, son of the Herod who ruled at the time of Jesus, was around.
I listened to all this spell-bound, sitting in the semi-darkness of the underground church. And then Dr. Abdul Qader pulled a small bag of coins out of his pocket and showed them to me. Some were Jewish from Jerusalem, worth half a shekel, he said. The others were Nabbatean from Petra, further south in Jordan.
I am no archaeologist, and I am sure there are others who will want to peer review Dr. Abdul Qader's findings, which is as it should be.
But I am a journalist, and I know what makes a good story. Sitting in a church built in a cave holding money that was used 2,000 years ago — now that is pretty amazing.
But Dr. Abdul Qader wasn't finished. He said he has a theory that after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, he and his mother Mary may well have passed through Rihab on their way back to Galilee. It is highly plausible.
Rihab lies along the old Roman road that once ran all the way from Yemen through what is now Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Damascus, and was the main thoroughfare east of the Jordan River. It might also explain why there were so many early Christian churches built in Rihab.
He cannot prove that theory — not yet. But his stories and historical knowledge brought this ancient part of the world alive to me. I cannot wait to hear what he digs up next!