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World's Oldest Church

Most people would find Megiddo prison an unpleasant place to visit. The Israeli prison is surrounded by prison guards patrolling the area on horseback with the aid of guard dogs. This is not a warm approachable place. But a plan, now in its final stages, may turn the prison into a huge tourist attraction.

Four years ago, during prison renovations, the remains of the oldest known house of Christian worship were discovered behind the walls of the prison. The plans are for moving the prison a short distance away from the site so that the public can visit the site of this important archaeological discovery.

The least dangerous prisoners were allowed to aid the archaeological effort and this provided the prisoners meaningful work. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the Megiddo Regional Council, and the prison service have cooperated together on creating an agreement to relocate the facility because of the ancient finds discovered on those premises.

Salvage Dig

The whole thing began when a tent encampment for detained prisoners needed to be replaced. Since this area is known to be rich in archaeological finds, the IAA knew that a salvage dig should be undertaken before any building could take place on the site. A spectacular mosaic floor inscribed with significant references, including one that mentioned Jesus, was found at the edge of the site. The foundation of a 3rd or 4th century C.E. building was also found.

Such finds were important evidence that the prison had been the site of Christian religious worship prior to the time that Christianity became the official religion for the Roman Empire. These remains are thought to belong to the oldest church in the world.

Officials have explained that these finds show the first link between Christian activity in the community and the Roman army camp stationed in the area. At the center of the site the remains of a prayer table or altar was revealed.

Roman Headquarters

The location is linked to a Jewish village that was mentioned in the Talmud and in other Hebrew sources: Kfar Otnai. It is known that the sixth Roman legion established its headquarters in this village and in Maximilianopolis which was mentioned by historical sources.

The head of Megiddo's regional council, Hanan Erez comments, "The discovery of the finds created great excitement in the Christian world and among researchers of early Christianity. The discovery was even a main topic of a conference of researchers in Washington three years ago."

Erez says that a tourist complex will be built at the site with its central focus the ancient remains of the house of worship, along with the Tel Megiddo archaeological site, another significant attraction for Christian tourists.


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