Jordan has discovered a cave underneath the Saint Georgeous Church in Rihab, Mafraq, in northern Jordan, which is described as the oldest Christian church, local daily Jordan Times reported on Monday.
"We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from AD 33 to AD 70," said Archaeologist Abdul Qader Hussan, head of the Rihab Center for Archaeological Studies.
The discovery was "amazing," said the scholar, adding that "we have evidence to believe this church sheltered the early Christians: the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ."
The early Christians, described in the mosaic inscription on St. Georgeous floor as "the 70 beloved by God and Divine," are said to flee from Jerusalem during the persecution of Christians to the northern part of Jordan, particularly to Rihab, he added.
Bishop Deputy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Archimandrite Nektarious described the discovery of the cave as an "important milestone for Christians all around the world."
"The only other cave in the world similar in shape and purpose is in Thessalonika, Greece," the bishop said in an interview in Amman.
Citing historical sources, Hussan said the 70 lived and practiced their rituals in secrecy in this underground church.
"We believe that they did not leave the cave and lived until the Christian religion was embraced by Roman rulers. It was then when St. Georgeous was built," said the expert.
Saint Georgeous is believed to be the oldest "proper" church in the world, built in AD 230. This status is only challenged by a church unearthed in Aqaba, Jordan, in 1998, also dating back to the 3rd century.
The findings in the graveyard near the cave offer valuable clues, according to Hussan. "We found pottery items that date back from the 3rd to 7th century,"
The findings show that the first Christians and their offshoot continued living in the area till the late Roman rule, he said.
The cave also embraces the living place of the first Christians. There is also a deep tunnel, which is believed to have led the 70 Christians to their source of water, the archaeologist added.
Rihab is rich in unique archaeological sites and so far 30 churches have been discovered.
In some manuscripts, they are referred to as the 72 disciples/apostles ... I guess this mosaic at least clears that up.