Where We Were First Called Christians

In time for the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, a visit to St. Peter Cave-Church in Antakya, Turkey, believed to be the oldest freestanding Christian church in the world. By Stephen Bugno.

Antakya, Turkey

Catholic visitors to Turkey don’t have many important pilgrimage sites to choose from.

There’s Meryemana, the peaceful mountaintop retreat where the Blessed Mother spent her final years — a destination visited by three popes. And the equally impressive ruins of St. John’s Basilica, not far from Ephesus, where the apostle wrote his Gospel and preached to the locals.

But, on my recent tour, I wanted to get a little farther off the beaten path. For this, I traveled to the outskirts of Antakya — the modern city that stands on the site of ancient Antioch on the Orontes — to see the extraordinary Sen Piyer Kilisesi, (Cave-Church of St. Peter).

What is perhaps most fascinating about the site is that it may well be the first free-standing Christian church ever built. (The early Christians met for Mass in one another’s homes.)

Meanwhile, as we’re told in Acts 11:26, “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”

Back in Peter’s time, Antioch was anything but “off the beaten path.” Its status as a major Roman city with a reputation for immorality attracted Peter. He didn’t want to participate in the citizens’ shenanigans, of course. He wanted to join with St. Paul, who preceded him here, in preaching Christ crucified for the Antiochians’ — and everyone’s — sins.

Historians believe Peter arrived here around 37, after Jesus’ disciples were forced to flee Jerusalem. Tradition holds that the first pope found a natural cave on the west slope of Mount Stauris, not far from the city, and began to meet with religious seekers and curious onlookers.

The townspeople began to call these people Christians as a way of distinguishing them from the “regular” Jews. The term may have been political at first, because they were viewed as “partisans” of Christ, like soldiers serving in the army of a king.

Which, in a way, isn’t so far from the truth after all.

Telling Tunnel

Today there are few reminders of the greatness of ancient Antioch. But what remains of this cradle of Gentile Christianity, I wanted to explore for myself. I walked 30 minutes through the dilapidated outskirts of town, up a small hill from the sign-posted main road.

The midday sun was terribly hot, so the relatively cool cave provided a welcome relief. Rays of sunlight shining through the three front doors partially filled the otherwise dark space with its only natural light source.

This helped when I went to view fragments of the fifth-century mosaics beneath my feet and traces of faded frescoes on the cave walls.

I wandered to the back of the grotto, left of the altar, into an even darker area. This, I had learned, was an escape tunnel, needed in case those early worshipers were raided. Christianity, after all, was illegal here and throughout the Roman Empire.

Standing here, looking down through the tunnel, I found it easy to imagine the state of constant fear in which the first Christians lived and prayed. I realized how fortunate we are, almost 2,000 years later, to worship Jesus freely.

To the right of the altar is a baptismal font where a natural spring from the mountain once flowed. Its waters were believed to heal the sick. Unfortunately, a recent earthquake has altered the flow of the spring and it no longer drips.

The grotto has some semblance of a church, with its stone altar and man-made entrance — not to mention its stone celebrant’s seat behind the altar, a fitting reminder of the Feb. 22 feast of the Chair of St. Peter — but in Peter’s time it was a much simpler, darker, natural cave. It was only years later that the cave took any actual form resembling a church-like space.

Christians Hang On

In 380, when Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the cave was transformed into a proper place of Christian worship.

Before Peter arrived, the cave had probably been used by pagans. With the Christianization of the empire, similar pagan shrines were either destroyed or converted into churches. It was only then that the grotto was named after the Prince of the Apostles.

Centuries later, around 1100, the crusaders added to the church by building arches in front of the cave, creating a nave and two aisles.

The current façade dates to the 20th century and, since 1932, a white marble statue of St. Peter has stood in a niche above the altar.

Although Turkey is a nation with a Muslim majority, the Christian community of the former Antioch once again lives. In 1846, the Capuchin Fathers returned nearly seven centuries after the Crusaders had left and now the Roman Catholic as well as the Greek Orthodox and Protestant churches combine to make up about 1,000 Christians in the area.

The Catholic contingent consists of about 70 parishioners and has some guest rooms to accommodate pilgrims.

An ecumenical celebration with the Orthodox community is held in the grotto every year on June 29, feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. On this date in 1963 Pope Paul VI visited and held a service here. The Catholic parish celebrates Mass on the night of Christmas every year and it is even possible to have Mass in the grotto when a group of pilgrims make a request.

Off the beaten path? Yes, but far less so than I originally thought.

Stephen Bugno is based in

Fredericksburg, Virginia.


Antakya is located in the Hatay region of southern Turkey on the coast of the Mediterranean, about a 17-hour bus ride from Istanbul. The Sen Piyer Kilisesi (Cave-Church of St. Peter) is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 6 p.m. The entrance fee is around $4. The site is run by the Turkish government and does not have any contact information, but the helpful Father Domenico Bertogli of the Antakya Catholic Church may be able to answer questions. E-mail him at [email protected] or call him at +90 0326 2156703.