AMMAN, Jordan — A basilica unearthed in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba may be the oldest church in Jordan--and possibly the oldest building in the world designed for use as a church, archeologists say.
Until the mud-brick structure was discovered last month in downtown Aqaba, the earliest churches in Jordan were thought to date to the late 4th century.
Sawsan Fakhiri, director of the Aqaba Antiquities Department, said Tuesday that the find was very likely "a church built in the late 3rd century. But we need to study it closely before we come out with a resolute conclusion."
Still, the building is significant no matter what because it serves as a starting point for the succession of Roman, Byzantine and Islamic civilizations along the Red Sea.
"It shows the evolution of the town in terms of antiquity over 1,000 years, ending with the Islamic culture," said Rami Khoury, a Jordanian writer on archeology.
Older churches have been found--at Dura Europa on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria and along the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel--but they were constructed and used as houses before being converted to churches.
"If the Aqaba [building] does in fact prove to date to the late 3rd century, it would be not only the oldest church in Jordan, but [the oldest] in the world designed and built as a church," said Thomas Parker, a history professor at North Carolina State University.
He is leading the 53 Jordanian and American archeologists and historians excavating the site.
Experts outside Jordan welcomed the find, but asked for more evidence to date the building.
"I certainly think it is very possible," said Alice Christ, a historian at the University of Kentucky. "At that period, there should be buildings built specifically as churches."
Another historian, Glen W. Bowersock at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was more skeptical.
"I hear nothing that would persuade me that it has to be 3rd century," he said. "I would need to have coins that were 3rd century and did not run into the 4th century, or inscriptions with a date."
On the floor of one tiny room, diggers found 100 coins, dating from about AD 280 to AD 360, Fakhiri said.
Fakhiri and Parker believe the building was buried by desert sand during an earthquake in AD 363 that is documented in Byzantine texts.
Fakhiri said the mud-brick building in Aqaba, 210 miles south of Amman, has the architectural characteristics of Roman and Byzantine churches that sprang up in Jerusalem and other parts of the Middle East in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
The building, located within the walls of an ancient Roman city called Aelana, is 28 yards long and 16 yards wide, with its walls, ceiling and five-aisle basilica still intact, she said.