One of the Oldest Churches ‘revealed’ Underneath Russia’s Naryn-Kala Fortress

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Verica Sitnik
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© MISIS National University of Science and Technology

Naryn-Kala fortress: Churches and crosses are the oldest symbol of Christianity that exist, some from the most ancient of times.

These buildings and icons, some many centuries old like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, practically hum with the invisible breath of the faithful who once crossed the thresholds to pray and attend services presided over by priests.

To enter one of those ancient buildings is to sense the presence of the many congregations who came before, to worship, receive communion, and be consoled by the sacred scriptures read aloud each Sunday.

The unknown structure sits in the northwestern part of the fortress of Naryn-Kala

Now, tentative evidence of perhaps the world’s oldest church has been found deep under the ground in Russia, in a fortress called Naryn-Kala, localed in Derbent.

A new scientific study asserts that a building below ground, at an archaeological site that dates back to 300 A.D., may in fact be a church.

Archaeologists and scientists are examining a cross shaped structure using a celestial event called cosmic rays, which are a form of high energy radiation from an unidentified source outside of our solar system.

The team harnessed these rays to help them develop a clearer picture of just what it is that is below ground at the fortress.

Historians, past and present, have insisted one of the structures is a water storage tank, but the scientists involved in the current study are dubious about that conclusion.

Elnur Neciyev CC BY-SA 4.0

Yet they have no definitive answers yet, either way. “Currently, there are more questions than answers,” acknowledged Natalia Polukhina, a physicist with the National University of Science and Technology in Russia and lead author of the study, published mid-May in the journal Applied Science.

Their chief aim when conducting the examination was finding out what the buildings beneath the fortress look like — how many there are, their shapes, and perhaps whether one is indeed a church. Those conclusions will take time.

View of the city from the citadel of Naryn-Kala, 1910s

They also wanted to utilize the research method that once revealed a potential hole in the Great Pyramid, in Egypt, in 2017. The method is called “muon radiography.”

Muons are the result of cosmic rays that break apart when they hit our planet’s surface. Muons travel at the speed of light, experts say, but begin to dismantle when they travel underground and hit an object.

Hence, if muons underground are measured accurately, that measurement can reveal much about what actually lies beneath the planet’s surface.

And it allows scientists to examine what rests there without having to invade, probe and disturb a site as culturally and historically important as the fortress, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Scientists are reasonably certain that, whatever the structures prove to ultimately be, one of them was not intended to be a water storage tank, though some experts think it may have been used as such in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Christopher Morris a fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S., was duly impressed by his Russian colleagues’ study, and the findings.

He told the website Live Science that because of the team’s work, it is feasible to think they will soon know just what does lie beneath the citadel by recreating all the structures there in 3D. But whether they can prove there is a church?

Of that he is not as certain. “I do not know whether the structure is a church,” he acknowledged, but added that the work itself is exciting and rife with possibilities.

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Like most scientific leaps forward, this study has led researchers to new insights, but also posed many new dilemmas.