Al-Qalees Church in its worst ever condition [Archives:2006/938/Culture]

April 17 2006
The remains of the church from outside: a walled pit in an Old Sanaa neighborhood.
The remains of the church from outside: a walled pit in an Old Sanaa neighborhood.
Fouad Al-Rabadi
In the eastern part of Old Sana'a lies this church. Legend has it that Jesus Christ passed the spot where he prayed and ordered a church built there, saying he would return to pray in it. Locals circulate this legend, which also claims that Christ wanted it to be like Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

The church was named “Al-Qalees” and its structure rose five meters high. It is reported to have been an excellent model of Aksum architecture, a style adopted in constructing ancient Abyssinian (ancient Ethiopian) churches.

History books say that Abrahah bin Al-Sabbah directed it built in 537 A.D., some 12 years after the start of the Abyssinian invasion of Yemen. Justin I, ruler of Constantinople, urged Al-Sabbah to build it quickly, supporting him with an assemblage of Greek builders and architects, as well as exquisite materials such as marble and mosaics.

Al-Qalees Church or Ghuraqat Al-Qalees, as it is called today, has not attracted the attention of Arab poets, writers and intellectuals as the majority of Islamic landmarks did. Certainly, this can be attributed to their feeling that it symbolizes the intrusion of Abyssinian cultural, religious and military existence.

This is supported by historical narration that Al-Sabbah built the church to take revenge on Jews, bring Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula under Christianity and denigrate the Kaaba.

Contrary to the negative stance of Arabs and Yemenis, Abyssinian, Byzantine and European historians wrote elaborately about it but could not prevent its destruction or damage it sustained.

Undoubtedly, the church now experiences its worst condition in history. It has been turned from a magnificent church with mosaic-covered walls to a waste dump infested with vermin and reptiles.

The fire that used to blaze every Sunday night with an old man next to it crying bitterly over its remains has stopped appearing. Instead, children set fire to car tires inside it and throw garbage into it.

The old man used to invoke God's wrath on whoever pillaged any part of the church.

It remained protected by virtue of that old man's curse until the time of Al-Abbas Al-Saffah, an Abbasid rule who sent his maternal uncle Al-Rabi' bin Ziad Al-Harithi to Yemen on a mission to destroy the church. The squad came and did the task, bringing back loads of riches to the Abbasid caliph.

The legendary old man has stopped appearing, but strange sounds still can be heard from the vault at the bottom of the eastern side of the wall. These sounds may be the sounds of saints' souls or lions' roars.

It is said that the church's altar was set on four lions made of gilded ivory. The doors were gilded too, set with precious stones, and in the center of each painting was a gold cross with different colored flowers around them. It evoked a sense of majesty and awe at the time.

Today, the church's condition is diametrically opposed. Mere entry seems quite difficult. Instead of stepping up marble stairs of the church of the past, which used to exist at the church's western gate, there is a rusty iron plate which children use to slide down to the church pit.

Yemeni historian Sarim Al-Din ibn Ibrahim Al-Wazir, who died in 924, mentioned the following about Al-Qalees Church: “When Al-Sabbah resolved to build the church in the first half of the sixth century, he ordered the contents of the palace of Bilqis, Queen of Sheba – including stones adorned with gold and silver – moved to Sana'a. Marble stones were finely chiseled with wooden props on the outer courses of the building.”

The doors were covered with gold and silver and there was a three-part wing inside, 50 meters long and 25 meters wide, with its arch resting on costly wooden beams studded with silver and gold nails. The church's corridor walls were mosaics in the form of trees and forests sprinkled with gold stars.

The church's original structure was domed on top, with a 20-meter diameter and decorated with mosaics. The dome's center contained a transparent marble slate to let in sunrays for illumination.

What is strange is that all this splendor is gone, leaving nothing but masonry foundation remains in a circular pit mounted on black stones. Intervention by concerned authorities did not exceed installing an iron fence to prevent garbage dumping.

Although it lacks its past magnificence, Al-Qalees Church in Old Sana'a has historical significance and somehow should draw the attention of tourism authorities.


– Entry is difficult – just an iron plate set up by children to slide into the church.

– Although it represents a unique historical and tourist landmark, many regard it as a reminder of Abyssinian military and religious existence in Yemen.