Because of this fact, the building called a cathedral because of that fact. In the thinking of today, the building was a very tiny cathedral. It was also called a basilica because of its regional importance and its relative spaciousness (37m by 18m, or 110 feet by 54 feet) in the North African setting. In the government-controlled archaeological ruins of the town of Hippo today, the site of the basilica is easily located. The continuing presence of the bottom parts of walls and columns, plus some mosaic flooring, allow an accurate description of what the basilica must have been like when Augustine was using it.
Plan (at left): Erwan Marec, Monuments chrétiens d'Hippone, page 24
The main body of the building was divided into a centre nave and two side aisles by two colonnades with ten columns in each rank. The centre nave was 9 meters wide and each aisle 4.75m in width. The semi-circular apse at the northwestern end of the building measured 8.50m wide and 7.00m in depth. This basilica was built on the site of several earlier dwellings. Its first stage was both significantly smaller and laid out on an axis perpendicular to building represented by the actual ruins that are visible today.
This basilica at Hippo had long been named the basilica pacis, ("the Church of Peace.") In the time of Augustine it was also called the Church of Saint Stephen because Augustine had placed relics of that martyr in it in the year 424. In the basilica (cathedral) in Hippo, three doors at the end opposite the apse, in the tall facade, would have constituted the principal entrance to the building. The central door may have been reserved for the clergy, while the other two served to facilitate the gender separation of the congregation (women on one side, and men on the other).
The floor of the basilica was covered with mosaics in both its centre nave and aisles, many of these being funerary dedications over tombs. Although the apse floor may also have been decorated with mosaic, all traces of this have disappeared. There is, however, an octagonal portion of mosaic in the floor of the Church of Saint Peter, Pavia, Italy, that came from the basilica in Hippo. (This is the church in Pavia that contains the tomb of Augustine.)
There are traces of wall paintings in the apse area which were intended to imitate the look of marble. The apse was raised above the nave level by 0.50m, and along its circular wall contained a bench for the presbyters on either side of the central cathedra (the bishop's ceremonial chair) for the bishop. In the centre of this extension of the apse would have stood the wooden altar which was either covered with a cloth or perhaps protected by another decorative screen. Candles and the eucharistic elements may have been present on the altar from the beginning of the service. No evidence of a ciborium (tabernacle) over the altar has been found at Hippo. The configuration of this space corresponds to the classical layout of a choir or bêma in basilicas of the period elsewhere on the Mediterranean shores.
Directly in front of this chancel or apse area archaeologists found traces of a rectangular substructure of masonry measuring 3.80m by 3.00m.This suggests there was a stand for a wooden lectern or ambo, which was used for reading the lessons. Excavation of this lectern area revealed a number of burials of children and of one adult. Possibly this was where Augustine himself was first buried, until he was moved to Sardinia about forty years later. The roof of both nave and aisles was certain to have been wooden timbers covered with terra cotta tiles.The space permitted the separation of persons into various categories. The nave may have normally been restricted to clergy, or perhaps left empty on special occasions.The men stood on one side of the church, perhaps in the aisle, while women stood on the opposite side or aisle. The faithful may have been given the front seats, and those doing penance and catechumens placed in ranked classes toward the back.
Augustine was buried in his cathedral until the bishops of Africa, fleeing from invasion by the Vandals, took his corpse with them to Sardinia. The basilica is part of the general archaeological site in Hippo. In recent years the Algerian government has not generally made the site - in an archaeological area - accessible to individual tourists or visitors, except for special occasions.
Photo GalleryFor the Augnet photo gallery containing images of Algeria including the site of Augustine’s Hippo basilica, click here.