Jakarta’s oldest church
Published/Last edited or updated: 3rd July, 2018
A short walk from Jakarta’s Kota railway station, the stately and rather austere historic church, Gereja Sion (Zion Church) attests to a unique chapter in the story of the city.
Dating from 1695 it is the oldest church in Jakarta today, and possibly the oldest remaining in Indonesia. Originally known as “De Nieuwe Portugeesche Buitenkerk” (The New Portuguese Outer Church) referring to its position outside of the city wall, it was established to service Batavia’s “Mardijker” community. As the colonial powers shifted in the region and Portuguese colonies fell under the sovereignty of the Dutch, slaves captured in what is now Sri Lanka, India and the Malay Peninsula, ostensibly after the Dutch conquest of Melaka, were brought to Batavia by the Dutch East India Company (a nearby kampung is still known as Roa Malaka).
This mixed bag of Catholic slaves whose only common language was Portuguese were said to have been granted their freedom on the condition they converted to Protestantism. The freed slaves were known as “Mardijker” from the same root word as “Merdeka”, the Indonesian word for freedom. A few original graves remain in the churchyard including the ornate bronze tombstone of Governor General Hendrick Zwaardecroon who died in 1728.
The modest but solid structure sits on the corner of two traffic-clogged streets, all but hidden from view by large trees and a pedestrian overpass. Oversized arched windows and an understated neoclassical portico are the only embellishments of the rectangular structure. The vast uncluttered interior is punctuated by six enormous white pillars which connect to heavy wooden beams that support the three-part wooden barrel ceiling. As with much of the architecture of the period, the design is grand, formal and authoritarian.
A large baroque pipe organ at the back is festooned with chubby cherubs, mirrored by a somewhat less, but still ostentatious alter, and along with curling brass chandelles they contrast with the austerity of the rest of the interior. Hard wooden chairs line up to form pews for the congregation, and to the right of the alter, ornately carved wood and rattan armchairs were reserved for the governor and other colonial bigwigs.
As we entered, a caretaker arrived who had very good English and offered to show us around. We were able to climb up to the organ platform and see the bellows in operation. Originally they were cranked by hand, but now a motor is attached and it was fascinating to watch as the old machinery clanged and chunked, breathing air into the instrument.
Gereja Sion will appeal to history buffs and folk interested in architecture will enjoy peering inside, we certainly had a thrill from seeing the working organ, but you probably won’t spend more than 15 minutes here. Ask around for someone to show you around. A tourist donation box and guest book sit inside the church.
Check out other religions architecture in Jakarta at the modern Istiqlal Mosque, Neo-Gothic-style Catholic Katedral, the neoclassical domed-roof Gereja Immanuel founded in 1839 (also with an original pipe organ and bellows similar to Gereja Sion) and All Saints Anglican Church, the oldest English-speaking institution in Indonesia Established in 1819, all four in central Jakarta.
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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