This Church Lies Eerily Empty In The Jungle – And There's A Bizarre Reason For Its Unique Shape

You’re driving through the thick jungle of Magelang, part of the island of Java in Indonesia. You pass the largest Buddhist temple in the world but don’t stop. You’re looking for something even more extraordinary. Eventually, a hill emerges from the dense trees. First you see the crest at its top, then a strangely shaped, dirty white building becomes visible. And the only thing more unexpected than this structure is the twisting story of its creation.

Indonesia’s an island nation and Java hosts more of its people than any other. Among the looming shapes of mountains including Merbabu, Merapi and the still-active volcano of Sumbing is the plateau of the Magelang Regency. It’s a place of hills and humidity in Central Java where the population lives amid stunningly beautiful surroundings.

The most famous location in Magelang is the Buddhist temple of Borobudur. It’s a towering construction of nine platforms decorated with more than 500 statues of Buddha and topped by an impressive domed building known as a stupa. Since it was finished in the 7th century, it’s become a place of pilgrimage and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But while it’s certainly worth visiting, it isn’t Magelang’s only treasure.

That prize is found in a building on the nearby hill of Bukit Rhema. There’s a solid, rectangular body with a grey roof and admittedly some graffiti. At one end’s a small tail, at the other, it rises up into a magnificent bird’s head with its red beak wide open in song. The crown at its top’s like that of a rooster, earning it the name of “Gereja Ayam.” That means “The Chicken Church.”

It mightn’t be the most dignified name, but step inside this unique building and you’ll find true beauty. Under your feet is a floor of jewel-encrusted tiles and the windows are paneled. Look up and it’s like gazing at the sky because of the illustrations of clouds. Look around, and you’ll find yourself transported through stories from Indonesian folklore.

Of course, this is still a church and you can worship here. There are actually a dozen prayer rooms nestled deep below the church. Or you can climb upwards to a platform situated in the chicken’s head and look out towards Borobudur. At sunrise you’ll be able to see the light gently spill over the temple’s dome as the world awakens around you.

It’s clear that Gereja Ayam’s unique from the first moment you see it. And a glance at its history makes it obvious that the structure’s truly extraordinary as well. To find out why, we have to travel back to 1988. Daniel Alamsjah was the person who was inspired to build this church, and he’d dedicate years of his life to making it a reality.

Back in 1988 Alamsjah was a 45-year-old manager at BASF, a German firm that manufactures chemicals. He was based in Jakarta, but after a member of his team didn’t return to work following the Ramadan holiday, Alamsjah went to his colleague’s Magelang home to find out what had happened. The employee suggested they go on what would become a life-changing hike.

Alamsjah had already been thinking about building a church. When he saw the hill of Bukit Rhema during that walk, he felt he’d found the perfect site. Shortly afterwards, a fee in the region of $2,000 dollars bought him a strip of hilltop land and he was ready to start. Acquiring the go-ahead from local authorities would take a little longer, though. Almost half a decade, to be precise.

So in 1992 Alamsjah and his 30-strong team were finally able to start building. Everything was based on Alamsjah’s own designs, which were initially for a dove rather than a chicken. It wasn’t until the crown was added that locals began to say it looked more like a rooster and gave it its new nickname.

Even as Alamsjah and his crew took scrap, bricks, cement and sand and shaped them into the frame and body of the bird, there was trouble brewing. It started with an article published in 1996 about how Alamsjah was constructing a Christian place of worship, despite the surrounding area being mostly Muslim. It caused outrage.

Suddenly the hard-won planning permission that Alamsjah had fought for was at risk of disappearing. Complaints to the police continued to pile up and the authorities panicked. They attempted to block the project and though they didn’t succeed, it was a worrying sign.

Then there were the money troubles that led to work being suspended in 2002. At that point many of the prayer rooms were just pits and there was no tiled floor, jeweled or otherwise. It seemed Alamsjah’s vision of the church was dead before he could even raise the upper floors.

There were a few tourists who occasionally made the trek to Gereja Ayam, and Alamsjah introduced admission charges. Around 25 or so visitors a week wasn’t enough to start building again, though. Alamsjah also had to focus on his new job overseeing a rehabilitation project. Until, that was, the church dramatically surged back into the spotlight in 2015.

It started when both The Huffington Post and the Daily Mail ran articles covering Gereja Ayam. Then the producers of the movie Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (What’s the Deal With Love) decided to film a sequel there. Suddenly there were 2,000 guests visiting weekly and each paid the equivalent of a dollar to enter. It meant that Alamsjah could finally restart building.

Now the church even has its own café and a proper road, and the once-suspicious locals benefit from the increased tourism. “I’m glad I continued,” Alamsjah told Atlas Obscura. “Thousands of visitors come each year to pray or to reflect on their lives, and my children finally respect what I’ve accomplished.” But just why did he put himself through all that?

Well, Alamsjah’s a devoted Christian and his plans for the church stemmed from a dream that he was certain came from God. He’d been praying and then as he fell asleep he saw a white dove roosting on a hilltop. From the empty air came a commanding voice with just one request: he was to create a temple where everyone could pray.

At first, though, Alamsjah understandably thought he’d been hallucinating. But then he saw Bukit Rhema. “I was amazed!” he recalled. “It was the same hill and the same view that I saw in my vision.” Further prayer drew him to the Biblical book of Isaiah and the words: “The Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains.”

It seemed like fate, and Alamsjah began the lengthy process of designing and building his church. He wanted his dove to have a crown to represent its sacred nature, yet it immediately invited comparisons to a rooster. So the “chicken church” moniker was born long before construction had finished.

It probably makes a bit more sense to consider the church a dove than a chicken, even if it’s more entertaining the other way. Doves have a deep symbolic history when it comes to religion. Many ancient civilizations gave a prominent role to the birds because of the creatures association with various goddesses, including Venus, Tanit, Astarte and Asherah.

The dove makes an appearance in both Jewish and Christian scripture as well, when a bird’s released by Noah after the great flood in the Book of Genesis. Noah was praying that the dove would be able to find land. When it returned to the ark with an olive branch, Noah knew his trials would soon be behind him. The dove’s arrival represented hope and new life.

Christianity also associates doves with the Holy Spirit thanks to their presence in descriptions of the Baptism of Jesus. They’ve since taken on a wider significance as a symbol of peace, such when they’re released during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The dove of Gereja Ayam has a crown on its head to further emphasize its divine nature.

Doves make an appearance in the lore of Indonesia’s biggest religion, Islam, as well. The Prophet Muhammad took shelter in a cave while trying to hide from his enemies. Doves then nested near the mouth of the cave, which made it impossible for anyone to step past without crushing the eggs the birds had laid. The people searching for the Prophet saw this and were convinced the cave must be empty, so Muhammad was left in peace.

When controversy spread about Alamsjah’s church and its Christian nature, he said, “I was making rooms for Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Catholics, everyone. It was designed to be inclusive.” And amid his financial difficulties during the 1990s, Alamsjah often had to remind himself of his original divine inspiration.

In his Atlas Obscura interview, Alamsjah described how he “kept rereading that [Bible] verse, trying to find the courage to continue.” Even his kids thought Alamsjah’s project was doomed. But when many hundreds of people started visiting the church, his kids realized its value. “This isn’t my plan,” Alamsjah says. “It’s God’s plan.”

Now you can travel through the church and truly see its wonders. Start on the road outside, with trees lining the way as you approach its breast. This is the whitest, cleanest part of the building. If you look to the sides you may see some scaffolding for work that’s still in progress, but if you glance up you just see its size and its magnificence.

If there was any doubt that this place is about love and bringing people together, then just look at the heart-shaped welcome sign. There’s also an angel welcoming you by blowing his trumpet. It’s a stark contrast to the rumors that the building’s haunted, with claims of kuntilanak (a type of Indonesian female vampire) and ghosts having taken up residence when it was abandoned.

In some ways the curve of the ceiling and the Christian iconography make this almost an ordinary church. Step into the main hall and you’ll see light spilling through this lofty space from both a cross in the ceiling and the pattern of flowers that form the windows. They illuminate benches and information stands for you, the pilgrim.

There are more flower petals carved into the balcony at the hall’s far end, above which you can see the bright colors of some of the murals that give this place part of its remarkable character. The floor tiles have a beautiful pattern as well.

When you climb up to the balcony, it’s almost like stepping into the open air thanks to the blue of the ceiling and its painted white clouds. There’s even more light finding its way through all the holes. Other stairs lead you to walls paneled with dozens of different scenes and images that connect you with Indonesian culture.

In other parts carved pillars and walls give passages a sense of age and weight. There are paintings and patterned tiles everywhere to soften the look, but this is a more intimate space. If you take a quick look at the mouth, you’ll see there’s a metal mesh barrier inside to prevent humans falling through.

Eventually you’ll climb the biggest staircase, which leads you up and up. You’ll pass more murals and eventually you’ll come to a white room. From here you can step out onto the chicken’s crown and take in the 360-degree view across the trees and the mist that covers them. It’s a truly beautiful moment. Just don’t forget to visit the café, which also has impressive views, on the way out.

The café’s just one sign of how the church has become a tourist attraction. You can buy snacks and coffee, plus there’s a piece of fried cassava available for free. Eat it while you sit at the railing and look out on the jungle from high up towards the back of the chicken.

You may want to spend a little time looking at the murals as well. They depict all kinds of scenes from history and folklore and were painted by talented local artists. The yellow pillars that hold up the sky are decorated with twisting strings of flowers. Stained glass windows include depictions of a chicken as well as boats, books and other images.

Information boards in the main hall depict all of the church’s troubled history. It’s like a mini-museum where you can see photos of the chicken slowly emerging on the hilltop. It’s astonishing when you see the half-finished construction with its bare concrete and pieces of building equipment, then look around at the magnificent structure it has become.

The acclaimed Into the Inferno’s a documentary film from 2016 directed by Werner Herzog. It’s about volcanoes and was filmed in Ethiopia, North Korea, Iceland – and Indonesia. Gereja Ayam isn’t that far from Mount Sinabung and the documentary showcased both.

Alamsjah meant for this church to be a house of worship, and its many prayer rooms are obviously in keeping with that aim. They ensure there’s enough space to allow visitors to pray privately. If you choose to stay outside, the grounds are finally being tended like a proper garden. People have even come to Gereja Alam to get married and take some truly memorable wedding photos.

Under the church there’s also space that’s used as a rehabilitation center. It’s an area where people with a variety of issues can find support. There’s an outreach project for at-risk youth. The center’s been described by Alamsjah as being “for disabled children, drug addicts, crazy people and disturbed youth who wanted to fight.”

Magelang was already one of the most popular tourist spots in this part of Indonesia because of Borobudur. Visitors only had to travel a few miles to encounter Gereja Ayam, which would almost certainly fascinate them as well. And then they spread the word in turn. So it isn’t surprising that so many people decided to go in with an entry fee that’s the equivalent of just a dollar.

Gereja Ayam isn’t just now one of the most iconic and beloved buildings in this part of Java, it’s also a world-renowned site that attracts visitors from all corners of the globe. The unusual appearance combined with the noble purpose make this church at once quirky and profound. It’s finally rewarded all the work Daniel Alamsjah put into its creation.