It’s not a church, but a house of prayer. It’s not supposed to look like a clucking barnyard bird, but rather a spiritual dove. Nevertheless, people took to calling the Indonesian edifice the Chicken Church, and the alliterative name—in English, at least—stuck.
With a red beak, white head, and long gray hovering body, the towering structure sits on Rhema Hill in the region of Magelang, on the island of Java, in Indonesia. Gereja Ayam, locals called it, or the Chicken Church.
One day in 1989, a local man, Daniel Alamsjah, was walking in Magelang, a popular spiritual destination where his wife’s family lives, when he came upon a hill and divine inspiration struck: He must build a prayer house in the shape of a dove. He would rather you call it Bukit Rhema, or House of Prayer for All Nations.
“I prayed all night there, and I got a revelation that I must build the prayer house in that spot,” Alamsjah told the Jakarta Globe in 2014.
The decision to take on the challenge was not spiritually or financially easy, Alamsjah explained.
“‘God, I’m no priest, this is not my place. I’m not a fundamentalist. I’m just a devout practicing Christian,’ I thought to myself at the time,” Alamsjah told the Jakarta Globe. “Another reason for my hesitation was financial—I didn’t have a lot of money.”
Within a year, however, he was offered the opportunity to buy 3,500-square yards for 2 million rupiah, or around $140. He bought the land, which took four years to pay off, and soon began construction.
Alamsjah envisioned a two-level house of worship with many side rooms for private prayer spaces. Some 30 local men participated in the years-long construction. However, funding ran out, and by the year 2000, Gereja Ayam had shut its doors.
Magelang, in Central Java, is best known as the location of Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination: the Borobudur Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 9th century, and the world’s largest Buddhist Temple.
The Chicken Church, lying not even 3 miles from Borobudur, might’ve fallen into total disrepair and obscurity were it not for the advent of young social media hipsters looking for unusual and out-of-the-way Instagram-worthy places to take selfies. As photos began popping up all over the internet, locals recognized the opportunity to capitalize on its odd popularity. Though it is still unfinished, the site has been renovated and cleaned up—a tourist center has opened and paintings line the walls.
Alamsjah emphasizes that the center welcomes visitors of all religions. “Perhaps because of my Christian faith, people thought I was building a church,” he told Jakarta Globe. But it’s not a church. I was building a prayer house, not a church, but a place for people who believe in God.”
Visiting the Chicken Church requires a vigorous hike up the steep Rhema Hill. Indeed, Alamsjah, nearing 70 years old, rarely makes the trek these days.
A staircase with intricate black-and-white risers leads to a balcony overlooking the surrounding countryside. Last year, a modern café, called Kedai Rakyat W’dank Bukit Rhema (or People’s Tavern at the House of Prayer for All Nations), opened at the back of the church; there you can order coffee and local snacks like fried cassava.
Then, if you were really feeling inspired to tour the regions quirky temples, you could hop a flight to Thailand. There you could find a temple constructed of 1 million empty beer bottles. And a temple constructed by a Manchester United fan, who fashioned a bronze monk in the image of David Beckham. A temple in the shape of a boat. Or a temple with that most reverend image, Donald Duck.
All of which makes the Chicken Church seem rather tame.