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One of the most distinctive styles of religious architecture is that of the Orthodox churches and cathedrals of eastern Europe and Russia, which can also be found in the US and other countries with an Orthodox presence.

How do you spot the Orthodox style? You look at the top. One of the main features of Orthodox churches is the presence of domes or cones at the top of towers, especially what is known as an “onion dome,” which looks like this:

Cathedral of the Annunciation (built 1484-1489), Moscow – Photo by Petar Milosevic

Some Catholic churches in Germany have this kind of dome, but they have only one. Orthodox churches usually have more than one. When an Orthodox church has only one dome, the difference is in the floor plan, which is not like a cross as in the Catholic churches, but much more compact:

Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin on the Nerl River (built in 1165), Bogolyubovo – Photo by Nickolas Titkov

Another key characteristic is of course the presence of an Orthodox cross at the top, but it can sometimes be hard to see from the ground and it is not always used instead of the Catholic cross, so the cross alone does not define the style. Here is a Catholic cross:

And an Orthodox cross:

Here are more examples of Orthodox architecture so you can spot the style next time you see it, some with onion domes and others with flatter, round or “egg” domes :

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (built 1882-1912), Sofia – Photo by Plamen Agov –

Saint Sophia Cathedral (built in the 11th century), Kiev

Saint Sophia – Ascension – Cathedral (built 1782-1788), Pushkin, near Saint Petersburg

Saint Sava Cathedral (built 1985-1989), Belgrade – Photo by Petar M

One last example, perhaps the most often seen, but also the most unusual of Orthodox buildings, on Moscow’s Red Square:

Saint Basil Cathedral (built 1555-1561, onion domes from 1583 with bright colors since 1670) – Photo by Christophe Meneboeuf

Even though there are no other buildings quite like Saint Basil, which is now a museum, it still belongs to the Orthodox style, as the multiple onion domes and floor plan attest.

So, if it has several round or onion domes, chances are it’s an Orthodox church, and if by the time you enter the building you’re still not sure of the style, you’ll know it’s Orthodox if once inside you see icons in egg and gold.