Welcome to the beautiful Basilica of Our Lady
of Peace of Yamoussoukro. This Roman Catholic basilica, rather incongruously situated in
the West African bush, is actually listed as the largest church in the whole world.
It can accommodate a total of 18.000 worshippers; 7.000 inside the church and another 11.000
at the plaza. While the famous St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican City can accommodate
more than three times the number of people, it does not match this massive basilica when
it comes to total area covered. If you are somewhat familiar with the St.
Peters Basilica, you can see that this church is heavy inspired by it. Both share the same
encircled plaza and a similar massive dome. Despite its grand appearance and contrary
to popular belief, this basilica is not a cathedral. The nearby Cathedral of Saint Augustine
is the principal place of worship and seat of the bishop.
The cornerstone for this amazing basilica was laid in 1985 and the church stood completed
four years later. It was later consecrated in 1990 by Pope John Paul II. The basilica
was constructed using exotic materials. It contains marble imported from Italy as well
as 7000 square meters of contemporary stained glass from France. You can also find hundreds
of column throughout the basilica. The smaller ones are used for design and structural reasons
but some of the larger ones actually contain elevators.
Apart from the basilica itself, you can find two identical buildings in the back, each
serving as rectory and private papal villa respectively. The villa is reserved for papal
visits, of which only one has occurred: when the basilica was consecrated.
As you can imagine, the price tag for this beautiful basilica was quite hefty. The total
cost landed on more than 300 million dollar; a huge amount which added a lot to the national
debt of Côte d’Ivoire — some say it even doubled it.
The man behind the massive project was the Côte d’Ivoire president Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
As a way to memorialize himself, he ordered the construction of what he called “the greatest
church in the world”. Many of Africa’s leaders in the 1970’s and 1980’s were prone to using
their countries’ meager resources to build some outrageous buildings that were not exactly
suited to the climate, but which very much suited their egos.
Another example of this is the fact that the president commissioned a stained glass window
of his image to be placed beside a gallery of stained glass of Jesus and the apostles.
This image of Félix Houphouët-Boigny depicts him as one of the three Biblical Magi, kneeling
as he offers a gift to Jesus. The structure has been criticized for many
reasons. The lavishly built basilica sits in the middle of the African bush in an impoverished
city where only a minority of homes has running water and adequate sanitation. The basilica
was also criticized by many art historians and critics, for being a modern pastiche of
a western Renaissance masterpiece and for not having any relation with modern styles
of architecture or African culture. Another point of criticism is that only a minority
of the Cote d’Ivoire inhabitants are Christians; the majority is either Muslims or some indigenous
religion. Despite the controversy surrounding the basilica,
the majority of the local people are rather proud of it. When you look at it, it’s easy
to understand why. It is a remarkably beautiful building.