Fazal Ahmad, UK
Location: Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast
Date Opened: 1990 CE
Travelling through Ivory Coast north from Abidjan, I was encouraged by my local guides to visit the anomaly that is the town of Yamoussoukro, part way towards the second city of Bouake. Having travelled through a farming region, I found this city is a modern oasis, built at the direction of the then-president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who also provided some of the funding. The area was significant for the president as he was born here in 1905, when it was a small farming village much like the surrounding region. During the period of his presidency from 1960 until his death in 1993, it was gradually becoming the administrative capital of the country, even though the main city is Abidjan on the coast, and most of the main business and administrative activity is still based in Abidjan. The population here is very modest, even though the infrastructure, including amazing roads, would suggest that it is much more significant.
Near the centre of town is the Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, considered the biggest Christian Church in the world. The Basilica is built in the style of St Peter’s in the Vatican in Italy, but at a larger scale, with the dome rising to a height of 149 metres. At the design stage, Pope John Paul II requested that the cupola be no taller than the home of the Pope. Whilst this suggestion was accepted, a giant cross was then added, which made it the tallest church nonetheless. The design inside and even to some extent the colonnades outside, match the design of the Vatican church.
In Ivory Coast, around a third of the population is Christian, and Christianity largely came through European missionaries from France in the nineteenth century. Most of the north of the country follows Islam or traditional faiths.
The Basilica was designed by Pierre Fakhoury, a Lebanese-Ivorian, and construction began in 1986. It was completed in 1990 and can hold 18,000 worshippers within the church, whilst a further 300,000 people can be accommodated in the area outside. Inside, the church is every bit as ornate as any church in Europe, with a lift for visitors to reach the higher floors, and air conditioning for every seat. However, due to its location and the demographics of the country, attendances for services are very modest, often less than 1,000 worshippers.