Notes on an Empty Church


"The Basilica unquestionably qualifies as marvelous, if luridly excessive..." (photo by Blake Lambert)

"The Basilica unquestionably qualifies as marvelous, if luridly excessive..." (photo by Blake Lambert)

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s founding, 33-year president, bestowed three sets of material gifts upon his citizens before he died. The first was economic success and political stability. During Houphouet-Boigny’s rule, this West African country became an economic powerhouse with robust coffee and cocoa industries. Peace reigned for thirty years, undoubtedly abetted by his ban on all political parties save his own, and during this time he bestowed his second set of gifts. He transformed his home village of Yamoussoukro into his country’s capital city. It boasts a presidential palace and the widest lamp-lined streets in sub-Saharan Africa, where too often drivers and pedestrians contend with dark and thin unpaved tracks.

Yet those are slight offerings compared to Houphouet-Boigny’s third and most impressive gift: the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro.

At 158 meters from ground to its golden-cross top, it towers over its grass and concrete surroundings on the edges of the capital city. According to those list-keeping authorities who find it necessary to measure, it is the largest church in the world.

An ardent Catholic, Houphouet-Boigny undoubtedly believed the Basilica would provide greater inspiration than the plantation of cocoa palm trees it replaced. Yet it remains isolated from the capital’s more urban features. I witnessed a herd of cows crossing the nearest intersection, a fifteen minute walk away.

From afar, the eye sees nothing but rows of concrete columns and three blue-tinged domes stretching across a vast expanse. Up close, however, is where the visual feast truly begins. The elaborate support columns – I couldn’t tell you what kind they are, outside of big and somewhat decorous – serve as miniature works of art on their own. They contrast with giant panes of black glass, ornate on the outside but elaborately stained on the inside.

Entering the Basilica, you seem to leave Ivory Coast behind, if only temporarily. There are more than 7000 multicolored square meters of stained glass windows, all from France. They depict elaborate biblical scenes, including Adam and Eve, Palm Sunday, and the Pentecost. Smaller window panes feature Jesus and his apostles. Several historical accounts indicate Houphouet-Boigny commissioned an image of himself to be placed beside Jesus and his friends.

Few here would consider that blasphemy. As a hotel bookkeeper in Abidjan told me one night, “President Felix Houphouet-Boigny controlled everything. He did marvelous things by the time he was gone.”

The Basilica unquestionably qualifies as marvelous, if luridly excessive. Inside, it has sixty columns. My guide, Konan Guessan, a smoking and wine-drinking, cross-wearing, somewhat-English-speaking Catholic, told me that 48 of those are doric and 12 are ionic. The ionic columns contain four elevators and six staircases. At the dais, there’s a 28-meter canopy holding a hanging two-meter long golden cross.

Guessan, a fountain of all Basilica-related information, said the cross weighs fifty kilograms, though I doubt he or anyone else has actually weighed it since it was installed.

Supporting the canopy, which has 14 speakers, are brass and bronze columns. Off to the side of the dais sat a gleaming drum kit, several amplifiers of a brand favored by rock musicians, and an electric organ.

Guessan said construction began in July 1986 and wrapped up in September 1989, but a separate account indicated the cornerstone was laid a year earlier, in August. Given the Italian pews and marble floors plus the French stained-glass windows, the idea that 36 companies, African and European, were involved in the construction seems plausible, if hardly economical.

My guide professed to be clueless as to the cost of the Basilica. “If we find the architect, then we can ask him how much,” he told me. Anyway, he claimed, the Basilica was priceless.

Less sainted observers, however, put the cost at $300 million.

To put that into perspective, consider that the Liberian government’s annual budget for 2005 topped out at $120 million. The annual budgets of the poorest African countries – Burundi, Mali, Niger, and Sierra Leone – are in the same range or not much higher than the Basilica’s tab.

Guessan said it had been filled to capacity exactly twice.

The first time occurred on September 10, 1990, when Pope John Paul II consecrated the Basilica. The second and final crowd showed up for Houphouet-Boigny’s funeral in February 1994.

Since then, Ivory Coast has experienced flawed elections, a military coup, political violence, and a rebellion that carved up the country. The government controls the south, including Yamoussoukro, and the north is held by the rebel New Forces.

“If Houphouet-Boigny was here, none of these things would have happened,” a cab driver called Clement Koffi Yao told me.

Perhaps some gifts, despite the best intentions, simply were not made to last. Others, like the dead president’s church, seem made to stand forever mostly empty.