I was awestruck. The grand courtyard, beautiful marble pillars and the towering dome was the strongest symbol of the infinite power of God I’d ever seen. Standing in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I momentarily paused my cigarette and let it all in. For the briefest of moments, I knew what it was like to be a God-fearing Catholic.
Although the sensation has never before or since been as profound as when I stood in front of the papal church in Rome, it’s one I experience whenever I visit a house of worship. Whether it be the Notre Dame in Paris or even the small, village-sized church in the town I’m from, I always feel a sense of awe when faced with churches, mosques or synagogues.
It’s because of their grandeur. Even the smallest church has a sense of unattainable greatness to it, be it the marble floors or glass-stained windows with epic, biblical scenes. Although I’ve only been to a few synagogues and mosques, the grand hall with adjoining galleries and an ark at the far end, or gilded dome-roofs with intricate details and tall minarets reaching for the heavens, also imbibe me with sincere awe and wonder.
I don’t think I’m alone. After all, places of worship are meant to instill you with a certain awe of their respective deity. Which god are you most likely to obey: the one that accomplishes otherwordly feats of architecture with ease, or the one whose grandest achievement is a crumbling straw hut?
The sincere awe and fear of God that Saint Peter’s instilled in me – a declared Atheist – is no doubt due to its sheer size. The church covers more than 20,000 square metres and houses up to 60,000 people. Until yesterday, I was certain that it was the biggest church in the world. But I was wrong.
A grand church for Christian lands
Europe is famously Christian. The most famous European expedition, the Crusades (which were, in fact, at least eight different expeditions stretching over several centuries) were religious in nature, a battle between saintly Christanity and hellish Islam – or so the crusaders told themselves. Centuries later, the word of Christ was a main pillar of European imperialism, from the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the name of God to British conversion of natives in the name of civilization.
It is no surprise that Europe is littered with churches. From the fall of Rome, its history is defined by Christianity.
But Christ is on the retreat. In 1500, everyone in Europe, except for a couple of Jews and Muslims, were Christian. In 2011, the number had fallen to 76 %. That is 565 million people. (You can read a full report about it here.)
Compare that to Europe’s southern neighbour, Africa. In 1500, Christianity was by far a minority, only widespread in the Abyssinian empire (today Ethiopia). The rest of Africa was Muslim or followed a plethora of local religions.
Today that’s no longer the case. Islam has been relegated to second place, with 42 % of Africans identifying as followers of Muhammed. Christians, on the other hand, comprises 49 % of the continet’s population, or 685 million people. That makes Africa the most Christian continent in the world.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the biggest church in the world is now located in a former French colony, Côte d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast. Its name, whether in French or English, fits its granduer: Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix, or Basilica of Our Lady of Peace.
It was built between 1985 and 1989 and closely resembles Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome – only bigger. It covers 30,000 square metres and reaches 158 metres into the air. Even though it comes nowhere near housing the 60,000 people that Saint Peter’s does, it still has a capacity of 18,000 worshippers.
Its architect, Pierre Fakhoury, specifically designed the dome to mimic Saint Peter’s. He knew he had to make it slightly shorter to acknolwedge the superiority of the Pope, but he made sure his dome was still taller by adding a tall cross on top of it – ensuring his church reached definitively higher.
Pillars of sand
That’s only part of the story. Although Africa is now more Christian than anywhere else, Côte d’Ivoire is not. In fact, Islam is by far the biggest religion in the country, with only 17 % of Ivorians identifying as Catholic. How come that a country with only a minority of Christians houses the biggest church ever built?
The answer lies with its first president, the church’s sole benefactor: Félix Houphouët-Boigny. A true career politican, he spent the first part of his career in France, first as a member of parliament and later as a minister. After the independence of Côte d’Ivoire, he took up the role of the presidency and was, for a long time, considered a prime example of how a postcolonial, African state should be run.
Economically his state prospered. But in the 70s and 80s, a series of disasters struck, leading the export-reliant nation to lose out on its most valuable crops, coffee and cocoa. Even the off-shore oil drilling couldn’t keep the economy afloat due to falling oil prices in the 80s. The nation on the Ivory Coast was heading into dire financial waters. Disease and squalor spread, and many people struggled just to get something to eat.
Houphouët-Boigny’s response was indifferent at best. He moved the country’s capital to his hometown of Yamoussoukro, a village that in 1950 only cotained 500 inhabitants. Two years later, in 1985, he began the construction of a new basilica to rival the papal one in Rome – even though most of his population was unemployed and starving.
The church cost between $400 and 600 million. It didn’t make a single dent in the state coffers. Everything, from the Italian marble to the stained glass windows, was paid for privately by Houphouët-Boigny. Incidentally, his face is the only black one amidst endless rows of biblical scenes and figures.
I can’t help but wonder how a small village boy secured so immense wealth and fell so out of step with his nation. He did, after all, decide to privately fund the construction of the world’s biggest church during a time when his nation was falling apart. His money, or time, would’ve been better spent elsewhere.
The church was visited and consecrated by the pope in 1990, and it’s still in use. But only once in its three decades’ long life has it been filled – during Houphouët-Boigny’s funeral. In the picturesque words of Richard Dowden:
Soon afterwards weeds began to appear in the paving around the church and ants started to build little mounds of red earth nearby, mocking the mighty dome of stone and lead. Cracks and damp patches appeared in the vast masonry. It was symbolic of what was happening in the country.Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, p. 68.
Today, only a couple of hundred faces appear in the grand hall of the basilica during each service, leaving most of the thousands of pews empty. It must be a solemn sight to stand in the church, its empty halls echoing endlessly, reminding one of the fleetness of life. I imagine that one cannot help but feel alone, one among a hundred in a church that houses thousands.
Richard Dowden. Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Minds. 2019.
“Our Lady of Peace Yamoussoukro Basilica (1989-)”. Blackpast.
“Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population”. Pew Research Center. 2011.
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