There are many churches around the globe which is dedicated to an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and each varies from their foreign counterparts. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro is one of these churches and gained both praise and scrutiny from its construction. Praise was given because of its almost perfect similarity to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and attention to detail while scrutiny was directed towards its lavish creation and location. This paper will discuss the history, features and criticisms of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire.
Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro
With the growth of Christianity around the globe, several churches have been built to honor a specific saint, an image of Jesus Christ or an image of the Virgin Mary. In most of these churches, a significant amount is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and these churches vary from their counterparts in their own special way. Out of these churches dedicated to the Blessed Mother, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro stands out not only because of its opulence, but also because of the history surrounding its construction. Considering the location of this magnificent shrine to the Our Lady of Peace, many often are baffled as to how such shrine was created. This paper will discuss the history and features of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro or the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix de Yamoussokuro was constructed in 1985. According to Brooke (1988), the Basilica’s site was originally a former coconut plantation in the then-newly established capital of the Ivory Coast, Yamoussoukro and surrounded by African savannah. The entire complex spans over 30,000 square meters or 1,525 feet from the outermost Doric column from the esplanade to the outermost Doric column located at the nave of the Basilica. The surrounding 75 acres of land surrounding the Basilica was also planned to host a French-style gardens (see figure 1 for reference) . Melton (2010) stated that the Basilica was completed on September 10, 1990 and consecrated by Pope John Pope II despite the concessions of its creation. The basilica is regarded by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the tallest religious structures in the world with a total enclosed area of 322,917 square feet .
Figure 1. Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. This figure shows the Google earth satellite image of the Basilica of Our Lady of Yamoussoukro complex in Côte d’Ivoire .
The location of this lavish and otherwise opulent basilica is in Côte d’Ivoire or the Ivory Coast. According to the CIA World Factbook (2015), Côte d’Ivoire or the Ivory Coast was a former French territory which has gained its independence in 1960 and remained close to France even after its independence. The region is mostly famous for its cocoa production and foreign investment. However, the region had been plagued by political turmoil despite its economic prosperity. In 1999, the country experienced its first military coup after its independence and successfully installed a Junta leader, Robert Guei, as the new president. However, many Ivorians wanted him out of power and installed Laurent Gbagbo despite the dissidents regarding his installation in office. A civil war ravaged the region after the 2002 coup attempt which lasted a year, but even today the country remains divided. Continuous political continued until the next presidential elections in 2010 wherein Alassane Dramane Ouattara won against Gbagbo, who refused to give up his presidency. Another civil war had yet again caused chaos in the country and it was only until the French and UN forces moved in the Ivory Coast did the fighting seized in the region. Ouattara had slowly begun efforts to reorganize the country’s government infrastructure and the military once Gbagbo and his supporters were taken into custody.
Despite the instability in the region, the Ivory Coast has quite a rich culture and heritage in them, out of its 22,848,945 residents, 42% come from the Akan ethnic groups. The Voltaiques or Gurs comprise 17.6% of the population while the others hail from the Northern or Southern Mandes and Krous ethnic groups. Of course, foreigners have also flocked this African territory due to its sandy coasts, mostly comprising Lebanese and French nationals. The country also has a very rich religious background as 36% are Muslims, 32% are Christians while the rest are either indigenous or have no religion. Regardless of practicing indigenous religion, Christianity and Islam are still applied to these religions . In addition to it is their rich population, the region is also quite known for its rich arts and humanities. According to the website Every Culture (n.d.) cultural groups often gain government incentives and this permitted the growth of literature and music in the country. Despite the country’s economic and political problems, Ivoirians are known for their storytelling capacity, teaching children about social values, history and religion despite being illiterate. Graphic arts in the country is also rich in the region, especially wood sculpting and pottery making. A majority of these arts are visible in many shrines and communities. The performing arts have also been preserved by Ivoirians even at the present time through the aid of the government and groups such as the Abidjan Orchestral Ensemble .
The idea of building a Basilica in the newly selected capital Yamoussoukro was the idea of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Côte d’Ivoire’s first president. According to Pavils (2013), he ruled for 33 years as the country’s president after being a part of the French government. With his affiliation with the French government, Houphouët-Boigny was the country’s richest statesmen and possibly throughout Africa. As one of his first acts as president, Houphouët-Boigny relocated the country’s capital in Yamoussoukro, his birthplace. He desired to change the face of the country and started making plans of modernizing the capital, erecting megastructures such as the basilica that would be known as the “greatest church in the world.” He also wanted to make sure that this church would become a very good counterbalance to the growing Islamic sect.
The construction to this giant basilica started in 1985 and took until 1989 to complete with a tag price of almost $150 to 200 million, but some sources say the basilica cost $300 million to complete. Houphouët-Boigny had Lebanese architect Pierre Fakhoury to organize and monitor the progress of the construction process despite the opposition coming from the Vatican. The Vatican believed that the project was too lavish for a country known for its high poverty rate. The location was also in the “middle of nowhere” and there are accounts that they also did not like the fact that this project would topple the then largest church – St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (see figure 2 for the Basilica’s front view).
Figure 2. Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. The figure shows the front view of the Basilica which reflects an image similar to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome .
In order to get both parties to agree to a compromise regarding the size of the Basilica, Fakhoury had reduced the size of the basilica’s dome and made the cross on top of the dome larger. The entire basilica also uses European architecture like those seen in St. Peter’s Basilica, but there are certain areas where they vary extensively. The basilica’s main building has two arms much like its Italian counterpart, with 128 Doric columns used to create an enclosed esplanade similar to St. Peter’s Square. Beside the main basilica are the rectory and villa, which would stand in as the pope’s residences should he visit the basilica. Houphouët-Boigny, in this end, thought that the basilica would be visited regularly by members of the clergy once the basilica is completed (see figure 3).
Figure 3. Exterior of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. This figure shows the two additional buildings surrounding the basilica .
The basilica was also quite rich when it comes to stained glasswork famous in French cathedrals. At least 4,000 different tints are featured throughout the basilica, capable of covering two acres worth of windows. In one of these panels, it is possible to see the image of Houphouët-Boigny or Fakhoury (see figure 4).
Figure 4. French Stained Glass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. The figure shows Jesus in his arrival in Jerusalem with one of the people having Houphouët-Boigny’s image .
Italian marble tiles were also preferred for the 7.4 esplanade of the basilica that would be able to hold 300,000 people every day. Additional fixtures were also done in steel and stained glass, and huge amounts of paint. High-density cement and the region’s local sand that often reflects a pinkish light when light is reflected were also used to give a very distinct glow to the basilica once the spring season and the gardens are filled with various types of plant life. The basilica was also planned to be fully-airconditioned and to save electricity, a 15 foot-high cushion of air is added close to the high dome to permit the doors open while the airconditioning would permit the inner areas to be cooler. A 310-ton cupola made of steel and stained glass is also placed at the center of the basilica to much like the cupola located in St. Peter’s Basilica (see figure 5 for the interior image of the basilica). In one interview done with Fakhoury, he remarked that the basilica also varies from St. Peter’s as they used mostly stained glass and columns to accentuate the basilica. They also do not have statues or engravings unlike those seen in St. Peter’s Basilica .
Figure 5. Interior of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. The figure shows the interior of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro and the cupola .
At least 1,500 artisans were working seven days a week to finish the colossal Basilica before its dedication in September 1989. This force not only included local artisans, but also French builders who managed the installation of vital features. Ivoirian masons and Israeli builders were also included in the list of builders who toiled to complete this one of a kind basilica .
Once the basilica was completed on September 10, 1990, the basilica was consecrated by Pope John Paul II, who had several reservations regarding the basilica. According to Massaquoi (1990), Houphouët-Boigny had given it to the pontiff as a “personal gift” to the Vatican. Several criticisms were immediately drawn regarding to the basilica, one was the lavish décor which does not match the actual state of Côte d’Ivoire at that period. By the time the basilica was constructed, the Coast’s export industries had plummeted due to the manipulations of the European and U.S. markets, causing massive depreciation within the Ivory Coast’s economy and cause high unemployment. Immigrants also disabled the country from fully recovering from the loss of its export revenues.
There were a few who were supportive over the project like Charles Gomis, the Ivory Coast’s ambassador to the United States. He stated that the basilica was just the first of the numerous public structures that would be built in the area. He stressed the president would also construct schools, a hospital and a safari park close to the basilica’s complex to aid the public. Gomis also quashed the rumors that the basilica was made through the use of the government’s money rather than the claimed point that it was from Houphouët-Boigny’s own pocket. He claims that Houphouët-Boigny’s money was actually true because the president was one of the country’s largest cocoa, coffee and pineapple grower and exporter prior to his inclusion to the French government and being the Ivory Coast’s president. He also stressed to opponents that it was Houphouët-Boigny’s way to thank God for all the blessings that was given to him. Others were also supportive over the basilica and countered the Western media critiquing its construction. Some Ivorians stated that the European and American press were manipulating the story about the basilica’s construction. In her statement, student Miriam Djabla stated that:
“All of the big churches in the United States and in Europe, including St. Peter’s, were built with poverty all around them and they are spoken of with great admiration. But, the moment we Africans build a beautiful big church, we are called extravagant .”
Another known supporter to the basilica is the Ivory Coast’s Information Minister Laurent Dona-Fologo. He remarked that the critics of the megastructure were “Racists”, especially the French critics. He added that these critics are jealous over the development of the Ivory Coast since they gained independence from France. In one statement, Dona-Fologo wrote that French critics are:
“All they do is engage in nauseating, mud-slinging meanness and jealousy because in their minds, the Negro does not deserve anything big, beautiful and lasting as usual they chose Yamoussoukro as their major target. ”
As far as those against the basilica, one Abidjan teacher remarked that with the country’s small Catholic population (then 10% of the population), there wasn’t any need to have such a lavish basilica to express their faith. They would also not be able to sustain the basilica given the recent crash of the export sector. Other Ivorians also remarked that it was not the president’s brightest idea, but were willing to go along with the idea considering it was his money used for the construction . Pope John II had originally been supportive over the idea of the basilica when he visited in August 10, 1985 to bless the cornerstone. However, when the economy of the country was rapidly declining, the pope questioned the continuing construction efforts and only returned for its consecration with reservations .
The beauty of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro is undeniably at a class of its own considering the architecture and fixtures that makes it indeed a close replica to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City or even more. If one considers building the Basilica at the present time with the same specifications, it is likely the construction time may be halved to only two to three years if the region’s economy was still as stable as it was in 1988 when the export industry was still blooming. However, if the Ivory Coast’s current economy is to be considered and the political instability in the region is taken into account, it may take years to construct the basilica. With regards to the cost of the entire basilica, it may reach up to $700 million to $10 billion due to the rarity of the fixtures used in the basilica, and other critical construction costs. Further costs may also be accrued for security reasons due to the current issues of the nation with poverty and political uprisings.
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