Sunday, April 07, 2013

Megalomania in Côte d’Ivoire: La basilique de Yamoussoukro deserves its own blog post

I recently visited the largest Christian edifice in the world, which is interestingly located right here in Côte d’Ivoire.

Taking only three years to be completed (1985-1989), the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro was commissioned by then President, the country’s founding father, Houphouet-Boigny. As mentioned earlier, Yamoussoukro was his birthplace, so it is naturally the perfect site for a building that exceeds the size of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome by 95,847 square feet.

When there, one cannot help but wonder the purpose of such a building; though it can hold 18,000 worshipers, it is rare indeed that this is ever the case, as few people actually visit the basilica. Not to mention the more pressing question on priorities: in the late 1980s, early 1990s when it was constructed, Côte d’Ivoire’s economy was in a downward spiral thanks in part to Houphouet-Boigny’s mismanaged cocoa policies. To spend all that money to build such a monument when people are falling further into poverty seems a little misguided, to say the least. But we’re not talking about the sanest character in the world, I suppose (the man put his face next to Jesus’ in one of the stained glass windows….)
See anyone familiar?
In his book, Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, renowned economist Paul Collier makes an interesting argument, somewhat in favor of the basilica:

“…societies throughout history have used monumental buildings to construct a shared identity…the creation of a sense of shared identity is very much what leaders should be doing in these societies.”

But he finishes by saying, “whether a cathedral in the president’s home village was the ideal symbol in a society divided by religion and ethnicity might, however, be questioned.” Especially considering that there is strong belief that the basilica was built in part with funding from foreign aid agencies. Not to mention that if this was in fact the reason Houphouet-Boigny built it – for social cohesion – we can say it was an epic fail: Yamoussoukro remains a city with no purpose and the country experienced its first coup d’état just 9 years after the basilica was completed.

the incomplete hospital
The building was consecrated by Pope Jean Paul II in 1990. He said, however, that a hospital had to be constructed before he would come. Ironically, it took just three years to build the basilica, but the “promised” hospital has yet to be finished (23 odd years later?) In a June 16, 2012 article in the Economist, construction workers at the site said that they expected it to be finished by the end of the year. Obviously this is not the case.

When there, the marble reflects the sunlight to such an extent, you can’t look directly at the large expansive courtyard in the front of the basilica. Inside, 70 foot high stained glass windows depict Christ amidst palm trees. Elevators built inside the giant pillars take you up to the upper levels, where you get an astonishing view down the 23 stories. The dome itself weighs over 98 000 tons. Oh and if you happen to be one of the few worshipers that come to the basilica, you can rest assured that you won’t overheat; each individual seat has a built-in air conditioning.
Over the top doesn’t even begin to describe the immensity and the insanity that is the basilica. Enjoy this photo album and try not to ask too many questions about the necessity of such an edifice… just revel in this perfect example of megalomania.

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