Although few people have heard of it, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is the world's largest church. It was commissioned by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of the Ivory Coast. Intended as a memorial to himself, the basilica was part of Houphouët-Boigny's grand plan to transform his hometown of Yamoussoukro into the country's administrative capital. Afforded the status of Catholic minor basilica by the Pope, it is known locally by its French name - Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix.
Construction & Cost
The basilica's cornerstone was laid in 1985 and construction was completed by 1989. On September 10 1990, Pope John Paul II traveled to Yamoussoukro to accept the basilica as a gift from Houphouët-Boigny on behalf of the Catholic Church. He consecrated the church at the same time on the understanding that a hospital would be built nearby to benefit the region's poor. However, construction of the hospital was delayed and later halted during the civil war years so that it only opened in 2015.
The basilica is perhaps most famous for its astronomical cost. Although the exact figure has never been revealed, most sources agree on a total cost of around $300 million. The expense is claimed to have doubled the Ivory Coast's national debt at a time when the country was already going through an economic crisis. The project was widely criticized by people who felt that the money could have been better spent - especially since many Ivorians were without access to running water or adequate sanitation.
The Largest Church in the World
Although it is not an exact replica, the design of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is heavily influenced by the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican City. It is bigger than its European counterpart, making it the largest church in the world (a claim verified by the Guinness Book of Records). The basilica measures 640 feet/195 meters in length and 518 feet/158 meters in height. It has a total area of almost 323,000 square feet/ 30,000 square meters. Although the architect deliberately made the dome of the basilica lower than that of the Basilica of St. Peter, the addition of a huge cross gives it a taller overall height.
Despite having the largest exterior, several other churches surpass it in terms of internal volume. While the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace can accommodate 18,000 worshippers (7,000 seated in the nave and 11,000 standing), the Basilica of St. Peter can accommodate 60,000.
Building Materials & Features
The basilica was designed by Lebanese-born architect Pierre Fakhoury and constructed using marble imported from Italy. It also boasts 75,000 square feet/7,000 square meters of French contemporary stained glass. Of course, Houphouet-Boigny's likeness appears in one stained glass panel alongside Jesus and the apostles. The pews in the nave are carved from West African Iroko wood. Outside, the basilica's circular colonnade is made up of 272 Doric columns and the complex is completed by a separate rectory and papal villa.
The Basilica Today
Houphouët-Boigny hoped that the church would be "the greatest church in the world" and that it would become a place of pilgrimage for African Catholics. However, the villa reserved for papal visits has stood empty since the Pope consecrated the basilica in 1990 and regular services are attended by just a few hundred people. In fact, despite its size and the huge expense of building it, the basilica is not even Yamoussoukro's main place of worship. That title belongs to the Cathedral of Saint Augustine, seat of the Diocese of Yamoussoukro.
The only time that the basilica has been filled to capacity was in February 1994, for Houphouët-Boigny's funeral. One reason for the church's underwhelming congregation could be that in a 2014 census, only 17.2% of Ivorians identified as Catholic. The majority religion in the Ivory Coast is Islam. Nevertheless, the basilica remains a point of interest for visiting tourists and a source of pride for local people.
How to Visit
The basilica is well worth visiting if only for the incongruous sight of its magnificent façade rising out of an otherwise barren landscape. English-speaking guides are available to give tours and admission costs CFA 2000 (approximately USD 3.50). If you want to use your camera, expect to pay an additional fee of CFA 500. The basilica is open from 8:00am to 5:30pm from Monday to Saturday (but closes for lunch from midday to 2:00pm). On Sunday it is open from 2:00pm to 5:00pm.
To reach the basilica from downtown Yamoussoukro, hail a taxi. If you don't have access to your own vehicle, you can reach Yamoussoukro itself via plane (the basilica is a 20-minute drive from the city's airport) or UTB bus. There are regular bus services to and from the Ivory Coast's economic capital, Abidjan. If you decide to stay overnight, the best-ranked Yamoussoukro hotel, Hotel President, is a 10-minute drive away. Be warned that although it has a swimming pool, golf club and restaurant, TripAdvisor reviewers criticize its cleanliness.