No one is a stranger to the excesses exhibited by dictators from around the world. From Europe to Asia, Latin America and Africa, history has shown us many displays of these excesses. There have been statues, monuments, parades, performances and simply lavish living that have taken advantage of mostly poor nations. The Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro is one of those examples. It is a direct replica of the Vatican and is deemed as the world’s largest church. One would think this building would be in located somewhere in Europe, Latin America or Southeast Asia. However the tiny country of Ivory Coast is where it was built.
Estimated to have cost $300 million and commissioned by then-President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the Ivory Coast’s first President and third longest-serving leader in the world at the time of his death (after Fidel Castro and Kim Il-sung of North Korea). Houphouët-Boigny was ruling a country already in dire financial straits but still chose to build a luxurious Vatican clone in the outskirts of his hometown of Yamoussoukro, surrounded by poverty.
The Basilica took three years to build, headed by Lebanese architect, Pierre Fakhoury, and an army of day laborers who worked around the clock to complete the construction. It can hold up to 18,000 people. When the Vatican learned of its copycat design, Pope John Paul II requested that the observatory crowning the dome be built slightly lower than the height of St. Peter’s dome. The Ivorian President complied, but then went ahead and topped his dome with a huge gold cross, earning it yet another title of the tallest church in Christendom. Houphouët-Boigny offered it as a gift to the Pope, who consecrated the church in 1990, under the condition that a hospital be built nearby. The papal villa, which was built exclusively to house the Pope on his visits has stood empty ever since.
The irony about building a structure of this magnitude and religious significance is that the majority of the Ivory Coast population are non-christian, over 60%.