TINY air-conditioning ducts have been hand-carved into the wooden pews by Italian carpenters, potentially cooling the backs of 7,000 worshippers, though on a recent Sunday morning there were only a few dozen present to hear the mass conducted by a Polish priest.
The congregation sits surrounded by stained-glass windows rising 70 feet from the floor towards an elaborately decorated cupola reaching a height of 500 feet. Electric lifts hidden inside towering stone columns transport the faithful to the top, from where they can look out across Yamoussoukro, an overgrown village that is nominally the capital of Côte d’Ivoire.
Basilique Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace), as the Catholic church is known, adjoins the walled compound of the first Ivorian post-independence leader, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who commissioned the basilica in the mid-1980s after decreeing that his home village should become the nation’s capital. To this day, not a single ministry or embassy has moved from Abidjan, the commercial hub. (The former president, who died in 1993, is pictured next to Jesus in one stained-glass panel.)
The $300m monument is a replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and marginally taller than the original. When the Ivorian government invited Pope John Paul II to consecrate it in 1990, he voiced mild displeasure but agreed to come on one condition: a hospital for the poor was to be built next door. Houphouët-Boigny basked in the glory of the papal visit, yet the pope’s wish was neglected. Until now.
Keen to move his government away from plot-ridden Abidjan, where police uncovered coup plans on June 12th, the current president, Alassane Ouattara, has poured new money into the capital. Cranes and cement-mixers toil behind a metal fence running alongside the basilica. A hospital entrance-hall is taking shape. Workers on the site report a shortage of building materials, but they expect the first patients before the year is out, a mere two decades late. Will ministers and ambassadors follow?