Not everyone goes to church to pray—for many travelers, houses of worship are windows into a destination's culture and history. They are often architectural masterpieces, and full of beautiful, spiritual art. Often, they are imposing structures that dominate the skyline with their spires, domes, and crosses.
Many churches compete for the title of the world's largest: Seville has the largest cathedral, while Germany’s Ulm Minster is the world’s tallest. And the claim for “longest” cathedral in Europe goes to Winchester.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, however, gets the official billing by Guinness World Records. Located in the Ivory Coast, the church measures 640 feet long and 518 feet high. Lebanese-born architect Pierre Fakhoury designed the West African complex in the style of Rome's St. Peter's Basilica. When it opened in 1990, it was presented as a gift to the Vatican by then-president Félix Houphouet-Boigny.
It might be more accurate to call it the largest church building, or largest church structure, since technically, Saint Peter’s in the Vatican and Manhattan’s Saint John the Divine both eclipse Yamoussoukro in terms of interior volume.
Nevertheless, the visual impact of Our Lady of Peace, which covers a total land area of almost 323,000 square feet, shouldn’t be understated.
Beautifully landscaped, the basilica makes an immediate impression when seen from above: surrounding the main structure is a sweeping esplanade with exactly 272 Doric columns. Of note, too, is the color: a specific type of local sandstone wraps the facade in a pinkish hue. Beyond the colonnade, an intricate belt of French-style gardens offers a sharp contrast to the basilica’s stark desert surroundings. From day one, opposition surrounded the construction. Many locals felt the project was a misuse of badly-needed government funds (the final cost, well over $300 million, is said to have doubled the national debt).
A daily mass schedule welcomes visitors and worshippers alike, and the isolated location only heightens its majestic appearance. Each morning, the muffled chime of a dozen bronze bells can be heard rising from the Basilica’s flanking chapels—at night, from a height of 518 feet, a gold-plated cross illuminates the apex of the dome, visible for miles in all directions.
Inside, the work of 1,500 artisans is displayed in the form of towering stained glass windows and gleaming Italian marble floors. The centerpiece of the dome depicts a 23-foot-wide golden dove engulfed in flames.
Ivory Coast continues to promote the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace as a main tourist attraction, yet what is most apparent about the church is the utter lack of crowds. Unlike weatherworn Renaissance churches across Europe, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is characterized by a certain, glaring spotlessness. The roomy, light-filled circular nave boasts enough pews for 8,000 worshippers—though as of now, the congregation numbers just a few hundred.