While many visitors to sub-Saharan Africa know the larger cities as pick-up and drop-off points for trips into the hinterlands, the Ivory Coast’s largest city of Abidjan merits a longer stay. The central business district of the city is filled with creative architectural ventures and the nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral is no exception. Situated at one of the higher vantage points of Le Plateau, the tower cross dominates the landscape. But St. Paul’s is not only a fascinating sight in an African urban environment; it also played an important role in the country’s difficult recent past.
St. Paul’s is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Abidjan and was designed by Italian architect Aldo Spirito. Construction of the church was completed in 1985 and the product was a futuristic and unique structure. My hotel was a short walk from St. Paul’s, but the morning humidity was nonetheless oppressive, especially since I had spent the last few months enjoying the Ethiopian dry season. Awe at the sheer size of the cross-shaped tower was the first sensation that hit me as I entered the grounds.
I was excited for the views from the church tower, but the entrance to the tower stairs was locked. A knock on a large side door to the main building brought out an employee who informed me that the man with the keys would arrive around noon – I would need to kill an hour then ascend in the mid-day Ivorian tropical heat. The walls around the tower were filled with colorful, carved biblical scenes. Some trees nearby, one with burnt orange leaves, provided shade when I needed a break.
Signs with scripture references, such as the one below citing the Gospel of Luke, appeared at various points on the lawns around the cathedral. At the main entrance to the church, a quote from the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Ephesians.
After opening the door to the cathedral, I fully appreciated the building’s size and beauty. Long wooden pews run downhill in a v-shape, narrowing as they approach the altar. The stained glass on either side of the seating arrangements allows soft light to filter inside. During the country’s post-electoral violence of 2010-11, nearly 2000 people of all faiths gathered in this spot in hopes of finding safety from the armed men roaming the streets of Abidjan. The struggle between rival political factions resulted in thousands of deaths – mostly civilian – and many more displaced individuals.
My meanders around and inside the church had consumed enough time for the key keeper to arrive. With little English on his part, I was forced to rely on my rudimentary French. The first order of business was signing the guest book and a donation to the church. The key keeper explained that roof of the church, which I would see from above shortly, had been badly damaged during the post-electoral violence. In the book, visitors had written down their names and the amount donated, sometimes accompanied by a message. I am usually skeptical of forced donations (why not just charge admission?), but I complied to support the repair efforts.
I used the light of my phone to ensure that I didn’t trip as I climbed the narrow staircase in near darkness. A first platform gave me a view of the damage to the roof of the church, which certainly would need significant repairs to restore its structural integrity.
Another set of stairs led us to some sublime vistas of Abidjan. From these heights, the city appears plopped in the middle of a series of lagoons. On the other side of the platform, colorful houses and shops extend into the distance.
I was eminently satisfied with the hours I spent walking around St. Paul’s Cathedral and the experience of ascending its tower. What struck me most was the important role the church played in the recent, painful spate of violence that affected Abidjan and other parts of the Ivory Coast. I sincerely hope that the repairs progress sufficiently and that this beautiful set of buildings is available for further travelers to enjoy.