Algeria’s mega-mosque follows a long tradition of sultans trying to outdo each other

A design of the mosque created in 2008 (AP Photo/KSP Engel und Zimmermann Architekten)

The Guardian website, ever the first with religious news, has an interesting article about the construction of a new mega-mosque in Algiers. The statistics are incredible: not just the highest minaret in the world, but also the huge interior of 20,000 square metres which will accommodate a congregation of 120,000 people. I am not sure whether this will make it the greatest mosque on earth, but it must come pretty close. It is, of course, a political project, undertaken by Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and is somehow supposed to bolster “moderate Islam” in Algeria.

The Algiers mosque, if completed, will be bigger than the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, which may well be one of the points of its construction. There is in mosque building a tendency known as “campanilismo” in Italy – the desire for one community to have the bigger and better bell-tower (campanile) than the community down the road. Indeed, the beautiful city of Istanbul, once the capital of the Islamic world, is full of mosques built by and named after various sultans, each of whom tried to outdo the last in splendour. The most famous of these is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque (some lovely pictures here). To my mind, though, the finer is the earlier Suleymaniye Mosque, built by Suleiman the Magnificent.

These massive buildings have to be political projects, as it is only governments, and authoritarian ones at that, that usually have the power to co-ordinate and finance such huge projects. When it comes to examples of Catholic campanilismo (something that Catholics invented, let us not forget) a recent example is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Ivory Coast, which is bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, and in a place where there are few Catholics, and thus is rarely full. In fact, this basilica was the vanity project of the late president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in whose natal village it stands. Yet vanity projects, expensive as they are, are not to be dismissed out of hand. The ‘new’ St Peter’s in Rome, the brainchild of Pope Julius II, was much criticised at the time, as was King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, started by the saintly King Henry VI.

But why do sultans, kings and presidents so like to build enormous places of worship? Many do so for religious reasons, and that motive must not be discounted. But the political element must not be discounted either. A landmark building is one way of a ruler immortalising his rule, and asserting his policies in something that will not soon pass away; coincidentally, the demolishing of religious buildings is done for the same reason, as we see at the Reformation in this country, and as we still see in Saudi Arabia where the regime has destroyed many historic buildings that somehow did not fit with the official Wahhabist narrative.

One final consideration on political religious architecture. Both Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya had fine cathedrals built in the 1920s, the heyday of Italian colonialism. The former is now a mosque, and greatly altered, and the latter is now derelict. There were never very many Catholics in Libya, and one can speculate about why these cathedrals were built. Yet their present state is sad indeed. They are a reminder that we need to pray for the beleaguered Catholics of Libya and their bishops, as well as other Christians still there.

Meanwhile, good luck to the mosque being built by President Bouteflika in Algiers: may it truly bring about the growth of “moderate Islam”, though it has to be said that the political aspirations of the rulers of old have all perished, even if some of their magnificent buildings, thankfully, have survived.