Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Madame Africa" unites Algeria and France

The basilica of Notre Dame d'Afrique, towering above the Mediterranean on the heights of the Bologhine district of Algiers, welcomed a small but unusual crowd on Monday.

Algerian dignitaries, European ambassadors and political leaders from Marseilles found themselves in the same pews as they celebrated the restoration, after three years of work, of the Christian edifice erected in 1872.  Until recently a symbol of French colonisation, the basilica is now one of the most visited sites in the Algerian capital.

"It's a chef d'oeuvre" said the delighted archbishop of Algiers, the Jordanian-born Ghaleb Bader, "a chef d'oeuvre that demonstrates the understanding and collaboration that exists between the authorities and the Church as well as between the religions and peoples on the two sides of the Mediterranean".

View from Madame Afrique
Each party has dug deep to finance the 5 million euros necessary for the project. The Algerian state, represented by the minister of religious affairs, the secretary general of the FLN (National Liberation Front) and the préfet of Algiers, has spent 560,000 euros, whilst the city of Marseilles, the département of the Bouches du Rhône and the region of Provence Alpes-Côte d'Azur contributed 360,000 euros each.  The European Union was responsible for one million euros and private companies from Algeria and France made up the remainder with smaller donations.

And the result is there for all to see. Weakened by the shock waves of the earthquake that struck Algeria on May 23, 2003,  "Madame Africa", as the basilica is called here, has had a facelift. The project was entrusted to the architect Xavier David and the French company Girard, who were responsible for the restoration of Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles, which is contemporaneous with its Algerian cousin.  Their work has enabled the basilica's pale pink dome and its exterior Hispano-Moresque mosaics to recover their former lustre.
Neither the past nor the present intervened to spoil the day, with the Algerian authorities playing the appeasement card, and no one considered lingering in front of the mosaics dedicated to the monks of Tibehirine in the basilica's right-hand apse.  It has been a long time now since other signs of the past have been banished, such as a family ex voto from 1921.  Though still clearly visible on the right of the naive, the addition of a small piece of marble means that the ex voto asks Notre Dame de l'Afrique to protect "the whole of Algeria" rather than "French Algeria". In an aside Father Bernard Lebfèvre, the basilica's rector, stressed that: "There are only the visible wounds left, everything else has healed over".

For several days now, at the other end of Algeria, another restoration work has been under way: the renovation of the basilica of St Augustine at Annaba.    

The above article originally appeared in French in Le Monde and was abridged and translated by Dr David Winter of Culturissima.

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