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Somalia: Mogadishu cathedral

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Mogadishu cathedral > Somalia > Africa

[Visited: December 2014]

Several years before the civil war in Somalia effectively started, Salvatore Colombo, the Italian bishop of Somalia, was killed while giving mass in the cathedral of Mogadishu in 1989, considered one of the events marking the path to civil war. At the time, it was one of the largest, and most beautiful, cathedrals of all of Africa, built by the Italians in 1928 in Gothic style, with the Cefalù cathedral as an example. Its imposing size proved an insurmountable handicap once the war had started. At first, it was severely damaged during the fighting in the 1990s, and then, when the Islamists were in control of Mogadishu, it was purposely bombed to little more than the ruins that remain today.

Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): Badly damaged detail of a decoration of St Francis in the badly damaged cathedral

We get off our car, and cross the street towards the ruins of the cathedral. On the left, a fragile slice of what once was one of the bell towers, is strangely standing, against all odds, like a finger pointing to the sky for help. Wide stairs lead to what once must have been a beautiful entrance. On old pictures, a portal with three arches can be seen - nothing remains. A large cross above the opening in the wall leaves no doubt that this used to be a Christian place of worship. Part of a tree has been placed on the ground to block the entrance, but we climb past it, and enter the ruins of the cathedral. The roof is gone, but it is still easy to see the outline of the aisles. I walk the aisle towards the altar; instead of a beautiful bride on my side, two guards walk on my left and right, with their AK47s ready. The columns are still there, they still support an arched wall, and they lead to the altar on the far side. High above us, a religious scene depicts Jezus on a cross, surrounded by some of his followers, carved out in stone. In the two side aisles, I see piles of rubbish where people were once praying, and where, I imagine, were once statues and paintings of Biblical figures and scenes.

Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): Once a building of outstanding beauty, the cathedral of Mogadishu has been reduced to ruins

The altar is vaguely recognizable. On the left side, in a porch above me, I see what remains of what once was a religious scene of Francis of Assisi with two sheep. A vague blue in the sky is still there, I can make out what appears like the town of Assisi, but Francis himself has been decapitated, in what appears to be shooting target practice. Even without being Catholic, it leaves a feeling of deep sadness. On the right side, another porch has a religious scene that is even much more damaged; I think I recognize Virgin Mary in the centre. On the one hand, knowing Italian churches, it is possible to imagine how rich this cathedral must once have looked like, but at the same time, its current state makes it not much more than a carcass, giving an eerie feeling, and a taste of disgust at the dark and ruthless forces that war brings out in people. When I look out of one of the openings in the wall, I see makeshift tents where refugees live. It reminds me that no matter how bad the state of the cathedral, there are so many people who have been affected by the war since many years, who live in dire conditions, and who can have only the slimmest hope of a better life. The task of rebuilding the country, its people, and monuments is overwhelming - apparently, there are plans to rebuild this cathedral. But rebuilding it will be much more difficult than destroying it.

Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): Jezus on a cross above an arch in the ruins of the cathedral
Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): Destroyed decoration in the cathedral
Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): The ruins of the cathedral of Mogadishu
Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): Detail of the floor and columns of the cathedral of Mogadishu
Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): On the west side of the cathedral, refugees have set up camp
Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): The main aisle of the cathedral with the altar at the far end
Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): Rubbish on the floor of the cathedral, with the remains of the western bell tower in the background
Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): Looking across the main aisle towards the altar from outside the main entrance of the cathedral
Picture of Mogadishu cathedral (Somalia): Close-up of what remains of one of the many decorations of the cathedral

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