In the centre of Oran, Algeria on the Boulveard Hammou Boutelis, is a strange sight in a hugely predominant Islamic city. Its a somewhat tatty but clearly originally beautiful cathedral. Built for the predominantly French expat community at the beginning of the 1900’s The Cathedral Sacre Coeur was consecrated in 1930 before being turned into a regional library in 1984 and then into its current state as a public library in 1996.
The exterior is imposing, as any cathedral worth its salt should be, and walking up the 30 wide concrete steps towards the beautifully ornate doors forces the unseen unspoken obligation to silence, and yet, as you reach the interior, the babble of vendors, visitors and vagabonds is definitely more than just background noise.
Upon entry from the harsh summer sunlight, it takes second or two to readjust, but shortly you become aware of what was once, back in the day, an imposing building. High vaulted ceilings, the paint peeling or missing in most places now due to neglect, and above the alter, what remains of a beautiful set of stained glassed windows.
Directly inside both the doors, surrounding the visitor is evidence of the building’s new life, swathes of shelves, disappearing back into the cloisters and alcoves, replete with books on every possible subject. It seems slightly incongruous to see books on the Islamic faith for sale in a Catholic church, but it doesn’t appear to faze the librarians or booksellers, with every question posed resulting in the inevitable “Inshallah” as a reply.
The interior is cool, and a welcome respite during the sticky sweltering summer days in Oran, well worth a visit to see an old colonial gem.