French architecture: Marseille's 24-year wait for mosque

Infighting has stalled progress on the project in what is one of Europe's biggest cultural melting pots

Construction on the mosque barely began before stopping for over a decade.

The Great Mosque of Marseille is, to coin a French expression, a serpent de mer (a topic that refuses to die and keeps resurfacing) – a nearly 25-year mammoth architectural project that is yet to be constructed. 

On May 20, 2010, the city’s mayor and a number of journalists attended the laying of its foundation stone on the site of a former abattoir in the city’s 15th arrondissement.

Covering 6,000m2 and with a capacity of 7,000, it would be France’s biggest mosque. 

Around 10% of the French population are Muslim – one of the highest in Europe, according to 2019 Insee figures. 

Marseille has the country’s biggest Muslim community. Yet, there has been no further progress in years.

Only a temporary façade has been erected and still stands – covered in graffiti – among rubble. 

Plans first approved in 2006

Frédéric Roustan and Maxime Repaux, architects at the Bureau Architecture Méditerranée (BAM), which came up with the initial designs, said: “The project is still ready to be presented and approved. We are ready when the politicians are.” 

Djamel Zekri, president of the departmental Muslim council, told La Provence in February that the organisation was in talks with the mairie, perhaps signalling a warming of relations after the city pulled the plug on the project in 2016. 

Mr Repaux said: “Any suggestion to get this project back on track suits us. Let’s just say rivalries need to be set aside.” 

Giving Marseille its own mosque was a long-standing aim of several imams of the city from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, four decades after a first – but aborted – attempt on the Butte Saint-Charles in 1937. 

The so-called Grande Mosquée project got a boost when Jean-Claude Gaudin, city mayor from 1995 to 2020, said in 2001 that he aimed to turn the dream into reality. 

The council negotiated and finally approved the project in July 2006, choosing Place des Abattoirs as the location. 

The Mosquée de Marseille association, set up to find funding, secured €22million of investment from five Muslim countries, including €7million from Algeria. 

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'More than just a mosque'

The mairie organised an architectural competition, in which eight firms took part, and BAM won with 11 votes out of a possible 12. 

“That was quite surprising, actually, because we remained very conventional. We expected that everybody would have gone down the same road, but we were the only ones,” said Mr Repaux. 

BAM’s design features three areas, each communicating with the others and serving as transitional spaces between the city and the mosque. 

The first area was designed for prayers, with a second leading to a restaurant and tea salon. 

The third comprised a library and theological school for hosting courses, events, class visits and conferences. 

“This is more than a mosque and a place for prayer, it is a cultural centre,” said Mr Roustan. 

One distinctive feature is its minaret – a relatively rare feature in France, with only 64 recorded by the Interior Ministry in 2012. 

BAM’s sound system includes small speakers pointing inwards, and a green light that reflects on a glass dome during the call for prayer. 

The design features stone as its main construction material in a tribute to Fernand Pouillon, the celebrated post-war architect and town planner who favoured the material in the city’s rebuilding. 

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Internal divides stall progress

The lack of progress is a reminder of how powerless the architects remain in the face of diplomatic and political rivalries. 

All eyes turn to the Mosquée de Marseille association, which both Mr Repaux and Mr Roustan hold responsible for the gridlock. 

The project had been run by Nourredine Cheikh, an Algerian who led talks with the mairie for years, found the location, negotiated the rent and secured the €7million investment promised by the Algerian government. 

Several days after the inauguration in 2010, the association elected imam Abderrahmane Ghoul instead, accusing Mr Cheikh of a lack of transparency. 

Exactly what happened next has never been made public but countries that had initially agreed on funding slowly backtracked and the association never paid the €62,259 rent due to the mairie. 

Construction was gradually put on the backburner and the lease was eventually cancelled by Marseille’s mairie in 2016. 

Samia Ghali (Socialist), then-senator of the area, said: “The people of Marseille have been promised a mosque for 20 years. It’s a shame.” 

City lacks a space for worship

The project has highlighted the lack of mosques and places of worship in the city, pushing people into increasingly crowded spaces and – in the most extreme cases – on to the streets. 

While the Mosquée des Cèdres and the Mosquée Arrahma opened in 2019 and 2023 respectively, Marseille has yet to meet the demands of its estimated 250,000 Muslim population, of which between 40,000 and 70,000 are mosque-goers. 

Mosquée (mosque) in French is used for the traditional building but also to describe a salle de prières (prayer room). 

Combining both senses of the word, there are between 59 and 83 mosques in Marseille – the exact number depending on the source. The majority are simply rooms, some with signs on the door to show their function, but many unmarked. 

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In terms of traditional mosques, Marseille has just a handful. Nassera Benmarnia, a local councillor, told the Jeune Afrique newspaper in 2011: “Three or four are defined as ‘mosques’ because they are closest in architectural form, but none really merits the title.”

Marseille is still awaiting a mosque that is large and prestigious enough to honour a city that prides itself on being a cultural and religious melting pot and what British travel writer and TV presenter Johny Pitts described as the “Mecca” of diversity. 

“The chosen site is still available,” said Mr Repaux. However, it is now also being eyed as a potential location for an audiovisual production centre as Marseille seeks to position itself as a ‘film city’. 

“Marseille has a tradition of tolerance and respect between communities that is unique. The Great Mosque would reaffirm that,” he said.