Columbus’ Cross

Larry Luxner visits the giant Columbus Lighthouse in the Dominican Republic

Inside the giant monument, Dominican soldiers guard Columbus’s tomb. Photograph by Larry LuxnerThe massive Columbus Lighthouse. Photograph by Larry Luxner

From the air it looks like a giant cross. At ground level, it takes on the appearance of a distant, oversized office building. Only on weekend nights does this monstrosity even come close to resembling a lighthouse, with its blue beams of light piercing the evening skies over Santo Domingo.

Yet the Columbus Lighthouse, the Faro de Colón — the most expensive monument in Caribbean history — has become one of its most popular tourist attractions since its inauguration on October 12, 1992 (the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean). Public relations director Wilson Hernández says it already employs 60 people, including 24 guides who can handle tour groups in English, French, Italian and German in addition to their native Spanish.

“This is one of the government’s most daring projects. Economic and political reasons always prevented the Dominican Republic from building the lighthouse,” Hernández explained one leisurely morning, as he guided a reporter through the cavernous complex. “In 1966, when Joaquín Balaguer became president for the first time, he reignited the idea, and in 1986 the government finally decided to build it. It’s no secret that the country’s economic situation wasn’t good, and that this sparked a series of protests by the opposition parties.”

That’s putting it rather lightly. Shortly before Columbus Day in 1992, as the Quincentennial celebrations were reaching their climax, several Dominicans were killed in demonstrations against the lavish Lighthouse project and the celebrations in general.

The main reason for the controversy was the price tag, which nobody seemed to be able to verify. At the October 12 inauguration ceremony, which was attended by Pope John Paul, the Balaguer government announced that the lighthouse had cost 100 million pesos (US$8 million). But José Francisco Peña Gómez, a leading candidate for the Dominican presidency, claimed the imported Italian marble alone cost $9 million. Most experts say the project cost at least $50 million, and James Ferguson, author of The Dominican Republic: Beyond the Lighthouse, put the figure as high as $250 million.

Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of money for a four-storey white reinforced concrete monolith 210 meters long, 40 metres high and 33 metres wide.

The British architect J. L. Greave, who submitted the winning design for the Lighthouse back in 1929, wrote some 73 years after it was first conceived: “The Lighthouse is not only a monument to glorify Columbus as a man. A monument of such importance can only glorify an ideal … that force we call progress toward the unknown, by which God is represented in the Christian world and symbolized by the cross.”

Elaborate brass lamps line a narrow canyon stretching the entire length of the cross, highlighted by the dates of Columbus’s four voyages to the New World. On the outside are carved the names of all the South American republics and Caribbean islands discovered by the great admiral. Inside is the Columbus mausoleum, which has been moved in its entirety from the 16th- century cathedral in Santo Domingo. Dominican guards in immaculate white uniforms and armed with silver bayonets surround the tomb, which supposedly contains the admiral’s remains. They change positions every 10 minutes or so in an elaborate ceremony that sets tourists gaping and cameras clicking.

“The mausoleum didn’t cost a cent because it was already in the cathedral,” says Hernández. “And Japan donated the fibre-glass panels that protect the mausoleum from the wind.”

In addition to the tomb, the Columbus Lighthouse will eventually contain six museums dedicated to the history of the project itself; a library holding rare books on the explorer’s life; a cartographic display of ancient maps; an art museum of Columbus portraits; a museum dedicated to underwater archaeology; and an exhibit of historic ceramic pieces from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

For now, several nations – ranging from Argentina to the Republic of China — have permanent exhibits on the first level of the lighthouse, as does neighbouring Puerto Rico. All original 13 colonies of the United States are represented. Plans call for an eventual 41- country display on the first and fourth levels. The second and third levels are reserved for temporary exhibitions.

Of special interest in one display case is a bulletin from the Dominican Embassy in Washington, DC, dated April 15, 1948, in which the Lighthouse project is estimated to cost $5 million. According to the pamphlet, “discussion of the proposal for almost a century, however, has not been time wasted. Out of the years of consideration has come a truly magnificent conception, the physical realisation of which may very well take its place, eventually, as one of the wonders of the world.”

Day or night, the light itself is off- limits to regular tourists, though special visitors can reach it with permission climbing 134 steps in the sweltering heat (the building has no elevators). From the light, there is a 360-degree view of the faraway glitzy hotels along Santo Domingo’s Malecón, as well as the new apartments built for the 2,000 poor families who were forcibly evicted by the government to make way for the Lighthouse.

On a clear weekend night, a crucifix of light is projected five or six kilometres into the sky. Airline pilots see the beacon long before beginning their descent into the newly renovated Las Americas international Airport.

Gleave, who died in 1965, had no way of knowing that his project would become so controversial, or that the monument would require its own generator because the power supply is so unreliable. Nevertheless, his descendants attended the monument’s inauguration along with the Pope, who said a special mass, and King Juan Carlos of Spain. Ironically, President Balaguer himself, the moving force behind the project, couldn’t go: he was attending the funeral of his sister.