Sunday, May 30, 2010

Beauty of mud. Djenné.


Timbuktu may be the most well known place in Mali but the more reading I do on Mali, the more I realize that the town of Djenné is not to be overlooked.

Djenné is a small town situated on the floodplain between the Niger and Bani rivers at the southern end of the Inland Niger delta. During the rainy season, the rivers overflow changing the town into an island that is accessed by causeways.


The history of Djenné is closely linked with that of Timbuktu. Between the 15th and 17th centuries much of the trans-Saharan trade in goods such as salt, gold and slaves that moved in and out of Timbuktu passed through Djenné.

In addition to its commercial importance, Djenné was also known as a center of Islamic learning and pilgrimage, attracting students and pilgrims from all over West Africa.  

Djenné, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, is famous for its distinctive mud-brick (adobe) architecture, most notably the Great Mosque which is in fact, the largest mud brick building in the world. 

History has it that the first mosque was built in 1240 by the sultan Koi Kunboro, who converted to Islam and turned his palace into a mosque. Very little is known about the appearance of the first mosque, but it was considered too sumptuous by Sheikh Amadou, the ruler of Djenné in the early nineteenth century. The Sheikh built a second mosque in the 1830's and allowed the first one to fall into disrepair.  Construction of the present mosque was begun in 906 and completed in 1907.

The annual flooding of the Bani River causes Djenné to become an island, and unusually high floods can inundate parts of the city.  So, the Great Mosque is built on a raised plinth platform of rectangular sun-dried mud bricks that are held together by mud mortar and plastered over with mud.  So far, the platform has successfully protected the mosque from even the most severe floods.



The walls of the mosque vary in thickness between sixteen and twenty-four inches, depending upon their height. These massive walls are necessary in order to bear the weight of the tall structure and also provide insulation from the sun’s heat. During the day, the walls gradually warm up from the outside; at night, they cool down again. This helps the interior of the mosque to stay cool all day long. The Great Mosque also has roof vents with ceramic caps. These caps, made by the town’s women, can be removed at night to ventilate the interior spaces.

The Great Mosque has three towers, each 11 meters high and topped with an ostrich egg which symbolize fertility and purity.  Wooden beams protruding from the building serve an aesthetic purpose as well as scaffolding, to repair the building after the rainy season.

Although the Great Mosque incorporates architectural elements found in mosques throughout the Islamic world, it reflects the aesthetics and materials used for centuries by the people of Djenné.  Its use of local materials, such as mud and palm wood, its incorporation of traditional architectural styles, and its adaptation to the hot climate of West Africa are expressions of its elegant connection to the local environment.

The Grand Mosque has survived all these years due to the efforts of the entire community of Djenné which takes an active role in the mosque's maintenance through a unique annual festival. Though the festival includes music and food, its primary objective is to repair the damage inflicted on the mosque over the course of the previous year.... mainly erosion caused by the annual rains and cracks caused by changes in temperature and humidity.  Essentially, the entire building is replastered with mud every year.  Unbelievable!!


Aside from the Great Mosque, the town is filled with interesting mud brick buildings and there's an interesting open air market on Mondays.  You know how much I love markets!

I'll be in Djenné around the end of rainy season so I'm not sure what condition the Great Mosque and the other mud brick buildings will be in.  But no matter, this is all so fascinating to me that I can't wait to see this place....!