Architecture of the Middle Niger River in Mali:
Conformity, Innovation, and Diversity
The Niger, Africa’s third longest river, begins its journey of more than 2,600 miles in the mountains of Guinea. Flowing toward the northeast through Mali, it enters a region between the cities of Bamako and Timbuktu known as the Middle Niger. It is here that the Niger widens and is joined by a second river, the Bani River. These two rivers together with a lake, the Lac Debo, form the impressive Inland Niger Delta (See Map).
Intended for a general audience, this essay focuses on building traditions along the Middle Niger River and on the Inland Niger Delta. The Niger River and its delta hold tremendous importance for trade, farming, fishing, and transportation (Figs. 1 and 2). Major population centers have flourished there since the third century BCE. Even today, three of the four largest cities of Mali—Bamako, Segou, and Mopti—are on the Middle Niger.
Throughout the Middle Niger, as in other areas of Mali, the Islamic religion has sustained a long and complicated past. Although Mali is now approximately 95% Muslim, it is also a secular state with a constitution that grants freedom of religion to all people. It accepts many belief systems, including Islam, pre-Islamic African religions, and Christianity. In southern Mali, masking traditions continue side-by-side with Islamic beliefs that theoretically do not allow the making of images. The spread of various sects of Islam helps to explain some of the most interesting architecture in Mali today: namely, the mosques, or places of worship.
Mosques are among the most visible signs of the Islamic religion in Mali, and those in the Sudanic style (explained below) have attracted considerable international interest (Figs. 3, 4, and 5). The debated origins of this style go back to the fourteenth century and to the city of Timbuktu; or possibly, even earlier to the eleventh century and to the kingdom of Ghana. Documenting traditional village mosques and restoring the famous ones received the financial support of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and the work has been published (see bibliography under Schutyser). Images of the documented village mosques of the Inland Niger Delta are now even available online at www.archnet.org. Three Sudanic mosques, one from a town and two from cities, are featured in this brochure. Other mosques are illustrated in the companion web site.