Architecture of the Middle Niger River in Mali:

Conformity, Innovation, and Diversity



Located in the Niger Delta on an island in the Bani River, Djenne is one of the oldest cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Many make the journey by ferry to this historic city to visit the narrow, winding streets and its now world-famous mosque (Cover Photo; Figs. 3 and 10). Its origins date to the third century BCE at what is now called Jenne Jeno (or old Djenne) just west of the current city, which was founded sometime around the year 850 CE.

In addition to serving as an endpoint for trans-Saharan trade and a major commercial city for the region, Djenne has also been a major center of Islamic learning. To this day, the city has about forty-two koranic schools providing students with the opportunity for an education that might otherwise elude them. The instruction from these schools also permits young men to advance in the Islamic hierarchy. Outside these schools, one hears its male students reciting or chanting in unison passages from the Koran in Arabic (Fig. 7).

The current great mosque was built about 1907 on a site where an earlier mosque was first built during the thirteenth century. This magnificent structure is the largest mud building on earth, and this fact alone attracts many tourists. Three towers, or minarets, the tallest of which approaches 100 feet, enliven the kibla (or outer wall that faces the direction of Mecca).

The mosque at Djenne is made of mud bricks and wooden timbers, some of which can be seen projecting through the outer surfaces of the walls. One of the important functions of these timbers is to provide maintenance: they allow men and boys to repair the exterior walls by applying wet mud to them, which hardens into a richly textured surface in the strong African sun. The periodic repairs to the mosque are done by boys from the neighborhoods of Djenne who climb over the surface plastering and re-plastering. They are helped by women, who bring the mud to the work site. Although all building progresses under the direction of masons, the repairs to the exterior are carried out by non-specialists who are driven by their desire to participate in a community endeavor with joy and enthusiasm.

The government of Mali has listed the mosque as a national monument and in 2004 and 2005 it was extensively restored. Although listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the mosque is still officially closed to non-Muslims. One of two signs outside the kibla reads (translated from French), “Entrance Forbidden to Non-Muslims.” The other sign is more inviting, reminding visitors that this structure is a monument of world heritage and emphasizing the desire to maintain respect for the sacred nature of the building. Despite this restriction, many non-Muslims make the journey to see the exterior of the mosque during their travels in West Africa.