Architecture of the Middle Niger River in Mali:

Conformity, Innovation, and Diversity



Located near the main road between Djenne and Mopti and not far to the north of Somadougou, Hamdallahi (which means praise to God) was the city that Sekou Amadou established, named, and blessed in about 1818 as the capital of the Fulani (or fulbe) Empire of Macina. The city was relatively atypical in sub-Saharan Africa in that it was walled, not only with one, but with two sets of walls. The inner wall, about fifteen feet high and made of small stones carefully placed together, enclosed the palace of Sekou Amadou: the outer wall—made of mud—surrounded the entire city. These walls helped to transform a settlement of cattle herders into the capital of a major pre-colonial empire in Africa.

Widely spread across western Africa, the Fulani are known for their highly refined sense of beauty expressed in body decorations, in objects they make and own, and in their thatched cattle-herder homes. Sekou Amadou’s innovative walled city embodied the ideals of his brand of Islam in a theocratic state, but also may have embodied Fulani ideals of beauty.

The houses that the cattle herders use are little understood in the canons of African Architecture. These houses are built by cattle herder women, and are, in theory, owned by the women. The house form consists of a domed structure of slender limbs with a layer of thatch that is held in place by carefully wrapped and pliant bark or by rope. The bark is easily obtained from the environment, whereas rope must be purchased.

Sekou Amadou must have had masons among his followers, and after his conquest of Djenne he had access to many more. In addition to their work at Hamdallahi, the masons under his patronage also built the great mosque at Djenne that immediately preceded the current one. That mosque, unlike the current one, had no towers. It would have shared elements with the mosque that he built inside the city of Hamdallahi.

Little remains of Hamdallahi except for the remnants of the walls that encircled and defined the city and only a hint of buildings within the palace. Tombs of Sekou Amadou’s family and those of other leaders of Macina, however, are carefully preserved. Outside the walls of the palace is a place where many cattle herders still live with their livestock and their unmistakable domed houses of thatch.