Architecture of the Middle Niger River in Mali:
Conformity, Innovation, and Diversity
The Sudanic Style
The Middle Niger has many examples of a style of architecture called Sudanic. This word (also Sudanese or Sudano-Sahelian) translates from the French adjective Soudanais, and it derives from the Arabic term Bilad al-Sudan, which means “Land of Blacks.” Early Arab travelers used this term in writing about the people with black skin who lived in the land that stretches across the African continent south of the Sahara. The building style, seen in large urban mosques and small village mosques as well, includes some of the best known examples of architecture in sub-Saharan Africa (Figs. 3, 4, and 5).
Construction of mosques in the Sudanic style relies on mud bricks and the expertise of masons who know how to work with mud, how to enhance it with dung or straw, and how to build sturdy walls. The mud bricks are held together with mortar and then the outer surfaces are plastered with wet mud. The heat of the sun bakes this coating into a hard and durable material. The Sudanic style has a timeless quality; and yet because these buildings have been photographed extensively, we know that they have all undergone changes during the twentieth century.
In addition to mud, wood is an important secondary material used for doors, fences, gates, and ceilings. At the Great Mosque of Mopti, for example, the refined woodwork reflects the knowledge of skilled craftsmen whose trade has been passed on from generation to generation.
The timbers that protrude beyond the walls of the building are called toron. These timbers are both decorative and structural. The protruding wood helps characterize the basic ‘look’ of the style, but the timbers also hold up the building. They help form a permanently embedded system of scaffolding, which is important for the maintenance and repair of the walls.
Throughout Mali, building takes place during the dry season. The annual flooding of the Niger means that water for making bricks is most abundant at the end of the rainy season (from about December through March). This period marks a break in agricultural work and allows time to repair existing buildings or to begin new construction. Work sites are created near the places where the activity is to occur, and soil is brought to the edge of ponds or streams, where bricks are formed and left to dry.