By - Victoria Akindele
Djenné is a town in central Mali situated on an island in the Niger River delta. Founded between 800 and 1250 C.E., Djenné has been described as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest cities developed into a hub for traders to transport their gold, salt and even slaves in and out of Timbuktu and it flourished as a great center of commerce, learning, and Islam, which had been practiced from the beginning of the thirteenth century. For thousands of years, residents have lived in homes made of mud so it is not surprising that it became the location for the magnificent Great Mosque, the largest mud brick building in the world.
As one of the wonders of Africa, and one of the most unique religious buildings in the world, the Great Mosque of Djenné, in present-day Mali, is also the greatest achievement of Sudano-Sahelian architecture (Sudano-Sahelian refers to the Sudanian and Sahel grassland of West Africa). It is also the largest mud-built structure in the world. It soon became a political symbol for local residents and for colonial powers like the French who took control of Mali in 1892. Over the centuries, the Great Mosque has become the epicenter of the religious and cultural life of Mali, and the community of Djenné. It is also the site of a unique annual festival called the Crepissage de la Grand Mosquée (Plastering of the Great Mosque).
The Great Mosque that we see today is its third reconstruction, completed in 1907. According to legend, the original Great Mosque was probably erected in the thirteenth century, when King Koi Konboro, Djenné’s twenty-sixth ruler and its first Muslim sultan (king) decided to use local materials and traditional design techniques to build a place of Muslim worship in town. King Konboro’s successors and the town’s rulers added two towers to the mosque and surrounded the main building with a wall. The mosque compound continued to expand over the centuries, and by the sixteenth century, popular accounts claimed half of Djenné’s population could fit in the mosque’s galleries.
The first Great Mosque and its reconstructions
The actual date of construction of the first mosque in Djenné is unknown, but dates as early as 1200 and as late as 1330 have been suggested. The earliest document mentioning the mosque is Abd al-Sadi’s Tarikh al-Sudan which gives the early history, presumably from the oral tradition as it existed in the mid-seventeenth century.
Some of the earliest European writings on the first Great Mosque came from the French explorer René Caillié who wrote in detail about the structure in his travelogue Journal d’un voyage a Temboctou et à Jenné (Journal of a Voyage to Timbuktu and Djenné). There is no other written information on the Great Mosque until the French explorer René Caillié visited Djenné in 1828 and wrote “In Jenné is a mosque built of earth, surmounted by two massive but not high towers; it is rudely constructed, though very large.”
Caillié traveled to Djenné in 1827, and he was the only European to see the monument before it fell into ruin. In his travelogue, he wrote that the building was already in bad repair from the lack of upkeep. In the Sahel—the transitional zone between the Sahara and the humid savannas to the south—adobe and mud buildings such as the Great Mosque require periodic and often annual re-plastering. If re-plastering does not occur, the exteriors of the structures melt in the rainy season. Based on Caillié’s description, his visit likely coincided with a period when the mosque had not been re-plastered for several years, and multiple rainy seasons had probably washed away all the plaster and worn the mud-brick.
Between 1834 and 1836, Seku Amadu, after conquering Djenné during the Tukulor War, closed the mosque and built another mosque not too far from it. French forces, however, demolished Amadu’s mosque when they captured Djenné in April 1893. Soon after, the French journalist Félix Dubois visited the town and described the ruins of the original mosque. At the time of his visit, the interior of the ruined mosque was being used as a cemetery. In his 1897 book, Tombouctou la Mystérieuse (Timbuktu the mysterious), Dubois provides a plan and a drawing as to how he imagined the mosque looked before being abandoned.
The present and reiteration of the Great Mosque was completed in 1907, and some scholars argue that the French constructed it during their period of occupation of the city starting in 1892. However, no colonial documents support this theory. New scholarship supports the idea that the mason’s guild of Djenné built the current mosque with the help of forced laborers from villages of adjacent regions, brought in by French colonial authorities. To accompany and motivate workers, musicians were provided who played drums and flutes. Workers included masons who mixed tons of mud, sand, rice-husks, and water and formed the bricks that shape the current structure.
The present structure of the mosque is rectilinear in plan and is partly enclosed by an exterior wall. An earthen roof covers the building, which is supported by monumental pillars.
The roof has several holes covered by terra-cotta lids, which provide its interior spaces with fresh air even during the hottest days. The façade of the Great Mosque includes three minarets and a series of engaged columns that together create a rhythmic effect.
At the top of the pillars are conical extensions with ostrich eggs placed at the very top, a symbol of fertility and purity in the Malian region. Timber beams throughout the exterior are both decorative and structural. These elements also function as scaffolding for the re-plastering of the mosque during the annual festival of the Crepissage. Compared to images and descriptions of the previous buildings, the present Great Mosque includes several innovations such as a special court reserved for women and a principal terrace in front of the eastern wall which includes two tombs. The larger tomb to the south contains the remains of Almany Ismaïla, an important imam of the eighteenth century. Early in the French colonial period, a pond located on the eastern side of the mosque was filled with earth to create the open area that is now used for the weekly market.
The walls of the Great Mosque are made of sun-baked earth bricks (called ferey), and sand and earth based mortar, and are coated with a plaster which gives the building its smooth, sculpted look. The walls of the building are decorated with bundles of rodier palm (Borassus aethiopum) sticks, called toron, that project about 60 centimetres (2 feet) from the surface. The toron also serve as readymade scaffolding for the annual repairs. Ceramic half-pipes also extend from the roofline and direct rain water from the roof away from the walls.
The mosque is built on a platform measuring about 75 by 75 metres (246 by 246 feet) that is raised by 3 metres (9.8 feet) above the level of the marketplace. The platform prevents damage to the mosque when the Bani river floods. It is accessed by six sets of stairs, each decorated with pinnacles. The main entrance is on the northern side of the building. The outer walls of the Great Mosque are not precisely orthogonal to one another so that the plan of the building has a noticeable trapezoidal outline.
The prayer wall or qibla of the Great Mosque faces east towards Mecca and overlooks the city marketplace. The qibla is dominated by three large, box-like towers or minarets jutting out from the main wall. The central tower is around 16 meters in height. The cone shaped spires or pinnacles at the top of each minaret are topped with ostrich eggs. The eastern wall is about a metre (3 feet) in thickness and is strengthened on the exterior by eighteen pilaster like buttresses, each of which is topped by a pinnacle. The corners are formed by rectangular shaped buttresses decorated with toron and topped by pinnacles.
The prayer hall, measuring about 26 by 50 meters (85 by 164 feet), occupies the eastern half of the mosque behind the qibla wall. The mud-covered, rodier-palm roof is supported by nine interior walls running north-south which are pierced by pointed arches that reach up almost to the roof. This design creates a forest of ninety massive rectangular pillars that span the interior prayer hall and severely reduce the field of view. The small, irregularly-positioned windows on the north and south walls allow little natural light to reach the interior of the hall. The floor is composed of sandy earth. Bundles of rodier palm sticks embedded in the walls of the Great Mosque are used for decoration and serve as scaffolding for annual repairs.
In the prayer hall, each of the three towers in the qibla wall has a niche or mihrab. The imam conducts the prayers from the mihrab in the larger central tower. A narrow opening in the ceiling of the central mihrab connects with a small room situated above roof level in the tower. In earlier times, a crier would repeat the words of the imam to people in the town. To the right of the mihrab in the central tower is a second niche, the pulpit or minbar, from which the imam preaches his Friday sermon.
The towers in the qibla wall do not contain stairs linking the prayer hall with the roof. Instead there are two square towers housing stairs leading to the roof. One set of stairs is located at the south western corner of the prayer hall while the other set, situated near the main entrance on the northern side, is only accessible from the exterior of the mosque. Small vents in the roof are topped with removable inverted kiln-fired bowls, which when removed allow hot air to rise out of the building and so ventilate the interior.
The interior courtyard to the west of the prayer hall, measuring 20 by 46 metres (66 by 151 feet), is surrounded on three sides by galleries. The walls of the galleries facing the courtyard are punctuated by arched openings. The western gallery is reserved for use by women. The Great Mosque can hold up to 3,000 worshipers.
Since the facade’s construction in 1907 only small changes have been made to the design. Rather than a single central niche, the mirhab tower originally had a pair of large recesses echoing the form of the entrance arches in the north wall. The mosque also had many fewer toron with none on the corner buttresses. It is evident from published photographs that two additional rows of toron were added to the walls in the early 1990s.
During the annual festival of the Crepissage de la Grand Mosquée, the entire city contributes to the re-plastering of the mosque’s exterior by kneading into it a mud plaster made from a mixture of butter and fine clay from the alluvial soil of the nearby Niger and Bani Rivers. The entire community renders the unique mosque with banco – a mixture of soil, water, rice bran, shea butter and baobab powder – which protects the building from both erosion, caused by torrential rains, and cracks and fissures inflicted by hot weather. Palm branches are also used as scaffolding during annual repairs.
The men of the community usually take up the task of mixing the construction material. As in the past, musicians entertain them during their labors, while women provide water for the mixture. Elders also contribute through their presence on site, by sitting on terrace walls and giving advice. Mixing work and play, young boys sing, run, and dash everywhere.
Over the years Djenné’s inhabitants have withstood repeated attempts to change the character of their exceptional mosque and the nature of the annual festival. For instance, some have tried to suppress the playing of music during the Crepissage, and foreign Muslim investors have also offered to rebuild the mosque in concrete and tile its current sand floor. Djenné’s community has unrelentingly striven to maintain its cultural heritage and the unique character of the Great Mosque. In 1988, the tenacious effort led to the designation of the site and the entire town of Djenné as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The mosque features on the coat of arms of Mali.
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