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11 / The Urban Experience

Great Mosque
Great Mosque
Artist / Origin Unknown artist(s), Niger Inland Delta, Mopti Region, Mali
Region: Africa
Date 1906–07
Material Mud brick and palm wood
Dimensions H: 33+ ft. (10+ m.), W: approx. 246 ft. (75 m.), L: approx. 246 ft. (75 m.)
Location Djenné, Mali
Credit © Gavin Hellier/JAI/CORBIS

expert perspective

Susan VogelFilmmaker/Professor of African Art and Architecture, Columbia University

Great Mosque

» Unknown artist(s), Niger Inland Delta, Mopti Region, Mali

expert perspective

Susan Vogel Susan Vogel Filmmaker/Professor of African Art and Architecture, Columbia University

Africa has had cities from very early times. And one of the earliest, perhaps the earliest, is Djenné, which is founded around 900 AD. Djenné is founded before Islam, but once Islam reaches the region, which is around 1100, Djenné became a center of Islamic learning, which it remains today with many Koranic schools.

Djenné is on a branch of the Niger River, the Bani River, in present day Mali. The mud of Djenné includes a very unique chemical mixture that includes both manure and fish remains and it makes it exceptionally hard, and that’s why the people of Djenné were able to build the largest mud brick building in the world, which is the great mosque.

The Great Mosque of Djenné is the principal place of worship in the city where everyone is Muslim. And it’s the largest mud-brick building in the world. And it really is an architectural masterpiece. The mosque is in a style we know as the Sudanese style and it developed in this region about 1,000 years ago.

The mud is very hard and totally waterproof as long as it’s sealed. But at the end of every rainy season, cracks and fissures develop. If those are not repaired, a building will fall apart quickly and actually can collapse. So every year, every building needs to be re-plastered with a thin coat to keep the seal tight. And actually on that top layer they put oil—when you do an oil change, they put the oil in the mud for that top coat, if you’re rich, because it gives you a very well-sealed surface. But the mosque has to be repaired every year and that has been a major celebration for a long time. The amazing thing about it is that the whole thing is done in a few hours.

Masonry is a hereditary craft and very prestigious. The architecture can’t continue without the masons and without their knowledge. So what’s happening is that the masons’ children don’t always want to take up their fathers’ trade and so there’s been a kind of tapering off of the hereditary masons, while young men from poor farming families north of Djenné are coming into the city and apprenticing and they will probably become masons. So it will become a less hereditary trade.

The entire city of Djenné has been declared a World Heritage Monument by UNESCO. So, at least in principle, the buildings should remain unchanged.” 

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