Art Through Time: A Global View
The Urban Experience Art: Great Mosque
Located in present-day Mali on the floodlands between two rivers, the Niger and the Bani, Djenné is the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa. In the ninth century, merchants founded Djenné near an older settlement that had been established as early as 250 BCE.
Under the rule of the powerful Mali Empire, between 1300 and 1500 CE, Djenné reached the height of its prosperity, flourishing as a center of trade, Islamic faith, and learning.
According to tradition, the first mosque in Djenné was built in the thirteenth century by the king Koi Konboro after his conversion to Islam. When a second mosque was erected in the nineteenth century, the first was abandoned and left to deteriorate. As a result, very little is known about its appearance. In 1906–07, a third mosque, funded by the French and said to be modeled after the thirteenth-century building, was raised on the site where the original once stood; it is this building that is known as the Great Mosque.
Although it follows a typically Middle Eastern plan with a roofed prayer hall adjacent to a large courtyard, Djenné’s Great Mosque is constructed with distinctly African materials—mud brick and palm wood. One of the largest mud brick, or adobe, buildings in the world, the mosque’s thick walls both support the structure and act as insulation from the heat. At night, ceramic caps on the roof of the mosque are opened to ventilate the interior space. Drawing on the “Sudan style” of mud brick architecture, the Djenné mosque is topped by crenellation and attached pillars on the façade are used to emphasize the building’s verticality.
The Great Mosque of Djenné is situated in a large market square, making it a constant presence in the everyday lives of residents. For one day each year, however, the structure becomes the focus of the city’s ritual life as well. Mud architecture thrives in parts of the world where there is enough water to mix plaster and form bricks, but not so much rain to put the dried walls in constant danger of dissolving. Despite the prevailing aridity of the Djenné region, its mud buildings require constant upkeep. During the annual festival known as Crepissage, thousands of people gather to replaster the walls of the Great Mosque. Although the wood poles that jut out from the building embellish the surface of its walls in a decorative manner, their primary function is practical; these rungs serve as scaffolding for those participating in the repairs. Today, the future of the festival and the mosque itself are threatened by a waning population and a lack of participation from the city’s youth.
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.”
Blier, Suzanne Preston. Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa. With photographs by James Morris. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
Bourgeois, Jean-Louis. “The History of the Great Mosques of Djenné.” African Arts 20.3 (May 1987): 54–63.
Maas, Pierre. “Djenné: Living Tradition.” Aramco World 41.6 (November/December 1990): 18–29.
“Mali Empire and Djenné Figures.” National Museum of Africa Art Web site. http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/resources/mali/index.htm.
Marchand, Trevor H.J. The Masons of Djenné. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Visona, Monica B., et al. A History of Art in Africa, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.