With its striking facade and unique architectural style, the Djenne Mosque ranks among the most unusual and beautiful buildings in the world. This large, mud-brick structure is typical of the special African-lslamic “marriage” found on the continent, in which African societies have molded Islam to fit their own traditional beliefs, values, and concerns.
A mosque is usually constructed with the finest materials available, but the Djenn6 Mosque is made with sun-baked mud (also known as adobe or pisé), which, in the skilled hands of the Mali master- masons, has resulted in one of the most remarkable expressions of faith in Africa.
HISTORY OF DJENNE MOSQUE
Djenne’s first mosque was built in 1280 by Koi Konboro, the 26th king of Djenne, following his conversion to Islam. As a demonstration of his allegiance to his new faith, the king had his royal palace knocked down and the mosque constructed on its site Konboro’s mosque survived until the early 19th century, when the fundamentalist Islamic king, Cheikou Amadou, eager to reinforce local Islamic religious practices, allowed it to fall into disrepair. He built a more austere mosque close by (now the site of an Islamic religious school). In 1907, the French administration in the town arranged for the original mosque to be rebuilt into the mud- brick structure seen today.
With its thick, battlemented walls and towers, and the peculiar “spiked” appearance of the projecting wooden beams, the mosque looks more like a fortress than a religious building. Its imposing exterior is made up of three sloping minarets, which stand over 33 ft (10 m) high, some towers, and a large base, accessible via a number of stepped entrances The interior is not accessible to non-Muslims, but views of it can be had from the roofs of nearby houses. The art and skills of the masons have been handed down from generation to generation since the 15th century. The master-masons still mix the mud mortar by foot, and shape the mud bricks by hand. A simple iron trowel is their only tool, and is used for cutting the bricks and levelling the walls.
Founded in 1250 on one of the ancient trans-Saharan trade routes, Djenne quickly grew into a thriving center of commerce, attracting merchants from across Africa. Textiles, brass, ceramics, and copperware were exchanged for Sahel gold, ivory, and precious Saharan salt. By the end of the 13th century, Islam had also arrived, brought to Djenne by Muslim merchants from Worth Africa, and the first mosque was built. By the 14th century, Djenne had become an important center of Islamic learning, and also one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan towns in sub-Saharan Africa.
Giving the mosque its distinctive “spiked” appearance, the palm beams not only support the mud walls, but also serve as a kind of permanent scaffolding for the annual repairs. Visually, they also relieve the solidity of the structure.
A colorful market is set up in front of the Djenne Mosque every Monday, attracting traders from the surrounding area. Djenne and its region are famous for the mud cloth sold here, known as bogolan.
Three Sloping Minarets
These are used by the muezzin (mosque official) to call the faithful to prayer. Staircases inside each minaret lead directly to the roof.
The annual restoration of the mosque is a communal concern, with up to 4,000 townspeople taking part in the work. Specialized masons called bareys (a builder-magician caste dating back to the 15th century) carefully oversee the work.
Pillars and Roof
A forest of 90 wooden pillars supports the roof, which is perforated with small vents to allow light and air to penetrate. In the rainy season, the holes are covered with ceramic caps.
The large base on which the mosque sits raises it some 10ft (3 m) above the market area, and separates it both physically and symbolically from the pedestrian and profane activities of the marketplace.
Inside the mosque, the impressive prayer hall, with its sandy floor, is covered by a wooden roof supported by nearly 100 pillars.
WIND, SUN, AND RAIN
The elements cause damage to the Djenne Mosque. Rainwater erodes the walls and damp can weaken the structure. Extreme temperatures and humidity also cause stress to the building. However, a yearly replastering helps keep the mosque in good shape.
c. 1250—1300: Djenne town is founded on the Bani River and the first mosque is built.
1300-1468: Djenne resists attacks by the M ali empire, remaining an independent city-state.
1468: The Song hay empire, one of the lar gest in Africa’s history, captures and annexes Djenne.
1591: Djenne is taken by Morocco as part of its campaign to drive the Song hay empire out of the region.
1819: Cheikou Amadou abandons the old mosque and builts a new one on a different site.
1907: A third mosque is built on the foundations of the 13th century original.
1988: Djenne Mosque is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.