Djenné, the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa is situated on the flood lands of the Niger and Bani rivers, 354 kilometers southwest of Timbuktu. Founded by Soninke merchants around 800 AD, Djenné flourished as a meeting place for traders from the deserts of Sudan and the tropical forests of Guinea.
Djenné was a renowned market place and a base for trans-Saharan trade as it was situated at the head of trade routes leading to gold and salt mines. Djenné, despite its proximity, was never part of the Mali Empire. It existed as an independent city-state protected by walls and the geography of the inland delta. In addition to its commercial importance, Djenné, was also known as a center of Islamic learning and pilgrimage, attracting students and pilgrims from all over
Djenné is currently an agricultural trade center, with several Muslim architectural sites, including the Konboro Mosque.
Djenne's Konboro Mosque is the largest mosque in the world made of mud. Unlike most Mosques, Konboro is closed to non-Muslims. It is alleged that the reason for its closure to non Muslim was as a result of a secret filming for a documentary by western foreigners.
Students having Koran lessons outside the Mosque
Konboro Mosque dominates the large market square of Djenné. Tradition has it that the first mosque was built in 1240 by the sultan Koi Kunboro, who converted to Islam and turned his palace into a mosque. Very little is known about the appearance of the first mosque, but it was considered too sumptuous by Sheikh Amadou, the ruler of Djenné in the early nineteenth century. The Sheikh built a second mosque in the 1830's and allowed the first one to fall into disrepair. The present mosque, begun in 1906 and completed in 1907, was designed by the architect Ismaila Traoré, head of Djenné's guild of masons. At the time, Mali was controlled by the French, who may have offered some financial and political support for the construction of the mosque and a nearby religious school.
Market scene by the mosque
Photo by Jorge Tutor
The Great Mosque is built on a raised plinth platform of rectangular sun-dried mud bricks that are held together by mud mortar and plastered over with mud. The walls vary in thickness between sixteen and twenty-four inches, depending upon their height. These massive walls are necessary in order to bear the weight of the tall structure and also provide insulation from the sun's heat. During the day, the walls gradually warm up from the outside; at night, they cool down again. This helps the interior of the mosque to stay cool all day long. The Great Mosque also has roof vents with ceramic caps. These caps, made by the town's women, can be removed at night to ventilate the interior spaces.
The repair or maintenance of the Great Mosque is carried out by the senior masons, who also coordinate the annual spring re-plastering. Many of the inhabitants of Djenné work to prepare banco (mud mixed with rice husks) for the event. It may be compared to a community fair.
Although the Great Mosque incorporates architectural elements found in mosques throughout the Islamic world, it reflects the aesthetics and materials used for centuries by the people of Djenné. Its use of local materials, such as mud and palm wood, its incorporation of traditional architectural styles, and its adaptation to the hot climate of West Africa are expressions of its elegant connection to the local environment. Such earthen architecture, which is found throughout Mali, can last for centuries if regularly maintained.
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