Monday, August 05, 2013

Djenné, City of Mud

Situated on an island in the Niger Inland Delta with a population of around 10,000, Djenné is one of Mali's pre-eminent tourist attractions. Named a Wold Heritage Site in 1988, the city has taken great care to preserve the mud architecture, including the world-famous mosque. You can easily feel what sub-Saharan Africa must have felt like a century or more ago. At one time, Djenné was competing with Timbuktu as the western Sudan's pre-eminent center of trans-Saharan trade and Islamic scholarship. Now it is more of an agricultural (and tourist) town. 
Djenne Mosque and Marché  - watercolor by Melissa Enderle

Djenne's most famous (and dominating) site is the mosque. It is actually the third mosque built at the site. The first mosque was built by the Soninke king Koi Kounboro who destroyed his palace in the 13th century for its construction. The second mosque was built in 1834 after the first one was left to ruin after it became "contaminated" by evil practices. The present mosque, built in 1905, is in the style of the original mosque. Three towers, each 11 meters high and topped with an ostrich egg, can be seen from quite a distance. In fact, the mosque is the worlds' tallest mud building. It was built in two years with handmade mud bricks, formed with a banco mixture of soil, water, and straw/grasses which become ripe after one month. Wooden beams protruding from the building serve an aesthetic purpose as well as scaffolding, to repair the building after the rainy season. Every year the surface of the mosque is resurfaced with a fresh layer of mud. Other buildings typically are resurfaced at least every other year. Efforts are being made to help preserve or restore architecturally significant buildings.

We arrived in Djenné on the day of the Ramadan feast. Everyone was wearing their new boubous, hats, and had their hair intricately done. Men had clean new haircuts, while the women and girls braided their hair, often with beads and other ornamental decorations. After walking through the narrow alleys, we climbed up to the top of a few buildings to get an aerial view of the city. From that vantage point, we could see the bustling crowds, the city's many goats, and the mud architecture, either of Moorish or Tukulor types of the Sudanese style. The tops and windows of the buildings were especially impressive. In addition, the Tukulor houses have an overhang over the door, presumably to protect it from the rain.

Djenné was one of my favorite villages in Mali. I would love to return and meander through the narrow streets, surrounded on both sides with its distinctive mud architecture. Visiting Djenné on the Monday market day is recommended for an extra vibrancy. Most visitors stay overnight at one of the five hotels/guest houses.

In 1988, the old city of Djenné and the historical site of Djenné-Jeno were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
UNESCO video on Djenné, City of Clay
Read more about Djenné's mud architecture construction at National Geographic

Djenné, City of Clay

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