The Coolest Stuff on the Planet - The Great Mosque of Djenne
The Great Mosque of Djenné is the largest mud brick building in the world and is considered by many architects to be the greatest achievement of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, albeit with definite Islamic influences.
The Great Mosque is located in the city of Djenné, Mali on the flood plain of the Bani River. The first mosque on the site was built in the 13th century, but the current structure dates from 1907. As well as being the centre of the community of Djenné, it is one of the most famous landmarks in Africa. Along with the entire city of Djenné it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.
The Great Mosque is unusual among West African mosques in that its site was not sacred prior to its establishment — the location was previously occupied by a palace. Other mosques were built on the same locations as conical, mud-brick or stone spires representing the protective spirits of ancestors. Some scholars of Islamic architecture, such as Labelle Prussin, believe that these conical spires were integrated into the design of mosques throughout Mali, and point to the Great Mosque as the most prominent example.
The site has been the location of a mosque since the original building was commissioned by Koi Kunboro in 1240, before Djenné emerged as a major city of the empires of Mali and later Songhai. Amadou Lobbo, who conquered Djenné during the Tukulor War, ordered the original mosque demolished in 1834. He considered the original structure, which had been modified from a palace, to be too lavish. The only portion of the original building that still survives is an enclosure containing the graves of local leaders. A re-creation of the original was completed in 1896 but was subsequently demolished to make way for the current structure.
Construction on the current Great Mosque began in 1906 and was probably completed in 1907 or 1909. The mosque's construction was supervised and guided by the head of Djenné's mason guild, Ismaila Traoré. At the time, Djenné was part of the colony of French West Africa and the French may have offered political and economic support for the construction of both the mosque and a nearby madrasa.
The original mosque presided over one of the most important Islamic learning centers in Africa during the Middle Ages. Thousands of students came to study the Qur'an in Djenné's madrassas.
Electrical wiring and indoor plumbing have been added to many mosques in Mali. In some cases, the original surfaces of a mosque have even been tiled over, destroying its historical appearance and in some cases compromising the building's structural integrity. While the Great Mosque has been equipped with a loudspeaker system, the citizens of Djenné have resisted modernization in favor of the building's historical integrity. Many historical preservationists have praised the community's preservation effort, and interest in this aspect of the building grew in the 1990s.
The Great Mosque was closed to non-Muslims after a fashion photography shoot on the roof and in the interior prayer-hall offended and was considered in violation of a previous agreement with local leaders.
What to See
The walls of the Great Mosque are made of sun-baked mud bricks called ferey, a mud based mortar, and are coated with a mud plaster which gives the building its smooth, sculpted look. The walls are between 41 cm (16 in.) and 61 cm (24 in.) thick. The thickness varies depending on the wall's height: taller sections were built thicker because the base has to be wide enough to support the weight. Bundles of palm branches were included in the building to reduce cracking caused by frequent drastic changes in humidity and temperature and to serve as readymade scaffolding for annual repairs. The walls insulate the building from heat during the day and by nightfall have absorbed enough heat to keep the mosque warm through the night. Gutters, made of ceramic pipes, extend from the roofline and direct water drainage from the roof away from the walls. The prayer wall or quibla of the Great Mosque faces east towards Mecca and overlooks the city marketplace. The quibla of the mosque is dominated by three large, box-like minarets jutting out from the main wall and has eighteen buttresses. Each minaret contains a spiral staircase leading to the roof, and on top of each minaret is a cone shaped spire topped with an ostrich egg.
Half of the mosque is covered by a roof and the other half is an open air prayer hall or courtyard. The roof of the mosque is supported by ninety wooden pillars that span the interior prayer hall. Vents in the roof are topped with removable ceramic caps, which when removed allow hot air to rise out of the building and so ventilate the interior. A second prayer hall is enclosed in a courtyard behind the roofed mosque and is surrounded by walls to the north, south, and west and by the mosque itself to the east. An arcade inside the surrounding walls encircles the courtyard. The walls of the arcade facing the courtyard are punctuated by arched openings, 15 m (45 ft) high, that allow viewing or entry into the courtyard from the arcade.
Water damage, in particular flooding, was a major concern of Traoré when he planned the construction. The annual flooding of the Bani River causes Djenné to become an island, and unusually high floods can inundate parts of the city. The Great Mosque was constructed on a raised platform with a surface area of 5625 m² (62,500 ft²), which has so far protected the mosque from even the most severe floods.
The entire community of Djenné takes an active role in the mosque's maintenance via a unique annual festival. This includes music and food, but has the primary objective of repairing the damage inflicted on the mosque in the past year (mostly erosion caused by the annual rains and cracks caused by changes in temperature and humidity). In the days leading up to the festival, the plaster is prepared in pits. It requires several days to cure but needs to be periodically stirred, a task usually falling to young boys who play in the mixture, thus stirring up the contents. Men climb onto the mosque's built-in scaffolding and ladders made of palm wood and smear the plaster over the face of the mosque.
Another group of men carries the plaster from the pits to the workmen on the mosque. A race is held at the beginning of the festival to see who will be the first to deliver the plaster to the mosque. Women and girls carry water to the pits before the festival and to the workmen on the mosque during it. Members of Djenné's masons guild direct the work, while elderly members of the community, who have already participated in the festival many times, sit in a place of honor in the market square watching the proceedings.
The historic areas of Djenné, including the Great Mosque, were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. While there are many mosques that are older than its current incarnation, the Great Mosque remains the most prominent symbol of both the city of Djenné and the nation of Mali.