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Great Mosque of Djenné

The Great Mosque of Djenné is the largest mud brick or adobe 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 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 around 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 “Old Towns of Djenné” it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.


The first mosque

The actual date of construction of the first mosque in Djenné is unknown but dates as early as 1200 and as late as 1330 have been suggested.[1] The earliest document mentioning the mosque is al-Sadi’s Tarikh al-Sudan which gives the early history presumably from the oral tradition as it existed in the mid seventeenth century. The tarikh tells us that a Sultan Kunburu became a Muslim and had his palace pulled down and the site turned into a mosque. He built another palace for himself near the mosque on the east side.[2] His immediate successor built the towers of the mosque while the following Sultan built the surrounding wall.[3]

The ruins of the original mosque as seen in a turn of the century French postcard.

We have no other written information on the Great Mosque until the French explorer René Caillié visited Djenné in 1828 and wrote “In Jenné is a mosque built of earth, surmounted by two massive but not high towers; it is rudely constructed, though very large. It is abandoned to thousands of swallows, which build their nests in it. This occasions a very disagreeable smell, to avoid which, the custom of saying prayers in a small outer court has become common.”[4]


View of the Great Mosque from the northeast as it looked in 1910. From Félix Dubois’ Notre beau Niger.

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 of the building are decorated with bundles of rodier palm (Borassus aethiopum) sticks, called toron, that project about 60 cm (2 ft) from the surface. The toron also serve as readymade scaffolding for the annual repairs. Ceramic half-pipes also extend from the roofline and direct rain water from the roof away from the walls.[16]

The mosque is built on a platform measuring about 75 m x 75 m (245 ft x 245 ft) that is raised by 3 metres (9 ft) above the level of the marketplace. The platform is accessed by 6 sets of stairs, each decorated with pinnacles. The main entrance is on the northern side of the building. The outer walls of the Great Mosque are not precisely orthogonal to one another so that the plan of the building has a noticeable trapezoidal outline.[17][18]

The prayer wall or qibla of the Great Mosque faces east towards Mecca and overlooks the city marketplace. The qibla is dominated by three large, box-like towers or minarets jutting out from the main wall. The cone shaped spires or pinnacles at the top of each minaret are topped with ostrich eggs.[19]toron and topped by pinnacles.[20] The eastern wall is about a meter (3 ft) in thickness and is strengthened on the exterior by eighteen pilaster like buttresses, each of which is topped by a pinnacle. The corners are formed by rectangular shaped buttresses decorated with

The prayer hall measuring about 26 by 50 meters (85 ft x 165 ft) occupies the eastern half of the mosque behind the qibla wall. The mud covered rodier palm roof is supported by nine interior walls running north-south which are pierced by pointed arches that reach up almost to the roof.[21] This design creates a forest of ninety massive rectangular pillars that span the interior prayer hall and severely reduce the field of view. The small irregularly positioned windows on the north and south walls allow little natural light to reach the interior of the hall. The floor is of sandy earth.[22]

Bundles of rodier palm sticks embedded in the walls of the Great Mosque are used for decoration and serve as scaffolding for annual repairs.

In the prayer hall, each of the three towers in the qibla wall has a niche or mihrab. The iman conducts the prayers from the mihrab in the larger central tower. A narrow opening in the ceiling of the central mihrab connects with a small room situated above roof level in the tower. In earlier times, a crier would repeat the words of the imam to people in the town. To the right of the mihrab in the central tower is a second niche, the pulpit or minbar, from which the iman preaches his Friday sermon.[23]

The towers in the qibla wall do not contains stairs linking the prayer hall with the roof. Instead there are two square towers housing stairs leading to the roof. One set of stairs is located at the south western corner of the prayer hall while the other set, situated near the main entrance on the northern side, is only accessible from the exterior of the mosque. Small vents in the roof are topped with removable inverted kiln-fired bowls, which when removed allow hot air to rise out of the building and so ventilate the interior.

The interior courtyard to the west of the prayer hall measuring 20 m x 46 m (65 ft x 150 ft) is surrounded on three sides by galleries. The walls of the galleries facing the courtyard are punctuated by arched openings. The western gallery is reserved for use by women.[24]

Since its construction in 1907, small changes have been made to the facade. Rather than a single central niche, the mirhab tower originally had a pair of large recesses echoing the form of the entrance arches in the north wall. The mosque also had many fewer toron with none on the corner buttresses.[25][26] It is evident from published photographs that two additional rows of toron were added to the walls in the early 1990’s.[27]

Cultural significance

The main entrance is in the north wall.

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 original mosque presided over one of the most important Islamic learning centers in Africa during the Middle Ages, with thousands of students coming to study the Qur’an in Djenné’s madrassas. 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.

On 20 January 2006 the sight of a team of men hacking at the roof of the mosque sparked a riot in the town.[28][29] The team were inspecting the roof as part of a restoration project financed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The men quickly disappeared to avoid being lynched. In the mosque the mob ripped out the ventilation fans that had been presented by the US Embassy at the time of the Iraq war and then went on a rampage through the town. The crowd ransacked the Cultural Mission, the mayor’s home, destroyed the car belonging to the iman’s younger brother and damaged three cars belonging to the iman himself. The local police were overwhelmed and had to call in reinforcements from Mopti. One man died during the disturbances.[30]

On Thursday 5 November 2009, the upper section of the southern large tower of the qibla wall collapsed after 75 mm of rain had fallen in a 24 hour period.[31] The Aga Khan Trust for Culture funded the rebuilding of the tower.[32]


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