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The Great Mosque of Djenné: The largest mud-built structure in the world and one of the finest examples of Sudano-Sahelian architecture

David Goran

One of the wonders of Africa and one of the most unique religious buildings in the world, the Great Mosque of Djenné is a large banco or adobe building that is considered by many architects to be one of the greatest achievements of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, albeit with obvious Islamic influences.

The Great Mosque's signature trio of minarets overlooks the central market of Djenné. Photo Credit

The Great Mosque’s signature trio of minarets overlooks the central market of Djenné. Photo Credit

Djenné flourished as a great center of commerce, learning, and Islam. The first mosque at the site was built between 800 and 1250 C.E. Made completely out of mud brick, it is the largest construction of its type in the world.

The main entrance is in the north wall. Photo Credit

The main entrance in the north wall. Photo Credit

The first written documentation of the mosque came from 1828, when French explorer René Caillié came across it. From his accounts, we can deduce that by then, the structure was in disrepair, but still used by those praying inside. Over the centuries, the Great Mosque has become the epicenter of the religious and cultural life of Mali.

The mosque requires regular re-plastering to keep its form. Photo Credit

The mosque requires regular re-plastering to keep its form. Photo Credit

 

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

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

As described by Caillié, the second mosque was built between 1834 and 1836, replacing the original damaged building. It was much bigger than the original. It also featured a series of low minaret towers and equidistant pillar supports.

During the day, the walls absorb the heat of the day that is released throughout the night, helping the interior of the mosque remain cool all day long. Photo Credit

During the day, the walls absorb the heat of the day that is released throughout the night, helping the interior of the mosque remain cool all day long. Photo Credit

Soon thereafter, the Great Mosque became one of the most important buildings in town, primarily because it became a political symbol for local residents and for colonial powers like the French, who took control of Mali in 1892, led by Louis Archinard. The present, and third, iteration of the Great Mosque was completed in 1907, and some scholars argue that the French constructed it during their period of occupation of the city.

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

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

 

The roof of the Grand Mosque and its vents. Photo Credit

The roof of the Grand Mosque and its vents. Photo Credit

The walls of the Great Mosque are made of sun-baked mud bricks called ferey, and are coated with a mud plaster which gives the building its smooth, sculpted look. The walls also insulate the building from heat during the day, and by nightfall have absorbed enough heat to keep the mosque warm through the night.

Walls are thick and tapered, to both protect the inside from the heat and support the often two story structures and the roof. Photo Credit

Walls are thick and tapered, to both protect the inside from the heat and support the often two story structures and the roof. Photo Credit

 

Though it benefits from regular maintenance, since the facade's construction in 1907 only small changes have been made to the design. Photo Credit1 Photo Credi2

Though it benefits from regular maintenance, since the facade’s construction in 1907 only small changes have been made to the design. Photo Credit1 Photo Credi2

The main entrance faces the north and the prayer wall of course east, toward Mecca. Most prominent are the three large towers that look like minarets. 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, symbolising fertility and purity.