If you’re going to build a city out of mud, you probably shouldn’t build it between two rivers that flood so severely in the rainy season that the town is transformed into an island reachable only by boat. The architects of ancient Djenne decided to build the city between the Rivers Niger and Beni; good for river transport, less good for longevity, or so you might think. They got around the annual threat of being washed away by building on raised platforms.
Djenne dates its foundation to around 250BC, making it one of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest cities. Its golden age arrived in the 15th and 16th Centuries when it flourished as a centre for trade, Islamic scholarship and pilgrimage. Most of the buildings are made of mud bricks, baked hard in the sun and then coated in a protective layer of mud. More than two thousand ancient buildings survive from Djenne’s golden age, one of the reasons it is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The star of the UNESCO show, and Djenne’s centrepiece, is the world’s largest mud structure. The glorious Grand Mosque is one of the most famous buildings in Africa, although the annual re-plastering of the mosque is almost as famous as the building itself. This enormous undertaking sees hundreds of people climbing the walls, using the wooden supports that protrude from the walls, and cover the walls of the mosque in a new coat of protective mud every year.
For a mud structure, the mosque is huge. It can hold 3000 people, and its thick walls support three massive towers and protect worshipers from the intense heat. Each of the towers is topped with an ostrich egg, symbol of purity and fertility, and the whole structure reflects the same ancient Malian architecture that we saw in Timbuktu. Non-Muslims can’t enter the mosque, but it is fun to be in the large square outside the building when worshipers flood out of the entrances.
The sudden riot of colour and noise transforms the uniformly dull-brown plaza, as people meet and greet their friends and family, and head across the square before disappearing down Djenne’s dusty streets. I didn’t have long in Djenne, just a day to recover from the trek through the Dogon Country and to take in some of the sights. Luckily there aren’t that many sights and the weekly market, which attracts many people from surrounding villages, wasn’t happening the day I was there.
At its peak Djenne was a major trading centre, linked to Timbuktu by the River Niger. Goods from the south, including gold and slaves, were taken from Djenne to connect with the great Saharan caravans which had their southern terminus in Timbuktu; salt, cloth and the much prized metal, copper, flowed from the north to Djenne. Such was its wealth and strategic importance that it was coveted and conquered by numerous other kingdoms, from the Moroccans in the 16th Century, to the French in the 19th Century.
Today, although it has a population of 40,000, it feels like a sleepy town where not a huge amount happens. The streets are dusty and, at night, very quiet. As you walk around the town you notice two distinctive styles of architecture on people’s homes. The Toucouleur-style has a massive and low porch over the entrance, while the Moroccan-style has a plain entrance. The styles reflecting the waves of conquerers who took control of the city.
After a second night in Djenne, we had an early start and left in a beat-up old 4×4 to travel the 600km back to Bamako. I just had enough time to shower, and take in some live music at one of Bamako’s legendary music clubs, before heading to the airport for a 2am flight to Morocco.