Djenné: A city of mud

The Republic of Mali is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. It is number seven on the State Department’s list of countries to which American citizens are warned “not to travel.” The borders of this largely semi-desert country extend from the Sahara Desert southward through the Sahel on to the Savanna. This sprawling, landlocked country is the 8th largest in Africa, covering an area almost twice the size of Texas. Bamako, its capital and largest city, is situated in the southwest along the banks of the Niger River. I spent several days in Bamako during 2001. This metropolitan area of almost 2 million people was, when I first visited, the fastest growing city in Africa.

Then nine years later, I made a second trip to this intriguing West African country. This time I spent my days in Mopti, a small city located about 350 miles to the northeast of Bamako. I had chosen Mopti as my base because it is a staging area for several places I had long wanted to visit. This city is one of the gateways for tours to Timbuktu–a place that had been near the top of my bucket list for many years. I wrote about my three-day trip there in February of 2018. Today I want to recount the highlights of my trip from Mopti to Djenné–a town in the Inland Niger Delta Region of central Mali. This tiny town is but a fly speck on the map and is often overlooked by West African travelers. While Djenné is unquestionably a photographer’s dream, it has also long been a haven for bandits and smugglers.

I awakened early on that December morning excited about the possibility of seeing the world’s largest mud-brick building. I crawled into a small SUV that the hotel manager had arranged for me and set out just before dawn–my backpack stuffed with bottled water, granola bars, and several cameras. The French speaking driver maneuvered the Honda along the tiny streets of Mopti and soon we were out of the city and on our way. According to what I had read, this 90-mile trip would require about three hours of driving time over roads that are significantly sub-standard to those in the USA. My journey, however, would run a good bit longer due, at least in part, to an horrendous sand storm that suddenly appeared, forcing my driver to pull off the road stopping several hundred feet out onto a flat, sandy stretch perpendicular to the highway. I cannot recall ever witnessing sudden gusts of wind of this magnitude. The SUV rocked from side-to-side violently, and the swirling gusts of sand quickly reduced visibility to near zero. I could see the driver reacting to this onslaught, and I was suddenly feeling quite anxious. I struggled with my very limited French but finally understood that the driver was assuring me that the danger would soon pass. And, sure enough, after about 25 or 30 minutes the winds subsided and visibility returned. As the driver edged the SUV back onto the roadway, the sun burst through the low hanging haze and we were once again on our way. 

Around mid morning my SUV rolled into Djenné–one of the oldest known towns in sub-Saharan Africa. A light haze of tiny, swirling sand particles peppered my face as I traveled along its narrow streets. This perpetual haze of blowing sand took the edge off everything I saw, bathing the city in an eerie glow from the morning’s muted sun. The smell of cooking fires permeated the air. Small groups of children ran alongside the SUV, expectant hands outstretched for candy or chewing gum because, here, if you ride in any type of motorized vehicle, you are thought to be “wealthy” beyond measure.

The streets were flooded with vendors, nomads, stray dogs, camels, and countless children. The city’s ancient curving walls and minarets brought to mind an architecture often associated with the Spanish. To enter the gates of Djenné is to enter a page from antiquity before humankind had had the opportunity to pollute the earth. In that sense, Djenné is not just ancient, it is almost otherworldly!

The first stop was at the square in front of the Grand Mosque. It happened to be market day, and the tiny square had been transformed into a space crammed with people who would be shopping under the blistering desert sun. Blue-turbaned heads mingled with leather-hatted nomads while the merchants scrambled to display their wares in an area that is very large. These sunburnt shoppers had to maneuver among herds of sheep and cattle also vying for space. When I stepped out into the crowd my senses were immediately assaulted with countless exotic aromas and scores of different languages. The long-robed silhouettes passing by me in all directions give an ominous feel to the scene.

All of a sudden, a thunderous call to prayers burst from the loud speakers reminding me that electricity is here in a city that otherwise seemed a thousand years removed from the modern world. Yet to me, the most astounding feature of this bustling market was the Grand Mosque towering up above the square. 

All I had read in preparation for my visit to Mali seemed always to focus eventually on either Timbuktu or the Great Mosque of Djenné. But still, when I finally clapped my eyes upon this astounding building, my heart skipped a beat or two. I almost forgot the market as I pushed into the crowd trying to photograph this amazing structure from every angle. Its surreal beauty defied verbal description and I wondered, frankly, if even my cameras could do it justice! Its visual impact far exceeded what I had gleaned from seeing pictures of it. I had no idea that the Grand Mosque would so capture my imagination.

Almost all of the buildings in Djenné, both commercial and residential, are made of mud-bricks. This distinctive “adobe” architecture, however, is most notably exemplified in the Great Mosque which was constructed in 1907 on the site of a previous mosque. In 1988 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mosque is about four stories tall. The walls vary in thickness from about 16 to 24 inches. This massive thickness acts as both support for the ceiling and insulation from the outside heat. Its minarets have ceramic caps made by the women of the village. These can be removed to ventilate the interior.

The massive walls are studded with wooden beams protruding through to the outside. These are not just ornamental. When the rains come, much of the building is washed away. There is a week-long festival ever year in which the villagers climb up these wooden beams to replenish the exterior mud. The mosque occupies more than 16,000 square feet. Located in the midst of several tiny, single-family residences, and towering over them, the Grand Mosque appears more like an apparition than a place of worship. From any angle, it is a towering presence that dominates all of Djenné.

My only disappointment during my visit to Djenné was that I was unable to see the inside of the Grand Mosque. It had been open to all who wished to enter until 1997, when it was abruptly closed after photos of its interior were published in a French magazine. The publication of these pictures together with a lengthy article about the mosque resulted in hordes of tourists descending upon this otherwise quiet town. Many of these visitors were scantily-dressed and brought cigarettes and alcohol to a place where Sharia Law was strictly obeyed. The elders of Djenné quickly closed the Grand Mosque not only to Europeans but to ALL “infidels” from anywhere in the world.

As I departed the Grand Mosque for my hotel, the last rays of the day’s sun were striking the building, turning it a deep golden brown. If it were possible, the mosque seemed even more beautiful in the fading light. Alone in my hotel room, I heard the final calls to prayers though these were somewhat muted due to the thick mud walls of my hotel room. Besides the ethereal beauty of the city itself, Djenné is a place of magic, mystery, and intrigue. It is a part of the “old” Africa that will likely disappear before mid-century. It is not a place to visit for the faint of heart, but I was glad I returned. I drifted off to sleep counting the spiders crawling across my ceiling clearly visible through the netting that surrounded my bed. I counted myself fortunate indeed to have seen the Grand Mosque of Djenné.

Dr. Watson E. Mills writes, “I have visited all of the 14 countries presently on the State Department’s ‘do not travel’ list except for Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, and Somalia. But in some ways Mali presented unique challenges not found so prominently in the other nine countries. I vividly remember, for example, the hotel manager pulling me aside as I was about to depart for Djenné. He spoke to a soft, yet serious tone: ‘Most of the people in Djenné are armed and they settle disputes in the old-fashioned way–with a sword or a knife.’ He advised me to be extremely careful when shopping and to keep my hands out of my pockets at all times. He said that I must never ever do anything that might be construed as an attempt to take something without paying for it. This is so, he continued, because Djenné operates under strict Islamic law. Here, theft is punishable by cutting off the right hand of the offender. ‘Scourging,’ he continued while smiling broadly, ‘is reserved for more minor offenses’.”

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