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Volume 41, Number 6November/December 1990

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Living Tradition

Written by Pierre Maas
Photographed by Brynn Bruijn
Additional illustrations by Pierre Maas

Djenné is a border city, though no national frontier runs anywhere nearby. It stands, instead, in central Mali, where the Sahara meets the savannah and, like most cities that link disparate cultures and climates, it has a rich history and an intriguing present.

"Developing at the junction of a trans-Sudanic and trans-Saharan [trade] route," writes the American Africanist Labelle Prussin, "the city looks out, Janus-like, on both savannah and desert. [It] projects like a peninsula into the Sahel, subject to periodic... waves of northern influence. [Its] roots, however, are in the south. Thus [its] architecture consists of an indigenous savannah fabric into which salient features of North African Islam are woven like gold or colored threads."

After Djenné's occupation by the Mali and Songhay Empires, the city was conquered by the Moroccans in 1591. By then, it had been a Muslim city for more than 300 years. The famous Tarikh al-Sudnn, a chronicle of West African history written by a 17th-century imam of Djenné, tells about the conversion to Islam of Koy Kunboro, the 26th chief of the city.

"Sultan Kunboro was the first to adopt the Muslim faith and the inhabitants of the town followed his example .... The Sultan replaced his palace with a temple designated for the worship of the Most High God; that temple is the Great Mosque of today."

After the Moroccan occupation, which lasted until 1780, the city of Djenné remained independent until the religious campaign of the Peul leader Cheikou Amadou against paganism; he incorporated Djenné into the theocratic state of Macina in the 19th century. The colonists who made Djenné a part of French West Africa in 1898 introduced a new era in which the city no longer took a leading role in trading and religious affairs.

Today, nonetheless, the old glory of the town is reflected in its majestic architecture; tomorrow, who knows? The economic and ecological crises of the Sahel countries have left their mark on Djenné, and the question is whether this once vital city will survive, let alone maintain its status as one of Africa's most important monuments.

Until the end of the last century, Djenné was a flourishing and wealthy trade center, thanks to its position on the long-distance trade routes through the Sahara. Like most pre-industrial cities, its structure was partly defensive. The city was built on a small hill, surrounded by a wall and accessible by 11 gates. Within these walls, the separate residential quarters were inhabited by the different tribes that made up Djenné's population (See Anvnco World, July-August 1990).

The open areas in the city were bordered by religious buildings and monumental houses built of mud, which was abundant around the town along the creeks. The houses, owned by rich merchants who headed extended families, were a type of traditional courtyard house whose plan is characterized by a strict separation between the male and female areas. The male rooms were at the front of the house on the first floor, so that a direct view on the street was afforded. The females' area was behind the male rooms at the end of the courtyard, on the ground floor.

Most of the traditional courtyard houses had a decorated facade that specialists call the Sudan facade; it included pillars and decorated entrances among its characteristic elements, and indicated the status and wealth of the merchant who lived there.

Each house was constructed like a closed box whose thick mud walls, without large windows, created a cool and relatively dustfree inner sanctum. Until 1930, the Djenné ferey, a traditional, roughly cylindrical brick about the size of a soft-drink can, was the common construction element for such houses. Its use took a relatively long time and a lot of effort, but the walls that resulted are stronger than those made today with rectangular bricks. That is why many of these houses can still be found standing in Djenné today.

In more recent times, new urban patterns have developed alongside - but completely different from - Djenné's pre-industrial ones. Around the central marketplace and the mosque, new commercial buildings have been built in whose shops and boutiques the inhabitants of Djenné can buy imported luxury goods. The daily market is now held in a specially constructed building whose courtyard is lined with small shelters. Women gather here to buy and sell goods, particularly spices and other ingredients for everyday meals.

The old districts of the town, with their traditional-architecture, are no longer separated from each other by open areas; in the former empty spaces of the city, and around its edges, the new urban patterns include a rectangular grid that organizes new buildings and roads. But though these modern areas can look rather desolate and shabby at times, the old urban areas are rapidly declining, with many ruins and partially demolished houses. On one hand, this decline is due to the fact that the traditional extended families these houses were built for no longer exist; the houses have thus become too expensive to maintain. On the other hand, the growing interest in modern materials and ways of building, as well as other inroads of Western culture, make the replacement of old housing by new-style structures quite common. The use of new building materials today appears to confer the same kind of social status that the Sudan facade used to.

Of all of Djenné's buildings, the Great Mosque is the most important. It is the townspeople's pride and an important symbol of their community as Muslims. Since it is built of mud, good maintenance is essential, and the whole town comes together every year to replaster the rain-eroded, sun-cracked walls -the occasion for a true festival for the community. The mosque has its own unique history and has served, probably for centuries, as the model for new mosques built in the region - a fact that becomes obvious when traveling overland to Djenné. On the ruins of the first mosque, built by Koy Kunboro, the present Great Mosque of Djenné was constructed in 1907 It stands on a raised plinth measuring 75 meters (250 feet) on a side; its massive shape dominates the surroundings and dwarfs the neighboring buildings.

The difference in height between the platform on which the mosque stands and the market square below is emphasized by six staircases decorated with pinnacles. These stairs, and the change of height, symbolize the transition from the region of everyday life to a sacred area. The mosque's ground plan is orthodox, but the qibln wall, the wall with a niche that indicates the direction of Makkah - here the eastern facade - is decorated with three massive tapering towers which culminate in pinnacle ornaments. Bundles of palmwood sticks built into the towers are both decorative and useful as scaffolding for maintenance purposes. Tapering pillars, crowned by rounded, miter-like forms, are engaged in this wall, similar to those of the old Djennenké houses.

Inside the prayer hall each of the three towers has a niche built into it from floor level upward; the imam leads the prayers from the middle one, the mihrab. A small opening high in this alcove connects the mihrab with a little room on the roof at the rear of the middle tower. In former days, a crier (muraddid) would stand here and repeat the words spoken by the imam for the benefit of the whole town.

The prayer hall measures about 26 by 50 meters (85 by 165 feet). A forest of 90 massive columns forms an arcade-like structure which carries the mud-covered wooden roof. From the inside, the hall's true dimensions are hard to judge, both because the columns obstruct an overall view and because the light is rather poor. On the north and south sides, however, dim light enters through high narrow windows; on the west side, the courtyard is bathed in dazzling sunshine.

The main entrances of the mosque are on its south and north sides, but these two facades differ remarkably. Unlike the plain and sober south elevation of the mosque, the north one is monumental and shows the same structure as the traditional Djennenké house: a Sudan facade. This difference reflects the visible distinctions between the richer eastern district of the city and the poorer western district: One has a very dense urban structure with prestigious houses, while the other is relatively open, and its houses are more modest.

The courtyard of the mosque is extensive – 20 by 46 meters, or 65 by 150 feet - and it is surrounded on three sides by galleries which are about four meters (13 feet) wide. Long, high and narrow, they are very impressive.

In the change and development of the city of Djenné the mason, or barey, holds a central position. He is both a designer and a builder. By long tradition, still in force today, there is a mutual bond between a mason's family and other families in the town for whom he works: A client with construction work to be done will first turn to the "official" mason of his family; the mason, in turn, will defer all other work in order to help the family with whom he has ties.

Most of the masons in Djenné are members of the barey ton, or masons' guild, which maintains professional standards and regulations, fixes building prices and wages and organizes the annual maintenance of the mosque. The meetings of the barey ton are characteristically African. The elders and the younger members sit apart, and the two chairmen are seated midway between the two groups. So that everyone understands clearly what is being said, one individual is appointed to repeat the words of the chairmen, or other speakers, loudly and clearly to the assembly; anyone who wants to ask or say something must address the meeting through this person. In former days, this was a slave's job, since slaves had no position or status in the society and therefore could neither insult anyone nor be insulted. Although slavery has been abolished, nowadays the intermediary is usually a descendant of a former slave family.

The training of a mason in the specific Djennenké masonic skills takes place through a master-apprentice system - but that too has changed over the years. Under the old system, a boy - called male bania, literally "the slave of the master" - was apprenticed at a very young age and the master mason had full paternal authority over him, as well as such parental responsibilities as providing money for presents for the apprentice's girlfriend and, later, arranging his marriage.

Today, an apprentice is referred to as dyente idye, which means pupil; he is an employee of the master mason and earns a small wage. A boy usually starts his training when he begins his first lessons at a Qur'an school, at the age of seven. Typically, he attends Qur'an lessons from seven in the morning to 9:30. After breakfast, he works at the building site until three in the afternoon. Then Qur'an lessons occupy him again until dinnertime. The training itself begins with the introduction to the tools of the profession and to building materials; then come the construction techniques. When all this has been absorbed, the mason begins to learn how to design and plan a building. Finally, the master mason, formally and before the apprentice's family, declares his pupil to be a full-fledged mason.

In the architecture of Djenné today, old styles coexist with new ones. The organization, materials and techniques of new buildings are all based on Western examples, but the various traditional styles are still clearly visible. Centuries ago, traditional African architecture met at Djenné with Muslim architecture from the north, and their synthesis shaped the city as it was before colonial times. Today, we can wonder whether a new process of synthesis has begun: a synthesis combining new Western patterns with the African-Islamic ones. Such a development would not necessarily be deplorable.

Despite present economic difficulties, there is hope that Djenné and its magnificent mud architecture will be preserved for the future, so that the city will stand, as it has for centuries in its changing forms, as a monument and an exceptionally fine example of the cultural heritage of Islamic Africa.

Architect Pierre Mans is a researcher in the Department of Architecture of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

This article appeared on pages 18-29 of the November/December 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1990 images.