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Farmantala, Djenné, Mali

GPS: 13.905419524767, -4.5549524814084

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Looking like a fortress or a giant sand castle, the Great Mosque of Djenné is the largest building in the world built in banco (a type of adobe). This natural material is made from a mixture of compressed earth, clay bricks, straw, millet and raw mud, all dried in the sun. Dominated by its three minarets, the Great Mosque of Djenné features a unique Sudano-Sahelian architectural style with Islamic influences. In its history, this major place of worship in Mali has played an important role in the expansion of Islam in Black Africa. Together with the neighbouring archaeological sites (Djenné Djeno, Hambarkétolo, Kaniana and Tonomba), it constitutes one of the most eminent cultural properties in West Africa. These monuments have all been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1988 under the name “Old Towns of Djenné”.

The origins of the construction of the Great Mosque of Djenné date back to the end of the 13th century when King Koy Komboro, recently converted to Islam, decided to demolish his old palace in order to build a mosque. The city of Djenné, built a few centuries earlier by the Bozo people, was then attached to the Mali Empire during the medieval period. It prospered thanks to the trade of gold, salt and then slaves on the Trans-Saharan Trade Route used by caravanners and camel drivers between the countries of West Africa and the Mediterranean basin. At the same time, the mosque became one of the most important centres of Islamic education on the continent. It was destroyed in 1819 by the Massina Empire at the initiative of the Fulbe marabout Sheeku Aamadu who considered it too sumptuous. The Great Mosque of Djenné was finally rebuilt identically by the French colonial governor William Ponty in 1907, at the request of the marabout Almamy Sonfo.

Situated on a plain that is particularly vulnerable to flooding from the Bani River (a tributary of the Niger), the construction of the Great Mosque of Djenné on a raised platform is supervised by the head of Djenné’s guild of masons, Ismaila Traoré. Palm branches are incorporated into the structure of the building to withstand fluctuations in temperature and humidity, reduce possible cracks and prevent erosion. They also serve as scaffolding for the local community of Djenné, which participates actively and regularly in the restoration of the mosque within a musical backdrop. From generation to generation, the inhabitants are committed to keeping intact this century-old monument which embodies the soul of the city of Djenné.

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  • A grandiose building in its original state (almost 20 metres high and 75 metres sideways)
  • The traditional Islamic architecture of the mosque and the remarkable condition of the old houses in the surrounding area
  • The external appearance of the building, both smoothed and sculpted
  • The roof of the prayer hall supported by a hundred wooden pillars; the branches of the palm tree used as a beam to absorb humidity and as scaffolding on the façade; the gutters made from raw earth to drain off rainwater
  • One of the most important Islamic schools in Africa in the past; burials of former local leaders preserved in the oldest part of the building
  • Djenné’s famous weekly market (it takes place every Monday in front of the mosque); the town’s location between two branches of the Bani (a tributary of the Niger River)
  • The labyrinth of houses in the village and the library of Djenné (full of manuscripts and ancient works dated between the 16th and 19th centuries); the archaeological sites of Djenné, testimonies of very ancient towns (Djenné Djeno, Hambarkétolo, Kaniana and Tonomba)
  • The meeting with the villagers, whose culture is mainly Animist and Muslim; the participation in the annual operation of restoration of the mosque
  • The small tribal villages scattered around Djenné
  • The Great Mosque of Djenné has a capacity of 3,000 people (about 10% of the city’s population is estimated at 35,000 inhabitants). It served as a model for the construction of similar religious buildings in Mali and other African countries.
  • In addition to the mosque building, about 2,000 houses in Djenné are also built in banco. The preservation of this architectural style is increasingly threatened by climate change (quality mud is less available and gradually replaced by other materials).
  • The clay used by the masons of Djenné in the design of traditional monuments is taken from the Bani, a tributary of the Niger. The clay bricks (djenné-férey) are the result of a skilful mixture of grass (bourgou) and millet straw to prevent the risk of cracks generated by the sun and the changes in temperature between day and night. Rice bran, shea butter and baobab powder are added by the Barey-Ton (Djenné’s masons’ guild) to make the local banco, which covers the clay bricks to combat erosion.
  • A festival held every year in April or May invites the inhabitants to participate in the collective plastering of the mosque in a festive atmosphere (this restoration operation is necessary to support the viability of the building just before the rainy season). This event can be the most important of the year for a certain number of Djenné inhabitants, even more so than Eid al-Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan) or Tabaski (the biggest Islamic event comparable to Christian Christmas in Muslim symbolism). A race is traditionally organized to determine who will have the honour of being the first to plaster the mosque with a layer of mud plaster. Palm branches are used as scaffolding by the inhabitants. At the end of the plastering, the building is the subject of a blessing ceremony.
  • Since 2019, the Great Mosque of Djenné has been equipped with a brand-new electrification system powered by solar energy. Made possible thanks to the support of UNESCO and the financial backing of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), this project has considerably reduced the financial burden on the mosque’s management committee.
  • To help safeguard the city’s rich heritage, the British Library has undertaken to digitize the 8,500 ancient manuscripts kept in Djenné.
  • The site of the mosque is located in an unstable region threatened by various extremist groups operating in the Sahelian zone of Mali. Since 2012 and the appearance of the first terrorist acts in the country, tourism activity has been slowing down and increasing the economic difficulties of the Djenné region. So make sure you take maximum precautions if you plan to visit the area by contacting your embassy beforehand. The risk of kidnapping is considered particularly high by the authorities in the centre and north of the country.
  • Although access to the mosque is restricted to Muslims, it is sometimes possible to enter the Great Mosque of Djenné for a few minutes accompanied by an official local guide (although be wary of self-proclaimed guides and ask to check their accreditation card).
  • The entrance to the building has indeed been restricted to foreigners since an incident in the 1980s shocked its practitioners: a French fashion photographer, working for Vogue magazine, used the interior of the Great Mosque of Djenné to make a modelling photo shoot.
  • Since 2016, the Great Mosque of Djenné has been on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to the risks linked to the insecurity in the region.

Where to eat

  • Chez Baba
    (typical and central)
  • Kita Kourou
    (great welcome)
  • Auberge Le Fleuve
    (African cuisine)

Where to go out

  • Bandiagara Escarpment
    (spectacular scenery)
  • Port of Mopti
    (the Malian Venice)
  • Mount Hombori
    (the roof of Mali)

Where to sleep

  • Campement Nogondeme
    (village campsite)
  • Hôtel Maafir
    (nice indoor garden)
  • Hotel Djenné Djenno
    (spacious hotel)

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