Mali's Great Mosque: Where mud slinging becomes constructive

Mali's Great Mosque: Where mud slinging becomes constructive
Feature: For over a hundred years, the Great Mosque has dominated the skyline of Djenne in Mali. The annual renovation of this colossal mud structure has become a celebrated festival for locals.
4 min read
31 January, 2015
The Great Mosque in Djenne is an African and Islamic marvel [Anadolu]
Around 400km from the fabled city of Timbuktu lies a city on the edge of the Sahara, the source of similar stories that lie at the heart of historical Mali.

Co-built by Arabs, the Tuareg and sub-Saharan Africans, Djenne is a city associated with enlightenment, a thirst for knowledge and Islam. It was one of the religious centres for the region and is the site of many examples of stunning west- and central-African architecture.

The city's fusion of architectural styles attests to the multicultural tapestry of Mali. And chief among Djenne's famed monuments is the Great Mosque, the largest mud structure in the world.

The site itself has been a location for a mosque for eight centuries, although the current one has only existed for the last 100 years. It has three ten-metre high cuboid minarets that dominate the cityscape and 18 supporting pillars. Its towers are topped with a traditional conical crown and an ostrich egg.

Its central prayer room has 90 wooden beams supporting the ceiling, which includes a number of windows that can be opened when the desert heat gets too much for worshippers.

Place of worship

The mosque has a main entrance that is located at the northern side of the mosque, as well as a number of secondary entrances that are dotted around the sides of the mosque, except for the east, for the 2,000 worshippers that can congregate here.

According to extensive French studies and oral narratives, some believe that the mosque was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times on the same site. Some researchers claim that the original mosque once had a special quarter that housed pagan worshippers and provided with them a space to perform religious rituals.

This was said to be the reason that drove Askia Mohammad I, the emperor and ruler of the Djenne in the 15th century, to destroy the mosque believing that these practices were contrary to the teachings of Islam.

It was rebuilt, however, and the current mosque remains an important centre for religion today.

The polished appearance of the exterior walls is due to its construction from a mud and straw paste. The result is an unfussy and uncluttered appearance. Yet the structure is formidable and walls range between 16 to 24 inches in thickness, with the higher walls having the shallowest depth.

Mud is a difficult material to manage in construction, and is susceptible to damage and erosion over time. But mud is also a good structure for hot climates and the mosque's adobe walls provides worshippers with a place to retreat from the ravages of the summer heat. The adobe walls  function as a thermal mass, absorbing solar heat at night and keeping it cool in the daytime.

To stop erosion, the mosque's architects developed an innovative solution, where shoulders were introduced to the structure. Protruding outwards, these shoulders support and enhance the structural integrity of the mosque. 

Historical roots

The fact that the Great Mosque is still in very much the same condition as when it was built in 1907, shows the ingenuity of its founders and the love the locals have for the structure.

The decision to raise the mosque on a platform also helped to save if from flooding from the nearby Niver River.

Abdelrahim al-Saadi, one of the most important historians of the 17th century, wrote a great deal about the role of the original mosque that stood in its place.

It was built around the 13th century, and Saadi spoke of its role in educating students and teaching people across Africa about Islam.

A city festival

Constant maintenance is required to prevent cracks from rain, high temperatures and humidity. Sticks of palm trees are injected into the wood that help engineers to climb the towers during annual renovations that help keep the integrity of the mosque.

Djenne's population come to renovate the mosque every year, and the event has become an eagerly anticipated  festival. From preparing the mud paste, to carrying pales of the mixture, to climbing the towers and applying it to the walls, it is a fixture of the year where everyone comes together.

In the days leading up to the celebration, quantities of mud and hay are placed in large pits. The paste is mixed together by the city's children as they play in the muddy pools.

A number of races are organised during the festival, where contestants are provided with the challenge of carrying mud from the pits to the mosque. The first to deliver the load to the maintenance workers is proclaimed the winner.

Modernity is creeping in. Along with electric lights and loud-speakers some of the original mud walls are being replaces with tiles. But largely, the people of Djenne remain loyal to the traditional aspects of its design and its mud brick structure, it is hoped will stay in a similar form in a hundred years time.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.