A structure in the sand
Located in the arid hinterland of the scorching Sahara Desert in southern Mali, the Great Mosque of Djenné is a beguiling structure that instantly captures the imagination. Nearly 20m high and built on a 91m-long platform, it’s the world’s largest mud-brick building and the finest example of Sudano-Sahelian architecture, a regional style characterised by its adobe plastering and wooden scaffolding. The gargantuan mosque is without doubt the centrepiece of life in the Unesco-protected town of Djenné.
An old Islamic influence
Perched on a floodplain between the Niger and Bani rivers, Djenné has been inhabited since 250BC, making it one of the oldest towns in sub-Saharan Africa. It flourished between the 13th and 18th Centuries as a key transport hub for goods such as salt and gold. Trade caravans also brought scholars and scribes, who introduced Islam to the region. It didn’t take long for Djenné to become a centre for Islamic scholarship, with the Great Mosque’s current edifice built in 1907 on the site of the community’s original mosque, which fell into disrepair during the 19th Century.
Islamic influence is clear today, with pupils often studying the Quran on Djenné’s streets.
A hedgehog meets a church organ
The Great Mosque has three distinctive minarets, with hundreds of sticks of rodier palm, known as ‘toron’, jutting out from the structure’s walls. After visiting in the early 1900s, French journalist Félix Dubois colourfully described the mosque as ‘a cross between a hedgehog and a church organ’.
The Great Mosque remains cool even during the hottest days. A lattice of 90 internal wooden columns supports the roof and the walls, which provide insulation from the sun’s heat. The roof, meanwhile, has several openings that allow a flow of fresh air in the dry season, but can be closed with terracotta lids during the rainy season. The mosque’s prayer hall can fit as many as 3,000 people.