Unlike the classic blue-tiled mosques of the Middle East, the mosques of West Africa are made from mud brick. That doesn’t mean they are simple mud huts. They are complicated and beautiful buildings that combine traditional West African building techniques with the ritual requirements of Islamic worship to make uniquely West African religious spaces.
The most famous West African mosque is the Great Mosque of Djenne, in central Mali. A mosque has occupied the site since 1240, when the city’s twenty-seventh ruler, Koy Kumboro, converted to Islam. In order to show his devotion to his new faith, he demolished his palace, and built a mosque in its place. The new mosque was built over a frame of palm timbers using cylindrical sun-dried bricks, about the size and shape of a can of soda pop, and then plastered with a layer of mud. According to Mali legend, the local djinn* helped build it by carrying clay from the desert in baskets on their heads.
Koy Kunboro’s mosque dominated the market plaza at the center of Djenne for almost six hundred years. In the early nineteenth century, fundamentalist leader Seku Amadou declared jihad against Djenne in the name of restoring Islam to its true nature. After he captured the city, he abandoned the mosque to the weather. Islamic law forbids the destruction of a mosque, but mud buildings are fragile. Without regular maintenance, the Great Mosque crumbled into ruins.
In 1907, masons skilled in the traditional techniques of mud construction rebuilt the mosque under French rule. Like Notre Dame in Paris, the re-built Great Mosque combines monumentality with verticality. The mosque stands on a raised square plinth and dominates the city’s main market square. The major facade, which faces the market, consists of three stepped minarets divided by a series of sharply defined vertical columns. This facade is not the entrance. It is the qibla, which points the way to Mecca.
The oldest sections of the mosque are made from cylindrical bricks; the bricks in the newer sections are rectangular. The building bristles with projecting fan palm timbers, set horizontally into the walls as expansion joints to reduce cracking caused by extreme changes in humidity and temperature.
The timbers also provide permanent scaffolding for the ongoing maintenance required by mud construction. Djenne is taking no chances on losing the Great Mosque to the weather again. Re-plastering the walls after the inevitable damage caused by the rainy season is now a joyous, messy and important element of the local Ramadan festival.
*You may know them as genies.