A Trip to Djenne, Mali

Cliff and I left Bamako and have made it through the check point. Our destination today is Djenne, home of The Great Mosque and the Old Towns, both designated world heritage sites by UNESCO in 1988. Before we tour the area, however, we check into a place to stay. Things are quite spartan around here! Not to worry though-Cliff has paid off the manager, and we have landed an air conditioned unit. Now, all I have to deal with is the communal shower and bathroom facilities.

Djenne is an urban commune in the Inland Niger Delta region of central Mali. It's history is closely associated with that of Timbuktu. The trans-Saharan trade in salt, gold and slaves moved between Timbuktu and Djenne between the 15th and 17th centuries. Both areas became important centers of Islamic scholarship, but declined after the Portuguese established trading posts on the African coast.

Our first stop today is the Great Mosque of Djenne, a large building made of adobe that many architects consider one of the great achievements of the Sudano-Sahelian style. Dating back to to its inception in the 13th century, this edifice has been remade several times, and is considered one of Africa's most famous landmarks.


As we approach the mosque, I'm taken aback by the sea of locals interacting with each other in the central market nearby. They dress in colorful robes and hats. From what I can tell, Cliff and I are the only white tourists around here and stick out like sore thumbs.


The first thing that strikes me as I view the mosque are its signature trio of minarets. The walls are made of sun-baked earth bricks known as ferey. Held together by mortar, these adobe blocks are comprised of sand and earth. A plaster coating is then applied that imparts a smooth, sculpted look. What gives this building its unique appearance are bundles of rodier palm sticks, or toron, that project about 2 feet from the surface. The toron serve as a scaffolding that workers scale annually to make repairs.

We leave the Djenne Mosque and head towards more of the Old Towns. These are serial properties comprised of four archaeological sites that include Djenne-Djeno, Hambarketolo, Kaniana and Tonomba. This area is huge, and represents typical sub-Sahran architecture. The adobe buildings all have a distinctive style of verticality and buttresses with intricate facades, unlike anything I've seen in Africa to date.


While the architecture in this area is characterized by a rare harmony that bears witness to hints of what was once a thriving pre-Islamic civilization, I'm most captivated by the locals meandering down the streets. I see numerous women carrying various paraphernalia on their heads as they go about their business. A man is pushing a wheel- barrow with balls of soap down a dirt road, presumably heading to market. What a scene!

As the day ends,  Cliff and I sit together sharing a bottle of wine that we have brought from the States. I find myself very aware of how special travel in the third world can be. The architecture and people of Djenne have been remarkable! Now on to Dogon Country.