Islamic Art

Great Mosque of Djenne

The Great Mosque of Djenné is a large adobe building that is considered by many architects to be one of the most unique looking mosques’ in the world. The mosque is located in the city of Djenné, Mali, on the flood plain of the Bani River. The first mosque on the site was built around the 13th century, but the current structure dates from 1907. As well as being the centre of the community of Djenné, it is one of the most famous landmarks in Africa. Along with the "Old Towns of Djenné" it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.

Bundles of rodier palm sticks embedded in the walls of the Great Mosque are used for decoration and serve as scaffolding for annual repairs The main entrance is in the north wall Bundles of rodier palm sticks embedded in the walls            The main entrance is in the north wall.
of the Great Mosque are used for decoration and
serve as scaffolding for annual repairs.


The actual date of construction of the first mosque in Djenné is unknown, but dates as early as 1200 and as late as 1330 have been suggested. The earliest document mentioning the mosque is al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan which gives the early history, presumably from the oral tradition as it existed in the mid seventeenth century. The tarikh states that a Sultan Kunburu became a Muslim and had his palace pulled down and the site turned into a mosque. He built another palace for himself near the mosque on the east side. His immediate successor built the towers of the mosque while the following Sultan built the surrounding wall. The walls of the Great Mosque are made of sun-baked earth bricks (called ferey), and sand and earth based mortar, and are coated with a plaster which gives the building its smooth, sculpted look. The walls of the building are decorated with bundles of rodier palm sticks, called toron, that project about 60 cm from the surface. The toron also serve as readymade scaffolding for the annual repairs. Ceramic half-pipes also extend from the roofline and direct rain water from the roof away from the walls.

The Great Mosque's signature.jpg
The Great Mosque's signature trio of minarets overlooks
the central market of Djenn.


The mosque is built on a platform measuring about 75 m x 75 m that is raised by 3 metres above the level of the marketplace. The platform prevents damage to the mosque when the Bani River floods. It is accessed by six sets of stairs, each decorated with pinnacles. The main entrance is on the northern side of the building. The outer walls of the Great Mosque are not precisely orthogonal to one another so that the plan of the building has a noticeable trapezoidal outline.

The prayer wall or qibla of the Great Mosque faces east towards Mecca and overlooks the city marketplace. The qibla is dominated by three large, box-like towers or minarets jutting out from the main wall. The central tower is around 16 meters in height.The cone shaped spires or pinnacles at the top of each minaret are topped with ostrich eggs.The eastern wall is about a meter in thickness and is strengthened on the exterior by eighteen pilaster like buttresses, each of which is topped by a pinnacle. The corners are formed by rectangular shaped buttresses decorated with toron and topped by pinnacles.

 

The prayer hall, measuring about 26 by 50 meters, occupies the eastern half of the mosque behind the qibla wall. The mud-covered, rodier-palm roof is supported by nine interior walls running north-south which are pierced by pointed arches that reach up almost to the roof. This design creates a forest of ninety massive rectangular pillars that span the interior prayer hall and severely reduce the field of view. The small, irregularly-positioned windows on the north and south walls allow little natural light to reach the interior of the hall. The floor is composed of sandy earth.

 

The entire community of Djenné takes an active role in the mosque's maintenance via a unique annual festival. This includes music and food, but has the primary objective of repairing the damage inflicted on the mosque in the past year. In the days leading up to the festival, the plaster is prepared in pits. It requires several days to cure but needs to be periodically stirred, a task usually falling to young boys who play in the mixture, thus stirring up the contents. Men climb onto the mosque's built-in scaffolding and ladders made of palm wood and smear the plaster over the face of the mosque.

 

The original mosque presided over one of the most important Islamic learning centers in Africa during the Middle Ages, with thousands of students coming to study the Qur'an in Djenné's madrassas. While there are many mosques that are older than its current incarnation, the Great Mosque remains the most prominent symbol of both the city of Djenné and the nation of Mali.

 

 

 

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