In Mali, West Africa, is an architectural testament to the Islamic faith and a time-honoured adobe construction. The Great Mosque of Djenné is built entirely from earthen materials and serves as an everlasting reminder of the feats of African architecture and sustainable construction.
Words by Aaron Chapman
Photography by James Morris
From Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Disney’s The Lion King, Africa is romanticised as an image of wildness. But our world’s oldest continent and its ancient civilisations are often culturally ignored on the global stage, particularly in architecture. The Great Mosque of Djenné in central Mali however, is an adobe Islamic monument that rivals any of its Middle Eastern architectural counterparts, standing proud as a representation of Malian and Africa’s religious history.
In building terms, ‘adobe’ translates to mud-brick and/or the use of organic materials like clay and straw. The Great Mosque of Djenné, first constructed in the 13th century, stands more than 50 feet (or 15 metres) high, earning it the title of the largest mud-brick construction in the world and consequently, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Great Mosque of Djenné was built and designed by Ismaila Traoré in the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, which refers to the Sudanian and Sahel grasslands (otherwise known as the Sudano-Sahel belt that extends from the west to the eastern coast of Africa and includes countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Senegal and Sudan). The Sahara desert sits north of this belt while the fecund forests of central Africa sit beneath it.
“Hand-moulded bricks alongside thatch and reed roofing and insulation form the traditional elements of Sudano-Sahelian vernacular architecture.”
The region’s indigenous architectural style was developed through the inhabitants’ use of its most available and abundant resource: earth, in various forms. Hand-moulded bricks alongside thatch and reed roofing and insulation form the traditional elements of Sudano-Sahelian vernacular architecture.
In the case of the Great Mosque of Djenné, the structure consists of sun-baked earthen bricks (called ferey) coated in sand, an earth-based mortar and a coat of plaster. But the Malian climate isn’t too kind to this material – hot, dry heat interrupted only by torrents of rain allow the surface to be penetrated with fissures. So damaging are the rains that often force the nearby Bani River to flood, that the Great Mosque was built atop a three-metre platform measuring 75 metres in both length and width.
The Great Mosque is a site of communal, religious and cultural life in the township of Djenné, and since the Great Mosque requires replastering to maintain its smooth and sculpturally iconic look, the residents festively come together for the annual event called the Crépissage de la Grand Mosquée (Plastering of the Grand Mosque).
Djenné’s famous landmark is dotted with palm-trunk inserts across the facade, which serve both functional and aesthetic purposes. These Rodier palm sticks are called toron, and protrude approximately 60cm from the mosque’s surface. Not only do they give the mosque its distinctive appearance, but the toron provides the Crépissage de la Grand Mosquée attendees with sturdy scaffolding for their communal replastering.
Many sun-dried mud-bricks make The Great Mosque of Djenné the largest and one of the most remarkable examples of African architecture not only as a landmark structure, but as a cultural centre that significantly influences life within the local community.
Aaron Chapman is an Australian artist and writer based in Murwillumbah whose work is motivated by space, memory, and architecture, often considering the concept of ‘home’ and its psychological impact.