360º Architecture

The Lizards of Djenné

26 September, 2010

The Lizards of Djenné

The Great Mosque of Djenné is the largest mud-brick building in the world and a prime example of the so-called style-Soudanais architecture.

By Styliane Philippou

Greek version

In the epilogue to his remarkable monograph on the Masons of Djenné, a fascinating study of the lives, practices and professional training of the designer-cum-craftsmen responsible for the unique mud-brick or adobe architecture of this Malian town of approximately 12,000 inhabitants, the architect and anthropologist Trevor H. J. Marchand describes the re-plastering of Djenné's Great Mosque, in February 2005. This annual festival involves the entire community of Djenné in the necessary regular maintenance of its majestic monument, which guarantees the protection of its mud brickwork against sun, rain and wind erosion. An act of devotion and a special festive event, the re-plastering of the building's exterior surfaces and roof normally takes place in March or April, towards the end of the dry season when most building activity takes place, a relatively short period between the end of the winter harvest and the first spring rain falls. The town elders together with the master masons of the barey ton (masons' association) typically determine an auspicious day for the event, just few weeks or days before its actual occurrence. This tradition was discarded in 2005, so that the re-coating of the Great Mosque with a new layer of mud would coincide with the first week-long Djenné festival, a new tourist attraction for this island town on the Bani River.

          Massive, coordinated preparations began Wednesday afternoon. On the outskirts of town, armies of little boys frolicked in
          shallow ponds of soupy brown water, trampling, scooping, and gathering piles of dark oozing mud. In a cacophony of shouts,
          chants, and banging metal pots, squadrons of older boys and young men arrived with horse carts and woven baskets to
          collect the mud, and then rampaged back to town behind fluttering flags and banners. Groups of adolescent girls and
          unmarried women sang praises and made music with cowry-laden calabashes along the sides of the road, tossing and
          spinning the instruments and cheering the mud-spattered hordes of men as they sprinted to the mosque and up the wide
          stairs onto the raised platform that envelops the enormous building.

          ...A shrieking whistle pierced the dawn at 6:20 AM, signaling the start of the event. Drums beat madly to a chorus of cries,
          and what seemed like a thousand bodies rushed forward carrying baskets and pots of every description. Legions of sinewy,
          muscular arms hoisted colossal wooden ladders against the walls, creating the scene of a fortress under siege. Scores of men
up the front of the face of the building, climbing the ladders and acrobatically scaling the armature of projecting 
toron [bundles of palm-wood sticks embedded in the external walls of the building and protruding perpendicularly
          about 60 cm from its façade, serving to distribute the lateral loads within the thick walls, and functioning as decoration
          as well as scaffolding for regular maintenance]. A continual relay was set in motion, delivering basket after basket of mud
          from the ground to the highest pinnacles that adorned the towers and parapet
 wall....Companies of women hastily
          transported colorful plastic pails brimming with water from the marshes, pouring them from the top of their heads in steady
          streams upon the gigantic piles of mud. Masses of young boys trampled the mucky mess, churning it into plaster and playfully
          painting one another from toe to head. Other young ones colonized their own small patches of the building, spreading plaster
          over the podium walls and nearby saints' tombs with tiny sweeps of their palms.
...Musicians ferociously pounded drums,
          and young women spun their calabash instruments, heightening the frenetic tempo of the festivities.

          The masons and apprentices were centrally involved, shouting instructions to the squadrons of young men
          and commandeering the plaster work from the highest rungs of the ladders, straddling
toron in midair and
          organizing the waves of deliveries that wound their way up the mosque staircases to the roof.

          ...Every able-bodied man and boy, and hundreds of women, participated in this extraordinary feat of coordination, energy,
          and speed. By 7:30 AM, the eastern façade and towers of the mosque were complete, and the remainder of exterior
          surfaces, including the courtyard walls and the roof, were finished few hours later. By late morning the task was over.


The Great Mosque of Djenné, the largest mud-brick building in the world and a prime example of the so-called style-Soudanais architecture (coined after the French conquest of 1893), is the only mosque of this cosmopolitan town in the heart of the fertile Inland Niger Delta, the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa, and an important West-African centre of Islamic learning. It was originally constructed around the thirteenth century, by King Koi Konboro, but fell into ruin during Sekou Amadou's nineteenth-century reign (1818-43). The reformist Islamic leader of the Fulani (Peul) Empire of Macina ordered the closure of all neighbourhood mosques in the trade city of Djenné (and in Timbuktu), in order to subdue the rebellious spirit of the local population. Blocking their gutters, and later also those of the city's ancient mosque, he promoted their collapse as a result of water infiltration. Designed by Ismaila Barey Traoré, Amadou's new, purist Friday mosque of Djenné (1834-36) rose to the east of the ruined old one, and reflected the ascetic tradition and pious simplicity of the Fulani leader's conservative and rigorous Islam.



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Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, originally constructed around the thirteenth century. It fell into ruin in the nineteenth century and was rebuilt between 1906 and 1907. The reconstruction was overseen by master mason Ismaila Traoré. Photographs by Styliane Philippou, 2004


The weekly busy market of Djenné attracts people from the entire region and from as far as Burkina Faso. It is held every Monday in the vast open space in front of the Great Mosque. Photograph by Styliane Philippou, 2004


The reconstruction of the Great Mosque took place between 1906 and 1907, during French colonial rule, but without direct French participation. The long-prevalent belief that the mosque was of French authorship has been successfully refuted by Jean-Louis Bourgeois, who has demonstrated that Djenné's celebrated landmark is 'a genuinely African monument'.(2) The rebuilding of the Great Mosque offered the multi-ethnic, non-Peul population of Djenné, some of whom had only returned from Peul-forced exile after the French conquest, a unique opportunity to shake off Peul hegemony, and free themselves from the imposed Fulani version of Islam and their rigid, subdued and austere mosque architecture, and reassert their suppressed identity. In Bourgeois's words, 'Amadou's sabotaging the structure [of the ancient mosque] had been a symbolic and crucial part of his occupation. Reconstructing the monument would declare that Djenné was reasserting its psychological and spiritual independence.'(3) The early-twentieth-century French administration concentrated its efforts on the construction of a medresa on the site of Amadou's mosque, while the renowned master builder Ismaila Traoré, chief of Djenné's barey ton, oversaw the reconstruction of the new mosque. The destruction of the only surviving monument of the empire of the self-proclaimed 'Emir of the Believers' marked the end of Peul domination, while the 'counter-reformist' design of the new Great Mosque of Djenné, which featured imposing towers, high ceilings and a women's gallery, in defiance of Amadou's strict proscription of such elements, declared the triumph of local architectural traditions, and systems of belief and worship.(4) Suzanne Preston Blier has interpreted the post-Fulani architecture of the mosque at Nando, in the Bandiagara escarpment (Dogon Country), along similar lines, as a bold affirmation of Dogon culture, which had been suppressed harshly by Seku Amadou.(5)


Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali. Photograph by Styliane Philippou, 2004

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Djenné, Mali. The Great Mosque is visible in the background. Photographs by Styliane Philippou, 2004


The unique architecture and surrounding archaeological sites of Djenné led to its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988, at a time when the region suffered the grave consequences of two decades of serious drought, which threatened the survival of its earthen architecture. As Marchand has amply demonstrated, the centuries-long and immensely rich building tradition of this historic town in the arid Sahel continues to play a vital role in determining its postcolonial identity. Djenné's remarkable architecture, disseminated throughout the region by the city's highly acclaimed masons, has also become a symbol of Malian national identity with strong links to the country's fledgling tourist industry. Following extensive research by a variety of Dutch specialists from the 1970s onwards, between 1996 and 2003, a Dutch-Malian programme coordinated the rehabilitation and conservation of Djenné's architecture. Financed by the Dutch government, the restoration project targeted some 168 historic buildings (later reduced to one hundred), selected on the basis of architectural merit. Some houses were also added to the list at a later stage, on the basis of social criteria ('houses for the destitute'). By March 2007 the restoration of ninety-eight houses had been completed.(6) Funding for their ongoing maintenance and annual re-plastering had also been secured, and a wastewater management project had significantly improved sanitary conditions in the city.(7) Since 2004, the Earthen Architecture Rehabilitation Programme of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has also developed initiatives in Mopti, Timbuktu and Djenné, beginning with the restoration of the Great Mosque of Mopti or Mosque of Komogue (2004-06), and including restoration works at the Great Mosque of Djenné.


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Typical Moroccan-style mud-brick house, left; and Tukolor-style mud-brick house, right. Djenné, Mali. Photographs by Styliane Philippou, 2004



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Great Mosque of Niono, Mali. It was constructed by a team of masons from Djenné in 1948, received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983, and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008. Photographs by Styliane Philippou, 2004


Great Mosque of Mopti, Mali (commonly called the Mosque of Komoguel, constructed 1936-43 on the site of an earlier mosque dating from 1908), prior to restoration works by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in conjunction with la Direction Nationale du Patrimoine du Ministère de la Culture du Mali (2004-06). The cement cladding added to the upper part of the building during earlier restoration works (1978) was materially incompatible with the mud walls of the building, and caused water infiltration and structural damage. It has now been removed and the walls have been stabilized. The roof has also been repaired. Photograph by Styliane Philippou, 2004


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Mosque of Nantaga village on Bani River near Mopti, Mali, top left; Mosque of Sekoubangu village on Bani River near Mopti, Mali, bottom left; and mosque of Congorongo village on Bani River near Mopti, Mali, right. Photographs by Styliane Philippou, 2004


The Dutch-Malian restoration project adopted the principles of the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS, Venice, 1964), but also recognized the need to adapt these to local circumstances so as to avoid imposing an inflexible set of rules upon a living city, and thus hampering its development.(8) Nevertheless, a number of issues that emerged in the course of the project highlighted the fact that conservation principles cannot be universal. Although the Nara Document on Authenticity (1995) recognized the 'authenticity' of cultural heritage as culturally dependent, and emphasized the need to respect cultural diversity as well as the pluralism of approaches to the preservation of cultural heritage, the Venice Charter remains the only accepted frame of reference for heritage professionals worldwide. Its ideas, terms and guidelines derive from the experience of experts working with stone buildings, mainly in the Mediterranean, which are frequently proven incompatible with the material realities of buildings such as the mud houses and mosque of Djenné as well as with the values of the societies that brought them into being, and the needs of the living communities they serve. The unquestioned application of certain regulatory clauses of the Venice Charter would put at risk both the fabric of these structures and the preservation of the traditional practices and processes of production that guarantee the sustainable conservation of architectural heritage.

The traditional architecture of Djenné and other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mali, such as the cliff-top villages of the Bandiagara escarpment (Dogon Country) and the city of Timbuktu, challenge established conservation approach and its largely Eurocentric principles. Respect for 'material authenticity', the philosophy of 'conserve as found' and 'minimum intervention', the unacceptability of reconstruction, the maintenance of 'patina' etc. are practically impossible or outright nonsensical in the case of Mali's earthen architecture. For example, conservation and restoration of West-Africa's historic mud architecture regularly involves demolition and reconstruction, something that, as Marchand notes, irritates conservationists. This is particularly true in the case of the contoured walls constructed with the old-style 'Djenné brick' (djenné ferey), a smaller, denser, cylindrical variety that is no longer used except for restoration purposes, as it has been replaced by the rectangular 'white-man's brick' (tubaabu ferey), introduced in the 1930s.(9) The vulnerability of banco (mud) to erosion necessitates regular maintenance; annual or biannual re-plastering (crépissage) adds layer upon layering on the walls of mud buildings, whose material fabric remains alive as their soft contours are perpetually reconfigured. Local masons continue to experiment with protective finishes for wall and roof surfaces, producing ever new concoctions of mud plasters, using the mineral-rich silts of the Bani River and adding various ingredients such as dry rice husks, cow manure, powdered baobab fruit and shea butter (beurre de karité), in an on-going effort to improve the mud's elasticity, durability and water resistance.(10) The replacement of termite-infested or rotten wood members is also frequently unavoidable.


View over the rooftops of Djenné's mud-brick houses by the Bani River. Photograph by Styliane Philippou, 2004


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Making mud bricks in Sekoubangu village on Bani River near Mopti, Mali, left; and ostrich-egg-topped pinnacle of Great Mosque of Niono, Mali, right. Photographs by Styliane Philippou, 2004


View of Banani village on the Bandiagara escarpment (Dogon Country), Mali. Photograph by Styliane Philippou, 2004


Views over the houses and granaries of Banani village on the Bandiagara escarpment (Dogon Country), Mali. Photograph by Styliane Philippou, 2004


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View of Ireli village, top left; mosque of Ireli village, bottom left; and mosque of Kani Kombole village, right. Bandiagara escarpment (Dogon Country), Mali. Photographs by Styliane Philippou, 2004


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Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, left; and mud bricks drying in the sun in Timbuktu, right. Photographs by Styliane Philippou, 2004


Questioning the emphasis of conservation efforts (largely Western-led) on the preservation of buildings as physical objects or products, their prioritization of material aspects, and their 'museological view of culture', Trevor Marchand has argued that, in the case of contemporary traditional architecture, process, 'constituted by skilled performance and expert knowledge, both of which give rise to the production and reproduction of material entities...should be of (perhaps greater) concern to conservationists, and be rightly regarded as a precious resource in its own right'. Based on his extensive ethnographic work amongst traditional masons in Djenné, Mali and San'a', Yemen, Marchand advocates 'the conservation of systems that produce and proliferate this knowledge, such as apprenticeship, and the maintenance of socio-economic parameters necessary for production, [as] the most promising scenario for sustaining desirable cultural resources'.(11) At once imaginative designers, engineers and skilled builders, the masons of Djenné command a body of knowledge which includes technical expertise and professional practice as well as rituals that guarantee the long-term protection of their buildings, health and prosperity for their inhabitants, and are based on the local Islamic and non-Islamic (animist or black-African) traditions.(12) This body of knowledge, transmitted via the apprenticeship system, constitutes an essential part of Djenné's architectural heritage, and maintains the continuity of its living building tradition without excluding imaginative innovation. Marchand has criticized the Dutch-financed conservation project for 'its continued reliance on a constructed notion of "authenticity" invested in the building-as-object over and above building-as-process', and has forcefully suggested that, in Djenné, 'the tradition most worthy of support and conservation is the apprenticeship system itself'.(13)

According to local lore, Bourgeois writes, 'Should a plasterer fall while working on high [during the annual ritual re-plastering of Djenné's Great Mosque], it is said occult spells will keep him uninjured. Quick as a wink he will change into a lizard and scamper down the wall. On the ground and unharmed, he regains his human form'.(14) Many of the rituals performed by master masons aim to protect their team members from work accidents. Their totem is the m'baaka, a small lizard whose 'agility, balance, and capacity to cling to, and scale, vertical wall surfaces' are qualities shared with the legendary masons of Djenné.(15)



1    Marchand, Trevor H. J., 2009, The Masons of Djenné (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press), pp. 290-94.
      Trevor Marchand has also co-produced a film exploring questions relating to the lives of Djenné's masons today:
      Future of Mud: A Tale of Houses and Lives in Djenné, 2007, directed by Susan Vogel (Columbia University), 
      produced by Susan Vogel, Samuel Sidibé (Director of the National Museum of Mali), Trevor Marchand 
      and Prince Street Pictures, New York.
2    Bourgeois, Jean-Louis, 1987, 'The History of the Great Mosque of Djenné', African Arts 20, no. 3, May, pp. 54-63, 90-92.
3    Bourgeois, p. 58.
4    Bourgeois, p. 62.
5    Suzanne Preston Blier, 2004. In Morris, James (photographs) and Suzanne Preston Blier (text), Butabu: Adobe Architecture
      of West Africa
(New York: Princeton Architectural Press), p. 188.
6    Chabbi-Chemrouk, Naϊma, 2007, 'Conservation of Djenné', On Site Review Report, prepared
      by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture,
7    Marchand, 2009, p. 280.
8    Maas, Pierre, 2007, 'The Restoration of Djenne, Mali: African Aesthetics and Western Paradigm's [sic]',
9    Marchand, 2009, pp. 214, 41.
10  Marchand, 2009, p. 123.
11  Marchand, Trevor H. J., 2001, 'Process over Product: Inverting the Emphasis in Sustainable Conservation',
12  Marchand, 2009, p. 69 and passim.
13  Marchand, 2001 and Marchand, 2009, p. 27.
14  Bourgeois, p. 90.
15  Marchand, 2009, p. 67.


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