On the banks of the River Niger in Mali, there is an entire city whose buildings are made of mud. Djenne is often overlooked by tourists but it is definitely one of the most remarkable sights in Africa.
Founded in 8000 AD by merchants who used it as a meeting place, the city prospered due to its location near the river, which linked it to other important African cities such as Timbuktu. The city is still home to a thriving community of over 30,000 people and plays a central role in the running of the local Mopti region.
The most striking building in Djenne is its Great Mosque. Built in 1906 and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, there is no doubt that this mosque is one of the most unique monuments in Africa. It is the largest free-standing mud building in the world and its existence is a real demonstration of architectural skill. The walls can be up to 24 inches thick and provide both support and protection from extreme heat. The hand-made ceramic caps at the tops of the minarets (towers) can also be removed in order to ventilate (allow air into) the building. The towers are also decorated with ostrich eggs which are a local symbol of fertility.
Another important feature of the Mosque is the wooden beams which stick out from its walls and contribute to its unusual and unique look. Above all, the beams provide a practical purpose – when the rain washes away the mud walls, the town’s population can stand on the beams and help to reconstruct the Mosque with fresh mud. This forms part of an annual week-long festival which shows the cultural importance of the building in the community as the biggest structure in the town.
Nevertheless, the Mosque is now permanently closed to non-Muslim visitors after being open for many years. The closure happened after French Vogue was granted special permission to carry out a photoshoot at the Mosque in 1997. The behaviour of the French models and photographers, including drinking and smoking on the site, was considered disrespectful, and after that, visitors were banned indefinitely.
Despite this, the town as a whole remains one of the most fascinating places to visit, not just in Africa, but in the world. It has been the site of several important architectural excavations (digs) that have allowed experts to learn more about civilization dating all the way back to 3 BC. There are few other places that still value and celebrate the use of natural elements such as mud and sand in their architecture and are untouched by modern man-made materials in the 21st century. For this reason, Djenne is a sight not to be missed.