Great Mosque of Djenne & Monday Market – Mali

2007

Whisking along in the cool evening air on the back of a motorbike, the excitement of finally reaching Djenne – seeing the great mosque’s silhouette of spiky mud spires – rewards me for the arduous day’s effort.

Djenne Great Mosque and the Monday Market nearing dusk.
The amazing – and frankly, surreal – mud mosque of Djenne and the Monday Market nearing dusk.

Back in the day, Djenne (pronounced: ‘Jen-Nay’) was an important stop on the Saharan trade route – its fortunes linked to the legendary city of Timbuktu.

During the 15th to 17th centuries, caravans of salt, slaves and gold arrived at this southern-desert stop, located on a large island between the Bani and Niger Rivers.

However, when the Portuguese began building forts along the African coast, they also hijacked the gold trade, and pushed the overland trail out of business with their octopus of vast ocean routes.

For some centuries, the ancient city was also a respected center of Islamic scholarship and learning.

Great Mosque of Djenne

Today, Djenne remains dominated by the Great Mosque – the largest mud-brick building on the planet, with a capacity for 3000 Muslim worshippers.

Boys chatting below the walls of the Great Mosque of Djenne.
Boys chatting below the walls of the Great Mosque of Djenne.

Yet the Great Mosque of Djenne is recent – built in 1907 on the site of an earlier mosque from the 1400s (which survived into the 19th century before crumbling from neglect).

Typical attire of a local Muslim man in Djenne.
Typical attire of a local Muslim man in Djenne.

Being made of mud, the mosque is vulnerable to the elements, particularly during the rainy season.

To maintain the integrity of the structure, each year the Great Mosque of Djenne is re-plastered and renovated in a festival called the Crépissage (Plastering) each April; the wooden palm poles jutting from the exterior serve as supports for workers to mount and re-plaster the mosque.

The mud plaster used a mix of clay, rice bran, shea butter, baobab powder, and water.

The mosque’s adobe plaster and palm-pole scaffolding are common elements of Sudano-Sahelian architecture, and the Great Mosque of Djenne is one of the finest examples (better than what I saw in Timbuktu and elsewhere).

They hold the market at Djenne every Monday

The weekly Monday Market in the ancient town of Djenne in Mali.
The weekly Monday Market in the ancient town of Djenne in Mali.

I’d timed my visit to Djenne for the weekly Monday Market, where traders from surrounding areas set up stalls and crowds converge directly in front of the Great Mosque.

Monday Market winds down towards dusk in Djenne.
Monday Market winds down towards dusk in Djenne.

Backstreets of Ancient Djenne

The first town in the area was nearby at Djenne-Djenno, settled around 250 BC, and people developed some of the earliest iron production methods in sub-Saharan Africa.

Traditional merchant's houses in Djenne old town.
Traditional house of wealthy family in Djenne’s old town, influenced by Islamic Moroccan architecture, especially the windows.

Djenne dates from the 13th century AD, founded by the Boso ethnic group – who’d converted to Islam through the influence of Arab merchants on the desert trade routes.

women carry wares on head in dusty backstreets of old Djenne.
Dusty backstreets of old Djenne.

UNESCO designated both the ancient settlement and areas around Djenne as a collective World Heritage site in 1988.

young girls pose djenne mali
Young girls pose.

Backstory: Getting to Djenne from Bamako

It should’ve been an easy trip from Bamako to Djenne, but my experience proved otherwise.

  • Notes from the Road

It was a hell of a trip getting here.

Got up at 5 in the morning (after waking up twice during night with the shits – blame the chili sauce).

Went to the bus station by taxi 6 km away.

Even though I’d arrived early, I’d had to wait for bus #3 for Mopti and that wasn’t leaving until 7:30, yet it was 9 by the time people boarded it.

Problem with this nice modern European bus was that its windows were sealed and the AC wasn’t functioning, so it was fuckin’ hot.

Sure, there were a couple of open vents on the roof; still sweltering as I sat beside the window, sun on me all day.

Journey through the arid Sahel – plains of scrub, mud-brick houses and baobab trees and by the time we got to the turnoff for Djenne, the sun was a descending orange ball.

canoes disembarking cargo djenne mali
‘The Port’ of Djenne. Passengers and cargo moving on market day.

This journey should’ve taken 7 to 10 hours but now it was looking like 12 or 13 hours from Bamako.

Driver stopped everywhere, dropping people off like it was a bush taxi. At some point, a European girl with her Malian boyfriend disembarked – but while on the bus, she’d been kissing and touching him up; seemingly, with no clue that she was in an Islamic country.

Anyway, arrived at another road junction and paid for the remaining 3 taxi seats – 4000 CFA total – so to get moving; otherwise, it could’ve been hours of waiting.

However, the car didn’t start.

It was a worn-out Peugeot 504 station-wagon.

The window was shattered.

I shared the ride with a guy from Paris and his adopted Malian son. Everyone else was local.

Canoes on river at dusk around Djenne.
Canoes on the Bani River at dusk.

Finally, some guy arrived with new spark-plugs or something.

It was a heaving mess of a car but it had started.

The old taxi puffed and wheezed at a reasonable speed – crunching over speed-bumps announcing unlit villages otherwise invisible in the night.

At the Bani River, we waited for the barge.

Drank a Coke, not having much water all day; was dying of thirst.

Once across the river, the taxi wouldn’t start. We pushed, but it was dead.

Only 4 km short of Djenne at 8 PM, maybe later.

The final stage was on a motorbike as I’d bargained for a ride (2000 CFA).

woman with bowl balanced on head walks pass great mosque of djenne in mali.
The Great Mosque.

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