There are places of ethereal beauty that cannot receive justice from mere words. Such places imprint themselves on the travelers' soul.
Mud is the essence of West Africa. It has sheltered people for millenniums before the advent of steel and glass, and did so with an efficiency that nothing has surpassed to this day. The land and people are bonded as one, and the people have made their mud cities living works of art.
Djenné squats low and brown on the West African plain near the southern terminus of the Sahara in Mali. From afar it is unremarkable other than for its resilience. It is sunbaked and sand-blasted by the constant eastern wind known as the Harmattan. It sits alone in a land almost primeval, like a giant brown succulent, breaking through the desert crust; an ancient jewel in the architectural crown of West Africa.
An early incarnation of the city, Djenné-Jeno, was first settled around 200 BC, about a mile and a half southeast of today's location. While it is under excavation, the reasons for its abandonment are still open to speculation, especially since its terra-cotta sculptures reveal a highly advanced culture.
The current city was begun by merchants as a gathering place for traders crossing the Sahara and Sudan around 1100 A.D. It thrived because of its proximity to the Niger River, linking it to Timbuktu and the camel caravan routes, that carried gold, salt, and slaves. It was claimed by numerous kingdoms and empires until 1893 when the French conquered it and transferred all commercial functions to the nearby port of Mopti.
Djenné is more sculpture than construction. It's Toucouleur style, named for ancient inhabitants whose surreal architecture brings to mind Gaudi on drugs. They transformed the natural land, turning common mud into structures of beauty. Towers resembling human tonsils probe the endless sky, sometimes in groups that seem to approximate giant hands reaching for the unseen. Nothing is square: each building is at angles and each building seems in flux as the city appears to be in motion. To all of this, add massive wooden doors held in place by steel decorated hinges from the hands of master metalworkers that makes each home look like an impregnable castle.
To some, it is the mad dream of its designer, Ismaili Traroré, while to others, it is a personal Mecca. Visitors are drawn to its beauty, and to its centerpiece is the grand Djerbinger Mosque.
The mosque dominates Djenné like Godzilla looms over Tokyo. It is a masterwork on a scale of La Familia Sagrada and just as overwhelming. At first sight it appears far larger than its actual 17,000 square feet. It must be touched as well as admired. Running my hand along its walls I almost expected to feel it breathe in and out. The current mosque was begun in 1906, commissioned by the French colonial administration, finished in 1907, and remains the largest free-standing mud building in the world.
It occupies the site of the former palace of Sultan Koi Kunboro, a convert to Islam, who in 1240, turned his private domicile into a mosque. By 1830, a Sheik Amadou, the then ruler, considered it too opulent and halted its upkeep while a new one replaced it. Neither of these predecessors survives.
Today's mosque sits on a raised platform and is made of sundried mud bricks with mud mortar mixed with corn husks. Its height, judged by modern architecture, is about four stories tall. Its walls vary from about 16 inches to 24 inches, depending on the height of the individual wall. This massive thickness acts as both support for the ceiling and insulation from the heat of the day. Its minarets have removable ceramic caps, made by the village women to ventilate the building. Ostrich eggs top many of the towers, local symbols of purity and fertility. Large sticks of Ronier Palm, called toron, protrude through the walls that serve as decoration while acting as permanent scaffolding for repairs. Mud architecture requires constant maintenance, especially in a land of monsoons.
Sitting on a flat plain between the Niger and Bani Rivers, Djenné becomes an island during the heavy rains from July through October. Such regular downpours necessitate the annual re-plastering of the exterior walls and the residents have made this a carnival as well as live theater. To begin, for several days prior, barefoot boys will tramp in vats of mud mixed with rice husks, until the leader of the masons' guild declares it ready. Once a year he is the most important man in the city and it is his call for "Le Crepissage," as it is called, to begin. The city's sand-filled byways fill early the evening before as the growing crowd chants and sings to the beat of drums. The entire city is in party mode.
At some predetermined time in the late evening, the chief mason issues four whistle blasts to set everyone running to their work station in a marathon-like start. Plasterers and assistants ascend the toron. Buckets of fresh mixed mud are passed skyward, women hustle about carrying massive water jugs on their heads to keep the mud moist, while young boys run to the call wherever they are needed. Those not actually working are directing from the sidelines and everyone has an opinion about how to do what. Of course, even such serious work requires time out for mud fights, and by dawn, most of the work is finished, and everyone looks like a Pompeii statue, but the mosque is good to go for another year.
Few people will have the opportunity to watch an actual Crepissage, and before I left one of the masons told me he fears it will fade away in time as more and more young people are leaving the city for the wonders of the outside world.
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