Djenné is probably the oldest known towns of the sub Saharan and officially founded by Soninke merchants in 800 AD, but from archaeological findings (at Djenné-Jeno, a few kilometers from nowadays town) it may be concluded that 200 to 300 BC there where already people living here. Djenné always has been a place of trading (starting at Djenné-Jeno), but during the centuries different powers ruled the town. Djenné is located on the flood lands of the rivers Niger and Bani. With this rivers it has excellent connection to other places, like Timbuktu, which also was a trading place. In 1468 the place was taken over by Songhai emperor Sonni Ali and Djenné developed to a main trading place far into the 16th century. Some researchers also believe it was not only the trading that made Djenné important, but also the development of an own commercial network. In these days it was not only Timbuktu that had all kinds of crafts like weaving, shoemaking etcetera, but also Djenné. In 1591 the Moroccan took over the power and they stayed till around 1780. In this time the town was a trading place for merchants from all of north Africa. In 1861 the Turkulor emperor Al Hajj Umar took over the power, but not for long. In 1893 the French occupied the area. Slowly Djenné started to lose its importance as a trading center and its function was taken over by de city op Mopti about 100 km northeast of Djenné. Nowadays Djenné has more importance as an agriculture town (and as touristy attraction). In the town live around 10.000 people (some say 15.000). Most houses are made of mudstone and have different architectural influences. there are hardly any modern buildings in this town. Before the rainy season all buildings are (re)plastered with new mud for protection. Also the town will change to an island because of the amount of water. Because of its exceptional appearance the whole town is appointed as a world heritage since 1988. At that time a lot of the houses where in a bad shape.

The houses needed to be (re)plastered every two years. Due to a period of drought in the seventies and eighties of last century this maintenance was not done. In the second half of the nineties last century a big restoration started under Dutch supervision. The restoration took 7 years. Nowadays the town looks like early 20th century. Most work was done by local people.

Despite Djenné is surrounded by water, the presence of (good) drinking water used to be a problem. From 1990 on the town got a watering system. This system was build with international help. From a water tower the drinking water flows into a waterworks system. Not all the houses have their own tap, but most people now have access to good drinking water. Funny enough this created a new problem. Because people were able to use more water, they also produced more waste water. The gutter system was not able to support this increase of water. The streets in Djenné are not paved and building a separate sewerage was not considered as an option (it probably would be filled with mud after a rainy season). Most houses are build a own separation system. On the outside of the houses you will see an extension in which the human waste is collected. The water will evaporate and the solid material is collected every 5 to 10 years by making a hole in this extension. The extra production of human waste created a problem, because the collection system is too small for this. A Dutch organization came with a solution. In 2002 they started with an experiment by building concrete basins in which the water is collected. The water from the houses is first filtered, so solid parts are separated. The filtered waste water is discharged into the ground. The project was successful and in 2004 they started to implemented it for the whole town.

Djenné is a central place of Koran teaching. The lessons are given by Imams, most of the time in small classes at the home of the Imam or small schools. Although the main goal is to teach the holy book of the Muslims, the children also get taught different subjects like astronomy, history and logic. The schools have different levels up to university level. The strong Islamic influence in this town is logical, since the city is almost build by Muslims. The Koran is believed to be the source of all blessings. The basis of the Koran teaching is the passing through from father to son of the Koran. The teaching is mostly done by the elderly men in town. The teaching started in the 15th century at the great Mosque, which now is comparable with a university level. Together with Djenné, Timbuktu was a main center of teaching. The Koran teaching also contributed to the change from Christianity to Muslim.

Originally The mosque of Djenné used to be a castle build in 1280 by Koi Kounboro. Near the castle is was not allowed to build any houses. Around 1600 the Moroccans got more influence and also the people were slowly turned into Muslims. The kings refused to open up the castle for Muslims. This resulted one day in a kind of sneaky revolution. The castle was build in such a way that rain water was drained away very quickly. Workers in the castle blocked these drains. This resulted in floods inside the castle and in a couple of years there was nothing left of the mud construction. The revolution took place in this way, because it was not allowed for Muslims to break down other people houses. When the castle fell down due to "natural" courses, there finally was place for a Mosque. In 1830 Shekou Ahmadou Lobbo orderded the destruction of the castle and started to build the Mosque, which was finished in 1834 but was destroyed in 1896. Between October 1906 and October 1907 a big restoration took place. By this time Djenné was ruled by the French. The walls of the Mosque are between 40 to 60 cm thick. The walls are made of mudstone brick, covered with mud plaster.

The palm branches that stick out of the wall were not only put there for the annual scaffolding, but also the prevent crack due the change of humidity. Half of the interior (26 by 50 meters) is covered by a roof, that is supported by 90 wooden pillars. The other half (20 by 46 meters) of the interior is an open courtyard. The nowadays mudstone mosque is considered to be the largest mudstone building in the world and is on the world heritage list.

In Djenné there are three styles of buildings. Due to the arrival of the Moroccans in the 16th century, they influenced the way of building, but also there are some Sudan and Ethiopian influences because of trading and of course there is a local style. One of the typical Moroccan influences are the windows they used. The women were not allowed to go on the street because of their Muslim believe. The windows gave a woman the opportunity to look on the street, while people on the street couldn't see the woman. Another phenomenon is the way the doors were build. In the beginning the doors were so wide, a horse easily could walk through it. During time this was not always an advantage because also uninvited guest could use that. So most houses got a new entrance which was smaller than the original one. They just build a new "door" in front of the old one.

The influence from Sudan are the nicely decorated pillars and entrances of the houses. The richer the person living in the house, the more decoration there was. The houses were build with mud, because it was widely available due to the presence of the rivers Niger and Bani. To give the houses their strength, the walls had to be quit thick. It also means it needs a lot of maintenance, because the mud from the house "dissolves" when it's raining. So regularly the houses need to be replastered. During time a lot of the original styles disappeared, because houses were not well maintained or due to extension ornaments disappeared. Also during time the original knowledge of some building styles were lost an nowadays there is mostly only the local style. Because the function of some buildings changed (to shops etcetera) also the building styles adapt. Till today only certified persons, who got a special training, are allowed to work on the buildings. For new building someone needs multiple permits.

First published: 02 January 2010
Last update: 02 January 2010
© A. Heeroma

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