The Great Mosque has roof vents capped with ceramic bowls, made by the women of Djenné, which can be removed to help ventilate the interior. Each tower is topped by an ostrich egg, a symbol of fertility.
Mali – Long Read

Largest mud-brick building in the world

Photo by Jeff Overs

Mali – Long Read Largest mud-brick building in the world

Hello Mali, where the Saharan trading city of Djenné is famous for its Great Mosque, the largest mud-brick building in the world. Dating to 1907, it is replastered every year in a community event that has become a tourism spectacle but still retains links going back thousands of years into African beliefs.

Sophie Sarin
Sophie Sarin

It is four o’ clock in the morning. Normally, the moezzin’s first call to prayer would be gently drifting across to me from the Great Mosque as I lie in my bed snoozing. But today is different. I am standing next to the mosque, and so is everyone else in Djenné: dawn is still an hour away. The air is filled with excitement as the oldest and most venerable of the Djenné masons slaps the first handful of mud onto the façade of the mosque, while he utters the required prayers and blessings, as well as the secret incantations known only to the Djenné Barey Ton (the guild of the masons) in order to ensure a successful day.

The end of this short ceremony unleashes a six-hour mud explosion. A great roar rises from the crowd as they throw themselves into a joyous orgy of mud. The young men of each neighborhood compete with each other to see who can be the first to claim victory: each district traditionally has a certain section of the mosque to plaster. Soon they will be crawling up the façade on ladders to perch perilously on the palmwood beams that protrude from the walls for this very reason, giving an impression of great birds of prey from a distance. By 10am the Great Mosque will lie newly plastered in the morning sun, still a little wet behind its ears, while the entire mud-splattered workforce will have decamped to the river for a giant communal bath. But now let’s follow the Yobokaina boys: here they come, running 100-strong with mud baskets on their heads toward the North Tower.

Although I have lived in Djenné for years, I have never been inside this stupendous mud edifice, the largest adobe structure in the world. So imagine my excitement yesterday when my friend Yelpha, the marabout, told me that the “Crepissage” is the only day of the year when women are allowed to enter. “Yes, of course you can take part,” he says. “The women carry water from the river to mix in with the mud.” To make use of this rare opportunity, I came prepared with a bucket. But now I am somewhat taken aback when I realize that in this case “women” means the young maidens of Djenné.

We run to the river to collect water in our buckets

Never mind. Here goes. I, a thrice-married, middle-aged Toubab (white person), try to blend in seamlessly with the throng of giggling teenage girls as we run together to the river to collect water in our buckets. Then we carry it back on our heads to throw onto the mud mounds, which lie piled up around the mosque and on the inside courtyard. Meanwhile, some people jump onto the mounds and stamp and squish around, a little like the treading of grapes at an old-fashioned vineyard: dirtier but just as much fun.

Having made use of this unlikely ruse, I can watch the proceedings from the vast roof of the Great Mosque, which is held up by a hundred great mud pillars. There is plenty of activity up here too, as everyone is running up and down the mud staircases with baskets of mud on their heads, calling out to their friends: “Won da Goy (That is good work).” “Won da Baara Ji (God will give us recompense)”, is the response.

This glorious edifice was first built in the middle of the 14th century by Koy Konboro, the first ruler in Djenné to embrace Islam. That was the zenith of the Malian Empire and the century in which the two great mosques of Timbuktu were also built, the Djingereber and the Santoro. However, religious reformer and iconoclast Sekou Amadou found the splendor of its three majestic minarets with their intricate crenulations offensive. In 1834, he built a simpler mosque around the corner, one more suitable for the pared-down faith he advocated, leaving the old mosque to crumble back to dust. In 1907, the present mosque was rebuilt as a copy of the original on its former site.

It is said that the then Imam of Djenné offered to raise ambitious French colonial administrator William Pointy to the highest colonial office in French West Africa if he agreed to help rebuild the mosque. Pointy did in fact become Governor of Afrique Occidentale Français. How could the Imam of Djenné have wielded such power over decision-making in the French Colonial Administration? Because he too, like Yelpha, was a Grand Marabout – an Islamic scholar with understanding of maraboutage, the special form of magic for which Djenné is famed all over Mali and beyond.

One even older than Islam itself

The magic used this morning in the incantations of the masons for the Crepissage of this great mosque, the Islamic epicentre of Djenné, is of a different kind, one even older than Islam itself. Their spells are called “Bey-Bibi” and have roots in an ancient African knowledge that goes back to the animist practices of the 9th century CE, when the maiden Tapama Djenepo was sacrificed in order to ensure that the buildings of Djenné would never fall.

“The masons have their reunion and prepare their fetishes and sacrifices before the Crepissage,” says Yelpha. “That ensures that there will be no accidents and, even if someone were to fall from the scaffolding during the work, they will not come to any harm.”

I am curious that Yelpha, Grand Marabout de Djenné and therefore an Islamic scholar, can accept with such natural grace that the masons’ practices are so openly animist. As a marabout, he practices the magic called “Bey-Koray” and the difference seems to lie in the fact that Yelpha’s magic is connected to writing, and to the verses of the Koran, while the “Bey-Bibi” of the masons, who are often illiterate, is a verbal form. However, both types of magic use animal sacrifice and prepare talismans in order to reach their desired goals.

These ancient arts have always existed quite harmoniously side by side in Djenné. Although Islam is a strong defining characteristic of the town, it is not the unbending Islam of the recent Jihadist occupiers of the northern part of Mali. They wreaked havoc and destruction on the mausoleums of Timbuktu because their Salafist creed does not allow the veneration of saints, a practice also widespread in Djenné with its many shrines to local saints. The Islam of Djenné is a gentle creed, infused by strains of Sufi mysticism as well as the echoes and whispers of ancient Africa.

As if yesterday’s events had never taken place

The day after the Crepissage, all is back to normal again – as if yesterday’s momentous events had never taken place. I walk through the town, which has returned once more to its sleepy pace. Donkey and horse carts amble slowly down the main streets, overtaken by a steady flow of the little Chinese “Jakarta” mopeds owned by anyone who is even modestly affluent.

I turn off into the narrow old streets of Djenné and I am at once hit by a familiar sensation. I feel as if I am walking through an illustrated children’s Bible. Everything reminds me of a picture book of the Holy Land that I loved as a child: little shepherd boys are guiding their flocks of sheep to the outskirts of town for pasture; the notables of Djenné, elegant in their long, embroidered bou-bous and prayer caps, sit on their animal skins, spread out on the tintin, the raised mud platforms outside their traditional two-storey Djenné houses. They chat endlessly, drinking Malian sweet tea from small glasses and fingering their prayerbeads while watching the passers-by with inscrutable expressions.

The confusing system of alleyways that crisscross the old neighborhoods of Yobokaina, Sankore, Konofia and Dioboro are teeming with life. Donkeys bray. Women are returning from the market with the day’s purchases in baskets on their heads. I hear the clink-clink from metal-beating as I wave to Amadou in his blacksmith’s forge, where an apprentice’s bellows are feeding the fire. Next door to the smithy is the house of Amadou’s wife, Baji, the potter who made all the ceramic washbasins in the hotel I own. “I ni tile Baji?” I call to her (literally: you and the midday - i.e. “How are you this fine noon, Baji?”). “Sophie. Toro si te. A ni fama. (I am well Sophie. It has been a long time),” she replies. The potters are always women in Djenné and in Songhay culture. And the potters are always married to the blacksmiths.

Early the following morning, I visit Yelpha in his Koran school. It is on the ground floor of a beautiful traditional building, which looks as ancient as time itself but was only built in 1978 by his late father, the Imam of Djenné. Outside, there is a myriad of little shoes – one cannot enter the sandy floor of the school without first removing one’s footwear. In the semi-darkness inside sit about 20 little talibés, literally students, all with wooden boards on which they have written down in Arabic a verse of the Koran given them the day before to learn by heart.

A gentle man who would not harm a fly

One by one they recite the phrases to Yelpha who listens, sitting cross-legged in front of them while fingering a black leather whip. He wields it now and then in a light-hearted way, giving a pretend lash to any talibé who has not mastered his phrases correctly. It may well be that elsewhere there is real punishment meted out, but the Yelpha I know is a gentle man who would not harm a fly.

The talibés do not understand what they read. It is only after several years of study, when they are able to recite great portions of the Koran by heart, that they are slowly allowed to understand the meaning of what they read. ”But why, Yelpha?” I ask in my Toubab way. “Because knowledge has to be earned and should only be given to those that deserve it,” he says.

The Koran school is a marabout’s daytime occupation. There is another – more lucrative and also more secretive – side, which takes place at night, in meetings one-to-one with individuals on personal quests. They will consult a marabout for his powers of “Koray-Bibi” – the magic which always has a tenuous link to the Koran. ”What do they mostly want from you?” I ask. “Oh there are lots of different reasons,” says Yelpha evasively.

“Please tell me,” I beg. “You don’t have to give me any names.” Yelpha relents and tells me something of his night-time visitors’ quests. I find out what I had already suspected: the desires and pre-occupations of Djenné are the same as those the world over: a woman is infertile; a man is impotent; a woman wants a potion to make her beloved fall in love with her; a man wants riches and promotion in his field of work; a student wants success at an exam.

A sacrifice is almost always needed

“Does anyone ever want you to do anything bad – like get rid of someone?” I cannot help asking. “No, for that sort of thing they don’t come to me,” he says, implying that there are indeed those that do offer such services, although he is not willing to confirm it.

Yelpha’s “good magic” involves first listening to the problem; then devising a solution which is more often than not based on numerology: i.e. if it is a question of making someone love you, then he needs the names of the two intended lovers. The combined letters of the names give a figure. This number is used in combination with a verse from a Surat in the Koran which talks about love, and a complicated system is now devised within a square. A sacrifice is almost always needed: depending on the importance and difficulty of the problem, it may be a chicken, a ram or even a bull. Then the magic formula will be written in the blood from this animal onto a wooden board of the same type as used by the talibés.

Finally, the writing will be washed off with water, and the liquid obtained will now be a magic potion that can either be drunk or applied as a lotion to the body. There is plenty of commerce in such magic potions, which are sent in plastic jerrycans to buyers in Bamako by the bus which leaves Djenné twice weekly.

Yelpha and I walk the short distance from his Koran school to the Djenné Manuscript Library when he finishes his morning’s teaching. He works there as one of the two archivists whose job it is to receive, list and store the ancient Arabic manuscripts of Djenné’s old families, who increasingly decide to entrust their collections to this municipal library. It stands just to the north of the mosque, opposite the Entrance of the Nobles. Not surprisingly, more than half of the manuscripts in the library fall under the heading of “esoterics”: the learned way to say “magic”.

This will be his third wife

During our short walk, Yelpha tells me he is about to marry again. This will be his third wife. “She is still at school though, so I will wait until the end of term,” he says. I quietly wonder why he would like her to finish school when her future role will be restricted to sitting in the courtyard of her house, preparing meals and raising children. “But you are too old for her (he is 49),” I say. “Does she want to marry you?”

Yelpha looks at me as if he does not quite understand the question. “But of course she wants to marry me,” he says. He has a cast-iron belief in his powers as a love magnet. “My father was the Imam of Djenné. Her family will be honored.” I laugh out loud at this, as my unlikely but nevertheless real friend reveals so much of the attitudes of this fascinating and sometimes infuriating town.

Djenné is ancient. Hardly anything has changed over the centuries. The beliefs and customs of this city remain virtually the same as they were nine centuries ago when the city first yielded to Islam.

“Oh, Yelpha, you live in the 13th century,” I say. He laughs. I think he is quite pleased to be regarded as a relic from the past.


Writer Sophie Sarin owns the Hotel Djenné Djenno:

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