The Mosque Made of Mud
For over 800 years, the citizens of Djenné, Mali have maintained their mosque. Through colonization and drought, it's rebuilt every April.
A deep emerald river bends around the city of Djenné in central Mali. The river’s fingers slide past banks made of Saharan sand and surround the city that seems to have risen from the desert itself. Tight streets are lined by buildings made from mud-brick covered in plaster. Open-air markets are scattered throughout the city, where people sell crops, livestock, fish, and other goods.
In the city’s center, a sacred structure watches all. A monolith of adobe mud-brick, the Great Mosque of Djenné is a testament to the prevailing Islamic scholarship and Sudo-Sahelian architecture of western Africa.
The blazing sun burns bright as April approaches. But the heat of the dry season will soon be washed away by a brief but intense rainy season. The adobe mud-brick architecture of the Great Mosque provides relief from the heat and keeps worshippers dry during the wet season. But each year, to ensure that the mosque's structure prevails during the rainy months, the plaster covering the earthen bricks must be restored.
And so, every year, the people of Djenné do just that. Men, women, children, elders, and masons come together as one for Le Crepissage (“the plastering” in French). United under a common goal, they replaster the Great Mosque and bless another year of prosperity in Djenné.
From the 11th to the 13th century, Djenné was a major trading hub along the Trans-Saharan trade route. Stops on the trade route were places to barter goods like gold, salt, and slaves, but in addition to trading natural resources and slaves, Islam spread quickly. Djenné was a centre of Islamic scholarship and cultural advancement. People came to see the Great Mosque and learn or study the religion of Islam. To this day, scholars flock to the city's Quranic schools to study Islam and participate in Le Crepissage.
The Great Mosque reflects an architectural style specific to the region surrounding Djenné. Sudo-Sahelian architecture combines practicality, functionality, and aesthetics.. When making the mosque, builders utilized resources from the surrounding environment. Earthen bricks of clay and shredded straw were stacked with mortar separating each brick. Bundles of ronier palm were placed perpendicular to the structure in various places along the walls of the mosque. These sticks added to the aesthetic of the mosque, but also were used as ledges for masons to stand on during the annual replastering. Finally, a mixture of earth and rice byproduct were combined to make a plaster to smooth and protect the structure.
The Great Mosque is revered by many because its impact extends beyond architectural bounds. The mosque’s grandeur lies in the hands of the people of Djenné as they come together each year to protect and sustain their unique cultural tradition. Globalization and urban sprawl have impeded the religious traditions of some communities in Africa.
But no matter what Djenné has faced, from French colonization in the 1800s to extreme drought in the 1970s, the Great Mosque has prevailed.
It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, and was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2006.
Imagine a warm April night in the city of Djenné. It is Waking Night, a city-wide carnival on the eve of Le Crepissage. This event precedes the replastering and is a celebration of the cultural individuality of Djenné. Singing and dancing congest the streets; markets are filled with aromatic smells and excitement leading up to Le Crepissage. For days, the Malians of this sacred city have been preparing for the plastering. Women have made wicker baskets and collected water, men have brought clay into the city center, and children prepare to aid in the mixing of both. Ladders line the sides of the mosque. The masons (all men) who plaster the Great Mosque are specialized in this process and consult with elder masons. With each handful of clay added to the exterior, a mason of Djenné will add himself to the long history of masons who have devoted their life to ensuring the Great Mosque continues to exist.
On the Waking Night, the elder masons consult each other, and at about 4:00 am, they whistle to signify the beginning of Le Crepissage.
The city gets to work.
Djenné hums with the energy of hundreds of years of tradition. Thousands of hands have ensured that no rainstorm, excruciating drought, or colonial power can suppress the individuality of Djenné and the magnificence of the Great Mosque.
By 9:00 am the ritual is almost complete. The Great Mosque will, thanks to the replastering, live through another rainy season.
But Le Crepissage is not finished. There is one last tradition that is crucial to its completion. Speaking the Djenné Chiini dialect of a Songhay language, hundreds of Malians sit on the ground, palms facing the heavens, and bless the work they have just done. Their prayer is simple; their intention is clear: “May god allow us to be here next year.”
Jenny Crum is a junior at Cartersville High School in Bartow County, Georgia. She writes about history, art, and community.