Djenne & Timbuktu, Mali
The Mud Brick Mosques of Djenne and Timbuktu in Mali are among the architectural wonders of the Sahara Desert. These two cities, which became the dominant regional trading centers during the European colonial era, surpassed Chinguetti in religious importance in the 15th and 16th centuries. Because of their isolation from other Muslim states during this period, the cities of the deep Sahara developed their own religious subculture, as well as a unique form of architecture that found its expression in a series of mud-brick mosques, the largest such buildings in the world. West African pilgrims who do not have the means to reach Mecca or even Kairouan will often substitute a visit to these cities, which are considered sacred sites regionally. The mud brick mosques of both Djenne and Timbuktu are part of local UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
As far back as Roman times, the West Coast of Africa had been an immense source of wealth, producing gold, ivory, timber and other luxury commodities, as well as slaves. To move this wealth across the daunting Sahara Desert, trade routes were developed that took best advantage of the terrain, notably the Niger River, which cut almost halfway across the desert from the Gulf of Guinea to Algeria. Other routes skirted the less fierce western desert. When the Muslims arrived in the Maghreb, these same routes were used to introduce Islam into Western Africa. Unlike other places, where conversions took place quickly, the pace of Islam’s growth in the region was slow, steady and generally peaceful.
By the 14th century, several of the region’s trade cities became important religious centers. Among the most important of these was Timbuktu, located at the northernmost bend of the Niger River and the main terminus for caravans crossing the desert. At the time, Timbuktu was Africa’s greatest inland trading city. It was also the capital of a succession of regional empires. Nearby Djenne was also built on the regional trade. Djenne, which also benefited from the Niger, was a major transit for goods moving up from Guinea. While economically overshadowed by Timbuktu, Djenne was just as important religiously.
In Timbuktu, the considerable riches available to the city were used to construct the Masjid Sankore. For several centuries the clerics at Sankore were considered the supreme Islamic authority in much of Africa, and many Muslims came from the wealthy lands to the south to study here. Although never considered a pilgrimage destination in and of itself, the Masjid Sankore achieved an intellectual importance that rivaled the schools of Cairo and Cordoba. Virtually every Muslim of West Africa looked to Timbuktu as the region’s defacto religious education capital.
Djenne spent most of its early years as an independent city-state, fiercely resisting incursions by regional powers. It finally succumbed in 1473 when it was conquered by the Songhai Empire. It was the last of the great Saharan cities to blossom as a religious center, which benefited the city architecturally. One of the results of this is that the Masjid Djenne became the largest and most magnificent in the region, as well as the world’s largest mud-brick structure. Djenne did not weather the colonial period as well as Timbuktu, and after the French conquest of the region Djenne declined in political and economic importance. However, its mosque remains the most popular pilgrimage destination in West Africa.
The great mud-brick mosques of the Western Sahara are strictly an African oddity, with little resemblance to any sort of traditional Islamic architecture elsewhere. However, each enjoys its own history and style. From a distance, the Masjid Sankore appears like a specter of early Egyptian architecture. The walls encompass an area the size of a football field, and a large pyramid doubles as a gate and a prayer minaret. The whole structure is covered with beams jutting out from the mud, a permanent scaffolding from which the mud and plaster is regularly repaired. Inside the walls are the numerous schools and homes where Islamic teachers regularly lecture. Also part of the Sankore educational system are the various libraries of Timbuktu, which together contain the largest pre-colonial collection of books in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Great Mosque of Djenne is the world’s largest mud-brick structure. Most of the current building dates from a reconstruction in the early 20th century. Although the overall compound is smaller than that of Timbuktu, the main building is much larger, soaring to a height of seven stories, seemingly impossible for a mud-brick structure. The Great Mosque of Djenne uses the same type of permanent scaffolding beams from which the mosque is repaired every year or so. Several tombs of prominent local clerics are located on the premises.
The Masjid Sankore is located on the northeastern edge of Timbuktu, approximately 215 miles northeast of Djenne and 440 miles northeast of the capital city of Bamako. The Great Mosque of Djenne is located in the heart of that city, approximately 235 miles northeast of Bamako. Both mosques are open to both Muslims and non-Muslims, with restrictions on the latter at certain times. The cost of admission to each is by a small donation. Web: www.ambamali-jp.org (official tourism website of Mali)
Although not as famous as the Masjid Sankore, Timbuktu does boast a number of other architecturally impressive madrasses. Among these are the Masjid Djinguereber, dating from the 14th century, and the Masjid Sidi Yahya dating from the 15th century.