Out in Western Africa, in the country of Mali, is the largest mud brick building in the entire world. This building also happens to be the Great Masjid of Djenné (pronounced juh-nay), named after the town in which it is located. The other buildings and houses in Djenné are also made from sun-baked bricks. This and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status makes it a popular tourist attraction. It is critical to note, however, many residents are unhappy with their town being a World Heritage Site since it greatly limits their freedom to modernize their homes. Nonetheless, the Great Masjid of Djenné is a great source of pride for the residents and plays an important role in the culture of the town.
The current masjid looks very different from the building that was originally constructed. The first masjid was built in the 12th century when the local ruler became Muslim. He designated the location of his palace to be the site of the masjid and relocated his palace to the eastern side of the place of worship. Later, this masjid had deteriorated and fallen into disrepair, and in the middle of the 19th century, the ruler of the area had a new masjid built on the site of the previously relocated palace. This new masjid, although large, was very plain and not very tall.
The French, who took control of the area at the very end of the 19th century and at the very beginning of the 20th century, ordered the reconstruction of the original masjid. They also built a school on the site of the second masjid. A year later, the reconstruction was complete. Over the years, the Great Masjid of Djenné has been somewhat modernized through the additions of electrical wiring, indoor plumbing, and a loudspeaker system.
Every masjid should be a community center to the group of Muslims it serves, but the Great Masjid of Djenné plays an especially unique role in the community. Because of its adobe architecture, the masjid requires much upkeep and maintenance, in which the entire town actively participates. There is even an annual festival dedicated to applying new plaster to the cracks and other damage the masjid underwent because of any erosion over the year. Young boys prepare the plaster in pits during the days prior to the festival by playing in the mixture to keep the contents stirring continuously. Women and girls bring water to the pits to assist with this step. Later, some of the men climb on the masjid’s walls to apply the plaster to the sides. The design of the masjid lends itself to this task since there are palm wood logs jutting out from the walls all over the building. The men use these logs as scaffolds to climb on when smearing plaster. Another group of men bring the plaster from the pits to the first group. To help create a festive mood, the town even made a race out of this task, which is held in the beginning of the day. During the festival, the women also bring water to the men working on the masjid and in the meantime, the elderly supervise this process from the market square where they are given a place of honor.
The Great Masjid of Djenné is regarded to be one of the greatest accomplishments of Sudano-Sahelian architecture, a well-deserved title considering its history, unique design, and significance to the community and culture of Djenné.