Djenne is one of the oldest known towns in sub-Saharan Africa. Dating back to 250 BC, it flourished as an important link in the trans-Saharan gold trade and is often described as the ‘twin city’ of ancient Timbuktu.
Sitting on the bank of the rivers Bani and Niger in Mali, Djenne’s rich past is seeped in Islamic history. It was a centre for the propagation of Islam in Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and continues to pose as a remarkable representative of Islamic architecture in sub-Saharan Africa.
The ancient West African town’s character is shaped by the spectacular and elaborate use of earth in its architecture. It is home to a plethora of charming clay houses that blend into its natural surroundings, with the Great Mosque of Djenne, the largest earthen mud structure in the world, looming over them.
Every spring, an epic single-day festival brings together the entire population of the town in one of the most unique displays of social cohesion and communal celebration of faith and heritage to gaze upon.
The Crepissage, or the plastering, sees the residents of Djenne work together every single year to re-plaster the Great Mosque which, like the town’s traditional clay homes, boasts earthen mud walls coated with adobe plaster.
A magnificent example of Sudano-Sahelian architecture, the original structure of the mosque is believed to have been built around the thirteenth century, when King Koi Konboro, Djenne’s 26th ruler and its first Muslim sultan, decided to to build a place of Muslim worship in the town using local building materials. But the mosque has been reconstructed at least twice since.
The current structure of the mosque was completed in 1907, making it a little over a century old.
The natural insulation provided by the use of mud and clay in the mosque’s structure keeps it cool inside even during the hottest summer days. With a prayer hall that can hold up to 3,000 people, the UNESCO World Heritage Site rises nearly 20 metres high and is fitted with three distinctive minarets and hundreds of sticks of rodier palm called ‘toron’ jutting out of its facade for support and to make replastering easier.
Over the years, the Great Mosque has become the centrepiece of the religious and cultural life of Mali and a symbol of Djenne’s architectural heritage and cultural identity. It also captures the town’s phenomenal sense of community and commitment to the preservation of the structure.
On the eve of the Crepissage, the residents of Djenne take to the streets in a carnival known as La Nuit de Veille, or ‘The Waking Night’, where they sing and dance until the early hours of the morning in anticipation of the most important day of the year.
As a whistle goes off at around 5 am on the day of the Crepissage, teams of young men race up the mosque’s facade with baskets of wet clay to smear onto the walls with the supervision of mason elders, while women carry the water needed to mix the clay from the river. Children also take part by transporting the clay baskets in aid of the builders. The process lasts for nearly five hours and is finished well ahead of the scorching midday sun of the Sahara Desert.
The annual reinforcement is designed to protect the mosque’s earthen mud walls from cracking and crumbling and to ensure the building survives the rainy summer season.