I’ve learned a great deal about the Republic of Mali in recent weeks, because I’ve been reading a book that takes place in that fascinating country. (More about that book in an upcoming post.) As much as I love to travel and learn about different cultures, I must admit with embarrassment that until this time, I couldn’t have found Mali on a map.
I think a certain level of Afro-ignorance is the case for most Americans, and I have no idea why. The entire continent of Africa seems to be this big blank spot in our education. I mean, most of us might be able to find South Africa and Egypt with its pyramids, and maybe the Nile River, and we’ve at least heard of Morocco, and we know that someone once said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume…” but yeah, that’s about it.
So imagine my shock to discover that Mali is home to one of the most famous landmarks in Africa. I’m dismayed that I’d never heard of this majestic structure, let alone seen a picture of it. I’m talking about the Great Mosque in the city of Djenné.
This edifice was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, but was built in its current form in 1907. The original mosque in this location may have been around since the year 1200, but no one is for certain.
I am so impressed with the architecture. It looks as though it was carved from one gigantic block of adobe, but it is, in fact, made of sun-baked earth bricks, mortar, and plaster, with palm sticks sticking out of it to allow for changes due to moisture and heat. It also happens to be the largest mud brick building in the world. I’ve never seen anything that looked both permanent and fragile at the same time. It’s as if it could be washed away in a hard rain, but it’s so heavy and substantial that it’s amazing it doesn’t sink into the ground. In fact, the whole town comes together every year for a big festival in which they effect repairs. I like that too. It’s a community gathering place, and the community takes ownership and pride in its maintenance.
I think it’s stunningly beautiful, but I was amused to read in this Wikipedia article that one man described it as “a cross between a hedgehog and a church organ.” I’m also delighted to hear that at the top of each minaret stands an ostrich egg. You can’t get more African than that.
The only disappointing thing about this mosque is that even if I do have the privilege of visiting Mali someday, I’ll never get to glimpse its grand interior. Vogue magazine messed it up for all of us non-Muslims by taking pictures of scantily clad women inside, thus outraging the public and barring our entry forevermore because of their blatant disrespect. This, to me, is heartbreaking.