Djenné is rare among destinations in Mali, in that it is both fairly renowned and well regarded, and taking the chance to go there was among my main motivations for visiting the country. The settlement proved to both picturesque and evocative, and actually surpassed my already high expectations.
The city's history started during the 13th century, and it quickly grew to be a major terminus of the trans-Saharan trade routes, and also a centre of Islamic learning, just like Timbuktu. Conquest by the Moroccans nearly 400 years later started a decline that has led to the present day impression that time has stood still for many generations.
In terms of orientation, Djenné is mostly a tangled maze of atmospheric narrow streets that occupies a small island in the midst of a river. Hiring a local to help with navigation might be a good idea, especially as doing so will also stop the otherwise almost constant pestering by rival would-be guides.
Every single piece of architecture seems to have been constructed almost exclusively using mud. There is a multitude of well-preserved traditional residences with distinctive façades, the most notable of which is the lovely Maïga House, a particularly fine edifice.
However, the obvious highlight is the spectacular Grand Mosque, which is the largest mud-brick structure in the world, built in 1905 at the location and in the style of a much older predecessor. The structure definitely ranks as one of the most amazing things that I have ever seen anywhere. It is breathtaking in terms of scale and beauty, and almost defies the normal rules of building. A trio of tall and curvaceous minarets and a multitude of smaller conical towers resembling termite mounds dominate the outside, whilst hundreds of wooden beams protruding from the smooth surfaces add to the striking appearance. The latter are not just decoration, but are utilised as scaffolding during the great communal effort following the annual rains to re-render. Unfortunately, it is not possible for non-Muslims to enter ever since a Western photographer apparently used the interior as an exotic setting for some pictures of scantily clad models. A very small compensation is that an excellent external view is available from nearby roofs.
Most of the week, the immense place of worship rises dramatically at the back of quite empty square, but a large and lively market fills the space on Mondays. The combination creates a scene that is extremely memorable, but I feel that a better appreciation of the mosque's absolute majesty is easier in more sedate circumstances.
Finally, there is also a couple of other points of interest in the city. A small museum displays archaeological exhibits from Jeno, the ancient original settlement in the area, whilst less informative and more mystical is a sacred well attributed with magical powers, and Tapama Dienpo, the reputed grave of a young girl sacrificed to placate the spirits.