In a way I wish I’d never seen photographs of the mosque before I’d seen it. Photos I had seen made me think of some sci-fi distant galaxy empire movie backdrop. When I saw the real thing, I still felt the same, but I thought it was stunning as well. There appear to be no straight lines, yet there is a strong sense of geometry in the building. It looks different at different times of day, it changes color and shadow. It looks cool in the bright noon sunshine, then it glows at sunset and seems to radiate warmth. On Mondays, it provides a neutral and calm backdrop for the bright colors and frantic activity of the weekly market. During the rest of the week, it just is. At night, the sharply defined silhouette of the mosque against a clear starry sky looms over small orange spots of light coming from the fires of the street ovens. A previous mosque was built on the site in the 13th century by King Konboro, after his conversion to Islam. In the 19th century, Djenné was captured by a fundamentalist, called Sécou Amadou, who considered the mosque to have been desecrated because the inhabitants had used the square in front for singing and dancing. Each year after the rains, the mud on the mosque needs to be replaced. With the arrival of Amadou, the repairs were no longer carried out and the mosque literally crumbled away. The present day mosque was built in the traditional Sudanese style between1905 and 1907, using the original foundations.
The mud masons of Djenné are considered to be artisans, and their techniques have not changed in hundreds of years. To become a master mason involves a long apprenticeship, and it is only once qualified that a mason is taught the magic incantations needed to protect the building at both the start and completion of the work. Neither can anyone pull down a building without the permission of the mason who built it. As town planning goes, this seems to be an effective policy in Djenné as there is little, if any, architectural discord to be seen in the town at all. The prayer hall has over 50 wooden pillars supporting the roof, and covers an area of 50 by 25m. There is a simple but effective air-conditioning system, operated by opening and closing vents on the roof, to keep it cool inside. Unfortunately, the entry of non-Muslims into the mosque has been strictly forbidden since it was used as a fashion shoot by a Western magazine some years ago. For the time being, infidels must make do with the stunning exterior of the building in all its moods. Rooftops opposite the mosque provide a good view for photographs, and owners usually charge around CFA500. Guided tours of the town, which include a more thorough background of the mosque, are available from the Mission Culturelle, which is located near the police checkpoint on the road out of town.