Most trips of a lifetime include numerous destinations, multiple weeks, and detours to historical sites. Hiking in Peru? You must go to Machu Picchu. Exploring Southeast Asia? You want to visit a few of the thousands of temples scattered around Cambodia. Sailing through the Greek islands? Almost all of them have ancient ruins. But what about Africa? Once you move beyond Egypt’s pyramids, the focus turns to the breathtaking waterfalls, the towering mountains, the vast savannahs, and the animals not found anywhere else.
There are a few African destinations that are widely overlooked, though. Djenné, Mali is one of them. Even before political instability rocked the West African nation in 2012—recent elections seem to have calmed things down—few people traveled to the landlocked nation. Those who visited were mostly from France, its former colonial ruler. But now, the French secret is out.
Djenné is one of Africa’s oldest communities. People settled the area near the Bani River around 250 BC, though there’s evidence of life as far back as 900 BC. Later, between the 15th and the 17th centuries, Djenné became an important stop along the Trans-Saharan trade route that moved salt, gold, and slaves. As the trading post declined, Islamic scholarship gained importance. And along the way, people started to notice the Sudano-Sahelian architecture, especially the Great Mosque, which is the largest mudbrick building in the world.
Mudbrick is similar to adobe. Sunbaked bricks—made of sand, water, and straw—are called ferey. Ferey is coated with plaster and decorated with toron, rodier palm sticks that protrude from the walls. Most of Djenné’s mudbrick buildings are two stories with flat roofs and an inner courtyard. The Great Mosque, which was built in 1907 on the site of an earlier mosque, towers over the village. Its Qibla (prayer wall) faces Mecca, the inner courtyard is surrounded by galleries, and two tombs were built in the eastern wall. Non-Muslims can’t enter the Great Mosque, but at sunrise or sunset, you want to see it from the distance anyway. As the sky begins to brighten, the mudbricks turn gold.
The Djenné Manuscript Library is attached to the mosque. Arabic manuscripts, some from as early as the 11th century, and handwritten copies of the Quran are kept here. If it’s Monday, buy mud cloth and kola nuts at the lively market. Or, for the real party, arrive for the Crepissage de la Grand Mosquée, a restoration event in which the villagers repair the Great Mosque with additional mud. After exploring Djenné, you’ll have more of an appreciation for Djenné-Djenno, one of the continent’s oldest archaeological sites, located just outside of town.
Now that you’ve explored some of Mali’s most important historical sites, your grand African voyage may continue.