In every tourist brochure, in every Mali, blog and web site about the continent of Africa, the architecture of the Djenné mosque is featured. Rebuilt in 1905 and re-plastered every year after the rains, it is the oldest and largest mud mosque in Africa. Women, especially white women like me, are not allowed inside, but I pleaded with, and, more to the point, paid the guard and, because it was afternoon and no one was expected for two hours, he took my money.
I ventured into the interior – a large hypostyle hall with a profousion of mud columns holding up the roof. Such mud architecture need not be on a such a grand scale; throughout the continent of Africa, simple homes are built of mud. Adobe mud has no tensile strength – it won’t bend, but it does have compression strength and can be pressed by a roof, making the column even stronger. Inside, the air was mercifully cooler than the 110° F plaza in front, the sun reflecting from every surface. I breathed more easily. The pulpit, or minbar, was modest in decoration like the walls and dirt floor.
The central courtyard held two goats and narrow passageways led to staircases. We climbed a cramped staircase made of mud so dry and densely packed from thousands of feet, that the mud shone like marble.
And then bright sunlight: I had reached flat roof. I took photos of spires topped with ostrich egg finials. Those ostrich eggs symbolized alternately the moon, or Allah, around which stars, or Allah’s prophets, revolve. To hear someone else tell it, the egg was a metaphor for Muhammad around whom disciples gather. In truth. everywhere the egg becomes part of myth; it is a universal symbol of conception: the egg, from which comes life, physical and spiritual.
I peered across the wide expanse and remarked on what looked like areolas with nipples, but were clay pot-lids, maybe eight in a line spaced five feet apart in row after row. The guard picked up one of the lids and showed me a round hole in the roof over which the cover sat.
“At night,” he said, “the guardian removes them to let the day’s heat rise up and out of the mosque.” He replaced the cover. “And, during the day, I cover the holes to keep the cool air in.”
“Brilliant!” I said. “Who thought of this?”
He shrugged. “Everybody.” As if to suggest only someone like me, a stranger, wouldn’t.
From the roof, the entire town was visible: mud structures, the occasional flash of red or blue enamel paint or greenery, and beyond the walls, archaeological mounds – some under excavation. The public square to the front of the mosque held the weekly market, not due for another three days and I’d seen markets. I didn’t plan to stay that long. We descended the mud stairway. I surely was not the first visitor he’d profited from, but he played the charade insisting I was the very first and only, and I pretended he was a very holy man.
I thanked him, swore secrecy, and left the mosque well before the other holy men were due back. In truth, had we been found out, the others would have flailed around tsk-tsking with threats of dire consequences, but another five thousand CFA would eventually have calmed the matter and everyone could again be on his way to heaven.