What is Djenne?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Djenne is a city in Mali. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1988. Djenne is most well-known for the extensive use of adobe in its structures, as well as for the nearly 800-year-old Great Mosque of Djenne.

Djenne was first the site of a city sometime in the 3rd century BCE. The modern city of Djenne, however, was built sometime around the 8th century. Djenne is said by many to be the oldest city in sub-Saharan Africa.

Djenne is said to be the oldest city in sub-Saharan Africa.
Djenne is said to be the oldest city in sub-Saharan Africa.

Djenne was an important trading hub in sub-Saharan Africa, helping to link the traders from the desert with those from the lush tropical forests. At times it even rivaled Timbuktu in importance as a center of commerce. Although bounded by the Mali Empire, Djenne was never actually a part of the Empire, even through the height of the Mali Empire it remained a sovereign city state, fighting off attacks by Mali many times. Popular legend has it that the Mali Empire attacked Djenne 99 times before finally conceding that they could not take the city.

In the 13th century the Great Mosque of Djenne was constructed by the ruler of the city, Koi Kunburo, upon his conversion to Islam. He built the mosque entirely out of clay, helping to make it the iconic sight it is today. The original mosque would last centuries, until being virtually abandoned upon construction of a new mosque in the 19th century, and ultimately being rebuilt in the 20th century to ensure its continued survival. A large celebration has sprung up around the upkeep of the mosque, and every spring many people join in helping to reapply plaster to the mosque, to keep it strong.

In the 15th century, Djenne was finally conquered, by the Songhai Empire. Over the next two centuries it would continue to rise in importance, becoming a major staging ground for the expansion of Islam through Africa. From then, Djenne would cease to be independent, and would change hands a number of times. At the end of the 16th century the city was taken by Morocco as part of their campaign to drive the Songhai Empire out of the region. The city then went to the Segou kingdom, the Massina, the Toucouleur Empire, the French, and ultimately would become a part of the modern state of Mali.

The city of Djenne itself is an amazing archaeological site, although it is still very much alive and thriving, with a steady population. The Mosque is the highlight of the city for most visitors, but the myriad of adobe buildings all offer incredible opportunities for sightseeing. And unlike the Mosque, which is off-limits to non-Muslims, many other buildings are open.

The nearby town of Jenne-Jeno, which seems to also be a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a great site for those interested in the archaeological history of this part of Africa. Jenne-Jeno was a population and trading center for centuries before the population converted to Islam and moved to Djenne, and although there isn’t too much to see in the way of buildings, what there is to see dates back nearly two millennia.

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Discussion Comments


@carrotisland: Yes, you can visit Djenne. It is actually a very good cultural experience. Many of the local people still use the river for doing their laundry, washing dishes, etc. However, foreign aid has helped the town in a lot of ways. They have made it possible to have pumps and water pipes. Many people cannot afford the water services so they still use the river.

There are guides in Djenne to show you around and help you to find and get into the mosque. They will also show you which rooftop has the best view of the mosque.


Can tourists visit Djenne?

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    • Djenne is said to be the oldest city in sub-Saharan Africa.
      By: Ruslan Olinchuk
      Djenne is said to be the oldest city in sub-Saharan Africa.