Inhabited since 250 B.C., Djenné became a market centre and an important link in the trans-Saharan gold trade. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was one of the centres for the propagation of Islam. Its traditional houses, of which nearly 2,000 have survived, are built on hillocks (toguere) as protection from the seasonal floods.
Old Towns of Djenné
Outstanding Universal Value
Djenné, chief town of the Djenné Circle, located 130 km south-west of Mopti (the regional capital) and roughly 570 km north-east of Bamako (the national capital), is one of the oldest towns of sub-Saharan Africa.
The cultural property “Old Towns of Djenné” is a serial property comprising four archaeological sites, namely Djenné-Djeno, Hambarkétolo, Kaniana and Tonomba, along with the old fabric of the present town of Djenné covering an area of 48.5 ha and divided into ten districts. The property is an ensemble that over many years has symbolised the typical African city. It is also particularly representative of Islamic architecture in sub-Saharan Africa.
The property is characterised by the intensive and remarkable use of earth specifically in its architecture. The outstanding mosque of great monumental and religious value is an outstanding example of this. The town is renowned for its civic constructions, with the distinctive style of verticality and buttresses as well as the elegant monumental houses with intricate facades.
Excavations carried out in 1977, 1981, 1996 and 1997, revealed an extraordinary page of human history dating back to the 3rd century B.C. They have brought to light an archaeological ensemble which bears witness to a pre-Islamic urban structure with a wealth of circular or rectangular constructions in djenné ferey and numerous archaeological remains(funerary jars, pottery, millstones, grinders, metal scoria etc.).
The property « Old Towns of Djenné » comprises the town of Djenné, characterised by a remarkable architecture and its urban fabric, of rare harmony, and four (4) archaeological sites bearing witness to a long-gone pre-Islamic civilization.
The property « Old Towns of Djenné » still retains the values which justified its outstanding universal value at its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List. First and foremost, the archaeological, historic, religious and architectural values should be mentioned.
Criterion (iii): Djenné-Djeno, along with Hambarketolo, Tonomba and Kaniana bears exceptional witness to the pre-Islamic civilizations on the inland Delta of the Niger. The discovery of many dwellings on the site of Djenné-Djeno (remains of traditional brick structures (djénné ferey), funerary jars) as well as a wealth of terra cotta artifacts and metal make this a major archaeological site for the study of the evolution of dwellings, industrial and craft techniques.
Criterion (iv): The ancient fabric of Djenné is an outstanding example of an architectural group of buildings illustrating a significant historic period. Influenced by Moroccan architecture (1591), and later marked by the Toucouleur Empire in 1862, the architecture of Djenné is characterized by its verticality, its buttresses punctuating the facades of the two-storey houses whose entrances are always given special attention. The reconstruction of the Mosque (1906-1907) resulted in the creation of a monument representing local religious architecture.
The vestiges of the four inscribed archaeological sites remain intact (pottery shards, funerary jars, remains of walls and circular or rectangular dwellings of traditional round mud bricks (djénné ferey), statuettes and mud bricks, metal scoria, millstones, grinders and Islamic burial grounds). The marshes where the small islands are located ensure a relative physical integrity. However, these inscribed archaeological sites are vulnerable to very serious threats such as leaching, erosion and gullying by inclement weather and uncontrolled urbanization.
In addition to its prestigious mosque, Djenné still retains its elegant monumental houses of rigorous composition with façades sometimes decorated by a porch, and supporting pilasters with, in the centre, “the potige”, a decorative motif indicating the position of the front door. This earthen architecture, one of the criteria for inscription of the property on the World Heritage List, has for several decades undergone modifications altering its aesthetic values, for example:
- the introduction of modern materials, namely cement, fired bricks and metal doors and windows;
- the disappearance of decorative features on the façades, characteristic of the earthen architecture of Djenné.
The authenticity of the site, in particular the inscribed ancient fabric, is testified by the use of little-modified construction materials: earth is the overall privileged material. The transmission of construction techniques is entrusted to the Barey Corporation, stone masons from generation to generation.
Finally, through spirit, wisdom, welcome and the Great Mosque, Djenné is and remains the “pious town”.
Protection and management requirements
The town of Djenné benefits from legal protection through national heritage listing of the property and the creation of a cultural mission for its conservation.
The Great Mosque, the Koranic schools and the Tombs of the Saints benefit from customary protection through the establishment of a management committee for the Mosque, the association for Koranic schools and supervision by the village chief, its Council and district chiefs.
The site possesses a “conservation and management plan” for a five (5)-year duration, 2008-2012, which has been prepared in cooperation with the communities following a participatory approach.
Possible problems could occur with an increase in the population and building speculation. The boundaries of the protection zone are vague. An urban regulation which is under preparation could assist in defining the said boundaries and contribute towards sustainable development of the town and respect the heritage values.
The Cultural Mission requires the provision of human and material resources to ensure the control of the property against looting and other threats to the cultural heritage.
Djenné-Djeno, along with Hambarketolo, Tonomba and Kaniana, bears exceptional witness to the pre-Islamic civilizations on the inland delta of the Niger. Djenné is an outstanding example of an architectural group of buildings illustrating a significant historic period. It has been defined both as 'the most beautiful city of Africa' and 'the typical African city'.
The annual flooding by the Niger and its tributaries is an essential natural phenomenon in both the region of Djenné and the whole inland delta area. The floods cover all but a few hillocks; these are called toguère. Excavations carried out in 1977-81 on the toguère of Djenné-Djeno, in the flood basin of the Bani, 3 km south-east of Djenné, produced evidence of continuous human occupation from 250 BC to the 14th century.
Several phases of occupation were brought to light. There was a pre-urban phase, when the Bozo people made their living from fishing and growing rice. An urbanization phase was probably due to the Nono people. Under Nono merchants the city quickly became a market centre and a hub in the trans-Saharan gold trade, which began in the 9th or 10th centuries in western Africa in answer to Muslim demand. The discovery of many domestic structures (walls, houses, the remains of ovens) and a wealth of metal and terracotta artefacts make Djenné-Djeno a major archaeological site for the study of the evolution of dwellings, industrial and craft techniques, and the spread of Islam.
The discovery of organic remains, among which were a large number of African rice grains, shed much light on how the cultivation of rice developed. Other toguères, such as at Hambarketolo, Tonomba and Kaniana, revealed important discoveries. All these tels, which were a natural refuge from the flood waters, are potential archaeological sites and on that basis deserve to be protected.
In the 14th century Djenné-Djeno was abandoned in favour of Djenné, which had been inhabited since the 11th century. The story of the sacrifice of atonement of a young girl, Tepama, who was walled up alive in order to ensure the town's prosperity, must be placed in the religious context of a time when animistic beliefs and fetishism had not yet given way to Islam. Introduced by Marka merchants, Islam did not take hold until the end of the 13th century when the sultan Koumboro was converted. He abandoned his palace and turned it into Djenné's first mosque; it was destroyed in 1830.
Like Timbuktu, Djenné enjoyed its golden age during the 15th and 16th centuries. At that time it was a major centre for the spread of Islam. Taken first by the Moroccans in 1591, and subsequently by the Peulhs in 1810, the Toucouleurs in 1862, and finally by the French colonial troops in 1893, Djenné did not undergo any other period of major development until Mali won its independence. The colonial period left deep traces on the city, notably through the reconstruction in 1906-7 of the Great Mosque. However, this monument, which was built for 3,000 worshippers, is a fairly successful pastiche of local religious architecture.
The city of Djenné, which spreads over several toguère, is bisected by a wide avenue. On the south is the Market Place dominated by the Great Mosque. Extending out from both sides of this thoroughfare, over an ancient land parcel of about 20 ha, are about 1,850 traditional houses (1982 figure). The main feature of the domestic architecture, influenced by that of Morocco, is its verticality. Buttresses punctuate the facades of the two-storey houses whose entrances are always given special attention.
Beyond this historic nucleus are contemporary buildings, dating from successive extensions of the city limits. Special mention should be made of the ports of Djenné (of which there are 17), particularly the one at Bambana, where pirogues from Timbuktu would tie up. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC