SPARC

Society for the Promotion of Art and Culture

Mud, Sweat, and Tears

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Photograph by Yadid

 
Levy Built on a floodplain along the Bani River, Djénné’s Great Mosque, the largest mud-brick structure in the world, dominates the Mali town, southwest of Tombouctou (Timbuktu), in fact and folklore. With its smooth, sun-dried mud walls and towers scaffolded with bundles of sticks (called toron locally), the mosque appeared like a mirage for trans-Saharan camel caravans during the Middle Ages, when Djénné served as a trading hub. These days the century-old mosque houses a network of arched corridors and prayer rooms constructed on the site and in the style of the circa 13th-century original. Devout locals rally for the annual Fête de Crépissage to slather the edifice with a new layer of mud. A few rainstorms have been known to wash away their work, making the hand-smoothed surface a fleeting attraction. That cycle is accelerating as climate change lowers river levels, which in turn degrades the quality of the mud for bricks and plaster. A military coup and conflicts among rebels recently put the country in turmoil, but this seems only to enhance the town’s survive-against-all-odds mystique. “Djénné is imbued with both Islamic and animist magic,” says journalist Karen Lange, who has covered the West African city for National Geographic magazine. “What sets it apart is the people who still believe in the life-and-death power of those traditions.”

This and other UNESCO World Heritage sites are featured in “2012 World Wonders” in the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.

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