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By Karen E. Lange Photographs by Sarah Leen

Architectural gem of West Africa, Mali’s holy city of Djénné rebuilds after years of drought and decay.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

We reached Yonou’s place. I had expected a house that echoed the grandeur of Djénné’s mosque. But the home, built by his grandfather, was plain on the outside, with corrugated metal shutters. Inside I noticed the trademark pattern of Djénné’s builders—beams laid slantwise in the corners of the ceiling to support weight without posts or piers. There are some cinder-block buildings in Djénné, but nearly all houses are still built the traditional way, which costs less and insulates better.

We passed through a courtyard kitchen, where a pot of bouilli—a sweet rice porridge—was boiling over a fire, and sat on mats in a soot-blackened room with a television against one wall. Yonou wore a brown robe and clutched a string of prayer beads.

For as far back as anyone knows, Yonou’s family have been masons. He started in 1950 as an apprentice to his father. In 1978 he became one of the city’s master masons. Yonou is the last person alive to have been taught the technique of djennefere—building with the cylindrical bricks used in the city before the early 1900s, when the French introduced rectangular blocks. Still, he said, it is not so much the shape of the brick that matters; it is the care used in making and laying it.

“Some people are in a big hurry. I tell them to slow down.”

Bricks should fit together tightly, with as little mortar as possible between them, he said. He slapped two sneakers together so the heel of one was cradled in the instep of the other.

“Those who listen to their master, learn. Those who don’t, don’t.”

But there is more to the mason’s tradition than love of the craft and respect for elders. “To be a great mason,” he said, “one must study. One must know the Koran.” The Koran is the source of the blessing that is placed on each dwelling, Yonou said. His mastery of masonry depends on his mastery of the holy book. That knowledge, in turn, gives him power. He looked me in the eye and pointed at the ground with one of his fingers.

“I can make a man’s work fall down, without ever leaving my house,” he said. “I can make a man’s hands wounded so that they never heal—or I can heal them.”

I would soon find out that such power draws on traditions that predate the Koran. Yonou hinted at them: “It is not everybody who can build a house. It is a secret between the owner and the mason.”

Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of Djénné is this month’s Final Edit.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

When archaeologists Roderick McIntosh and Susan McIntosh first excavated at Jenne-jeno as graduate students in the late 1970s, its newly unearthed African treasures had Western art collectors salivating. In the past two decades, looters have descended upon the Niger Delta’s archaeological sites in droves, stealing precious artifacts and shipping them abroad. In 1993, responding to alarm bells sounded by the Malian government, the U.S. imposed import restrictions on cultural artifacts from Mali—the first and only African country to receive such protection from the U.S.

—Eileen Yam

The Mud Mosque of Djénné, Mali
Learn more about the Great Mosque’s history, construction, and maintenance.

Jenne-jeno: An Ancient African City
Read about the history of Jenne-jeno— Djénné’s predecessor—and the region.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mali
Find Djénné, Timbuktu, and other Malian World Heritage sites described here.


Bourgeois, J. Spectacular Vernacular: The Adobe Tradition. Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1996.

DuBois, F. Timbuctoo the Mysterious. trans. D. White. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896.

Imperato, P. Historical Dictionary of Mali, 3rd ed. Scarecrow Press, 1996.

Maas, P. “Djénné: Living Tradition,” Aramco World (November/December 1990), 18-29.

McIntosh, R. The Peoples of the Middle Niger. Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Miner, H. The Primitive City of Timbuctoo. Princeton University Press, 1953.

Prussin, L. “Sub-Saharan West Africa,” Mosque: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity. Thames and Hudson, 1994.


Murray, Barbra. “Tumultuous Past Lives,” National Geographic Traveler (January/February 2000), 22.

Gray, William R. and others. Beyond the Horizon: Adventures in Faraway Lands. National Geographic Books, 1992.

Roberts, David. “Below the Cliff of Tombs: Mali’s Dogon,” National Geographic (October 1990), 100-127.

Ellis, William S. “Africa’s Sahel: The Stricken Land,” National Geographic (August 1987), 140-179.

McIntosh, Roderick and Susan. “Finding West Africa’s Oldest City,” National Geographic (September 1982), 396-418.

Meyer, Pamela Johnson. “Foxes Foretell the Future in Mali’s Dogon Country,” National Geographic (March 1969), 431-448.

Boulton, Laura C. “Timbuktu and Beyond: Desert City of Romantic Savor and Salt Emerges into World Life Again as Trading Post of France’s Vast African Empire,” National Geographic (May 1941), 631-670.


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