Old Towns of Djenné


The Great Mosque of Djenné (Mali). Image Source: http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/125368

Old Towns of Djenné contain the city Djenné and four archaeological sites located in Mali: Djenné-Djeno, Hambarkétolo, Kaniana and Tonomba. Djenné-Djeno was founded about 250 BC, but did not become more populated until 850 AD (Bourgeois 1987:54). The Old Towns of Djenné were the focus of trade routes and marketplaces and an important area during the spread of Islam. The town of Djenné-Djeno was eventually abandoned in the 1500s, but not much is known about what happened (World Monuments Fund 2016). The most well known and prominent building apart of Old Towns of Djenné is the Great Mosque of Djenné, but within the Old Towns of Djenné there are also almost 2,000 historic houses still standing (UN News Centre 2016).

The current Great Mosque of Djenné is not the original one, and was completed in 1907. The first mosque was abandoned around 1829 because Seku Amadu, who had previously conquered Djenné, wanted everyone to attend the same mosque so they could see who did not show up. He let the mosque deteriorate due to lack of upkeep. The mosque was torn down in the 1830s and Amadu built a new mosque in a different spot (Bourgeois 1987:55-56). Djenné was then captured by the French, who took down Amadu’s mosque and built the current Great Mosque of Djenné in the place of the original mosque (Ballantyne 2012, 162).

According to UNESCO, Old Towns of Djenné meet the following two criteria for designation as a World Heritage site:

  • (iii) “to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
  • (iv) “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”

Old Towns of Djenné fall under criterion (iii) because it shows evidence of pre-Islamic civilizations. There are also artifacts and remains of houses which provide information about technological advances in that area throughout time. The architectural design of the  historical buildings throughout the Old Towns of Djenné lead it to meet criterion (iv). The structure of the buildings have the architectural design of an important period in history. The architecture is similar to that of architecture in Morocco from the late 1500s, and that of the Toucouleur Empire from the mid-1800s. The building’s designs have multiple stories, with buttresses (support beams built against the wall), and draw attention to the building’s entrance with designs (UNESCO 2016).

Endangering Factors

The main two factors endangering Old Towns of Djenné are urbanization in the area, and erosion of the buildings and soil due to heavy rainfall, flooding, and wind storms (UNESCO 2016:19). The site is also being affected by poor security conditions, civil unrest, issues with waste disposal, and that there is no plan for management and conservation (UNESCO 2016).

Aerial view of the Great Mosque of Djenné and the surrounding city. Image Source: http://en.unesco.org/node/262857

The Old Towns of Djenné do not have distinctive borders around them so it is difficult to stop urbanization of the areas from intruding into the towns and archaeological sites. It is also difficult for them to prevent residents of the area from trying to modernize their historical houses and from using improper materials when trying to maintain them (UNESCO 2016:19).

Every year, the people living in the area around the Great Mosque of Djenné would come together to reapply mud on the outside of the mosque to prevent the rain from deteriorating the mosque. In 2006, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture came in to restore the Great Mosque of Djenné and removed most of the layers of mud in the process because the mud made the walls thicker and there was so much mud on the roof, it was at risk of caving in. After the restoration, the town continued their yearly process of reapplying mud to the mosque, but even with the rain can cause the bricks underneath to be uncovered (MacFarquhar 2011).

This video talks about the purpose of apply the mud to the Great Mosque of Djenné and what the process means to the people of Djenné. Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SI5NdNEosE


It is currently difficult to fix the factors endangering the site because there are poor security conditions and civil unrest in the area, which makes it difficult to protect the site and put a plan into effect to deal with these problems (UNESCO 2016). It is also difficult for the residents of the area to maintain the historical buildings in the area because of economic hardship in the area (UNESCO 2016).

According to al-Houdalieh and Sauders (2009), who have studied the effects of urbanization at and around multiple archaeological sites in Palestine, urbanization destroys archaeological sites and the historic architecture in the area. Especially because much of the construction is done without proper permission, there is also a lack of thought about the possible effects on the archaeological record. They also find that, even though the effect of urbanization on the archaeological record is similar to that of looting, conflict, and other purposeful destruction; people pay less attention to urbanization and it is not faced with the same amount of criticism. al-Houdalieh and Sauders acknowledge that urbanization and modernization are generally unavoidable, but that when planning for construction, archaeological sites need to be taken into account in order to protect them from detrimental effects. At the site of Khirbat el-Tireh in Palestine, construction took place just outside of the archaeological site and still ended up destroying features and the original walls that surrounded the site. The construction also included the planting of trees, and the roots grew into the area of the site, which could have damaged artifacts and disturbed their context.

The erosion of sites has also been studied by archaeologists, and in the case of buildings made of mud brick, like many are in Djenné, it is very difficult to protect them from erosion. Especially in an area like Djenné, where there are severe wind storms, extreme rain, and flooding to all contribute to erosion of the buildings (Barnard et al. 2016). In the case of soil erosion, archaeologist, Dan Sandweiss, says that archaeological excavation and looting make soil erosion worse because the holes from them fill up with water, instead of the water running off (Curry 2009).

Global Issues

Archaeological research can provide insight to many current global issues, whether it is looking at what causes an issue, could help stop an issue in the past, or just helping people look past the short-term effects of something to its long-term effects. While research at Old Towns of Djenné may not be able to offer direct insight into environmental issues, it could provide insight into one of the effects, erosion. Erosion is causing severe damage to many archaeological sites, especially when there is severe rain or flooding, or when the structures are made of materials, like mud brick, and therefore more prone to erosion. While archaeologists cannot prevent erosion from occurring completely, they can help prevent erosion from destroying a site completely. Research into how to prevent severe effects of erosion at Old Towns of Djenné and other similar sites, like Timbuktu, could also be used to prevent erosion at sites with similar issues. Archaeological research about  the relationship between humans and the environment can also help provide information to helping with general environmental issues today (Sabloff 2008: 49).

Archaeological research at the site of Djenné Djeno could provide information about why the site was abandoned in the 1500s and what caused its decline. This information could provide insight into current actions that could cause the decline of societies and lead to ideas that could prevent their decline. Archaeological research into this site and other sites could help with general sustainability concerns today and how past societies were still successful, even in unideal conditions (Sabloff 2008:54-55).


al-Houdalieh, Salah H., and Robert R. Sauders
2009   Building Destruction: The Consequences of Rising Urbanization on Cultural Heritage in the Ramallah Province. International Journal of Cultural Property 16:1-23. Electronic document, http://www.academia.edu/4636248/Building_Destruction_The_Consequences_of_Rising_Urbanization_on_Cultural_Heritage_in_the_Ramallah_Province, accessed December 1, 2016.

Ballantyne, Andrew
2012   Key Buildings From Prehistory to the Present: Plans, Sections, and Elevations. Electronic document, https://searchebscohost-com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=926158&scope=site, accessed December 1, 2016.

Barnard, H., W. Z. Wendrich, A. Winkels, J. E. M. F. Bos, L. Simpson, and R. T. J. Cappers
2016   The preservation of exposed mudbrick architecture in Karanis (Kom Aushim), Egypt. Journal of Field Archaeology 41(1):84-100. Electronic document, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00934690.2015.1131109, accessed December 1, 2016.

Bourgeois, Jean-Louis
1987   The History of the Great Mosques of Djenné. African Arts 20(3):54-63. Electronic document, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3336477, accessed December 1, 2016.

Curry, Andrew
2009   Climate Change: Sites in Peril. Archaeology 62(2). Electronic document, http://archive.archaeology.org/0903/etc/climate_change.html, accessed December 1, 2016.

MacFarquhar, Neil
2011   Mali City Rankled by Rules for Life in Spotlight. Electronic document, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/world/africa/09mali.html?pagewanted=all, accessed December 1, 2016.

Sabloff, Jeremy
2008   Archaeology Matters. Left Coast Press, California.

2016   Mali’s Old Towns of Djenné on List of World Heritage in Danger. Electronic document, http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1520/, accessed December 1, 2016.

2016   Old Towns of Djenné. Electronic document, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/116/, accessed December 1, 2016.

2016   State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List. Electronic document, http://whc.unesco.org/archive/2016/whc16-40com-7BAdd-en.pdf, accessed December 1, 2016.

2016   State of Conservation: Old Towns of Djenné. Electronic document, http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/3391, accessed December 1, 2016.

2016   The Criteria for Selection. Electronic document, http://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/, accessed December 1, 2016.

UN News Centre
2016   Mali site added to List of World Heritage in Danger – UNESCO. Electronic document, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54451#.WESGxuYrLif, accessed December 1, 2016.

World Monuments Fund
2016   Djenné-Djeno Archaeological Site. Electronic document, https://www.wmf.org/project/djenn%C3%A9-djeno-archaeological-site, accessed December 1, 2016.


3 thoughts on Old Towns of Djenné

  1. Nice looking website, there could be some more pictures I think we were supposed to do one per section? The video was a good addition, though. Interesting and informative. Also, the layout of the site seems to be done well I like the organization.

  2. Loved how you mentioned how the city doesn’t have distinctive borders and how that affects their urbanization problem. Really interesting.

  3. You have included some really amazing photographs. All of the information you have written is very interesting. My site is also in Mali, so I enjoyed reading your webpage and seeing the similarities and differences. Some of the archaeological research that has been done on this site can be applied to the Tomb of Askia, so I enjoyed reading about it. The video is a nice touch!

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