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The Magnificent Mudbrick Mosques of West Africa

All around the Muslim world, mosques have a typical architecture characterized by a minaret, a dome, arches and mosaics or stucco decorations. These design elements were brought by the Arabs when they migrated and took control of foreign lands through conquest. But in areas where the spread of Islam was more gradual, brought by merchants and traders, mosque architecture conforms more to vernacular design determined by local skills and availability of materials. Nowhere else this manifests more than in West Africa. The mosques here vary from simple roofless enclosures serving the function of places where the community could gather and pray, to magnificent buildings.

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The Grand Mosque of Bobo-Dioulasso, in Burkina Faso is one of largest example of Sudano-Sahelian architecture in the country. It was built in the late 19th century. Photo credit: Geri/Flickr

In the Sahel and Sudanian grassland of West Africa, a unique style of mosque has developed. Spanning a vast area across the northern African continent from Senegal to Sudan, as well as Ghana and Ivory Coast, these mosques are characterized by a common building material—mud bricks, reinforced by large wooden logs and support beams that jut out from the wall face giving them a fortress like appearance. These wooden stakes, called toron, are used as scaffolding when the surface is reworked every year. They also serve a decorative purpose. The mosques usually have a tower, a flat roof and a courtyard. The floor inside is covered with sand over which prayer mats are laid. Natural light streaming in through holes pierced in the ceiling provide the only illumination. Except for massive pillars supporting the roof and their arches, the interior is undecorated so as not to distract the worshipper.

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A boy rides a bicycle in front of the Great Mosque of Djenné. Photo credit: Marco Dormino/Flickr

The most famed mosque typifying this kind of architecture is The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali. Raised by a platform nearly ten feet high, this vast mosque dominates the marketplace at the center of which it stands. Although the current structure is only a hundred year old, the original mosque dates back to the 13th century. It fell into disrepair in the early 19th century and towards the end of that century, the mosque was used as a cemetery. After the French forces captured Djenné, the new administration decided to rebuild the mosque, but not without some French influence—but to what extent, is a mater of debate.

French journalist Félix Dubois, who visited the mosque soon after it was erected, wrote with contempt that it looked like a cross between a hedgehog and a church organ. By contrast, American art historian Jean-Louis Bourgeois argued that the design is basically African and that the French had little influence except perhaps for the internal arches.

Irrespective of the originality of the architecture, the Djenné Mosque has become almost iconic in terms of West African mosque architecture and numerous village mosques across the African continent have emulated it, albeit on a smaller scale. Each mosque, however, has its own distinctive character.

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The Great Mosque of Djenné. Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink/Flickr

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The Great Mosque of Djenné. Photo credit: Romel Jacinto/Flickr

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The Great Mosque of Djenné. Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink/Flickr

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The Great Mosque of Djenné. Photo credit: Jurgen/Flickr

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Annual repair of the façade of Djenné’s Great Mosque. Photo credit: Ralf Steinberger/Flickr

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Larabanga Mosque in the village of Larabanga, Ghana, is another example of the Sudano-Sahelian architecture. Referred to as the “Mecca of West Africa”, it is the oldest mosque in the country and one of the oldest in West Africa. The mosque is built with mud and reeds, and has two tall towers in pyramidal shape. These are buttressed by twelve bulbous shaped structures on the external walls, which are strengthened by horizontal timber beams. Photo credit: Sathyan Velumani/Wikimedia

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The 18th century Banda Nkwanta Mosque in Ghana follows the same style. Photo credit: University of Geneva

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And so does Bole Mosque in West Gonja District, Ghana. Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink/Flickr

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The historic mosque of Kong, in Ivory Coast.

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Sankoré Madrasah, or Sankore Masjid is one of three ancient centers of learning located in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa. The original structure dates back to 989 AD. Photo credit: Martha de Jong-Lantink/Flickr

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The Grand Mosque of Mopti in Mali. Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink/Flickr

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