Published on August 11, 2007
The Great Mosque of Djenne is lit by the rising sun while in front, the market comes to life.
You won't find it among the New Seven Wonders of the World, as few citizens of sparsely inhabited Mali would have heard of the voting campaign, let alone have Internet access to actually take part in it.
But waiting for the very few who venture to this part of West Africa - one the least visited corners of the world - is one of the world's unsung wonders: Djenné's Great Mosque.
The eight-hour bus ride - complete with Muslim prayer breaks - takes us 400 kilometres from the capital Bamako to the Djenné junction, where we wait for the shared bâchée (bush taxi) to fill up. In the baking air, it's almost possible to smell the Sahara, a little further to the north. An hour later with no sign of other arrivals, we reluctantly dish out the whole fare for the last 30km of the journey.
Soon after crossing the ferry inside our rickety Peugeot 504 ride, we spy the spires peeking from behind treetops. We pull into the town square just before sunset, and are overwhelmed by the mosque's otherworldly beauty. The closest comparison that comes to mind is St Peter's Basilica, or perhaps Angkor Wat. Only in this case, it's made out of mud.
With three grand towers and numerous conical spires, the world's biggest mud structure was built in the same spot that has seen several mosques since the 14th century. This latest design, completed in 1907, ingeniously integrates universal Islamic elements with Sudanese-style detail, and displays the Djennenke expertise in mud-building that utilises the sub-Saharan climate and locally available materials.
Sitting on a plinth raised three metres above the ground as protection against the Bani River's seasonal flood, the mosque is linked to the ground by staircases, each step signifying a stage of spiritual development. The surface is largely unadorned except for bundles of palm-wood sticks that act both as decoration and scaffolding for maintenance. The walls are between 40 and 60 centimetres thick, not only supporting the 10 metres-plus height but also providing insulation from the sun during daytime and warming the interior with absorbed heat at nighttime.
Running a length of roughly 75 metres on each side, the mosque and its square completely dwarf the town for six days of the week. But every Monday, the situation changes radically when the weekly market, arguably the biggest and most vibrant in West Africa, dominates Djenné, enveloping even the Great Mosque in its fervour.
Finding accommodation and a tasty dinner (Senegalese in this case) is easy with help from our guide Alai, hired on the spot for his great personality and excellent English - a rare find in Francophone Mali. On request, he also takes us to a local artisan to buy some bogolanfini (mud cloth) for which Mali, and Djenné in particular, is famous.
Dyed several times with mineral and vegetable pigments found in local trees and mud, bogolan cloth's repeated designs delight the eyes. These patterns are actually ideograms - a coded language that can be read by those raised in the culture. In recent years, the fashion world has caught up with this - among Africa's oldest - cloth tradition, weaving bogolanfini into catwalk couture.
After shopping, we walk back to our mud hotel along narrow alleys flanked by adobe houses whose colourful metal-studded wooden doors offer an elegant contrast to the spartan outer walls.
We wake before sunrise to find the giant square in front of the mosque quickly filling with thousands of vendors and shoppers pouring in from all over Mali as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso. Some have come in pirogues along the Bani, some in bâchées and others in horse-drawn carts and on camel back.
We dive in and immerse ourselves in the real Africa, engulfed by locals who have come to trade in the necessities of life, from the basics like cassava and millet - staple food in this part of the world - to the more exotic like kola nuts, a mild stimulant similar to the Asian betel nut.
The mosque's interior has been off-limits to non-Muslims since a Western photographer staged a fashion shoot with scantily dressed models, so we circumnavigate the wall to watch children reciting Koranic verses in front of the nearby madrasa.
Even today, Djenné remains an important seat of Islamic learning, where children from poor villages are sent to learn to read and write.
The city has played an educational role since the days of the Mali and Songhai Empires. Back then it was also a market centre and a vital link in the trans-Saharan trade - rivalling its sister city Timbuktu - when gold, ivory and slaves from the jungles to the south were exchanged for precious salt slabs from the northern mines.
Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1988, the Great Mosque along with nearly 2,000 traditional houses is a bequest of Djenné's Islamic heritage. However, the city's history dates back long before the arrival of Islam.
First settled in 250BC, Djenné's predecessor Jenne-Jeno flourished for 1,600 years before shifting the few kilometres to the present location in the 14th century. The old city is still being excavated and studied by archaeologists.
Although beautiful potteries and terra cotta figures discovered at the site show a strong resemblance to the arts being produced in the region today, Jenne-Jeno's most importance legacy isn't visible to the naked eye.
Against the harsh environment, the city has developed a non-hierarchical system of peaceful co-dependence among diverse groups specialising in different professions. It's a complex social and economic system that defies stereotypes of "primitive" Africa and may even provide valuable models for today's and future human societies.
While most "wonders" are now mere ghosts of their past glory, Djenné stands as a symbol of rejuvenation. There's no better proof to this than the Great Mosque itself, whose rain-eroded sun-cracked structure must be re-plastered every spring.
Attesting to the mosque's central position in the life of the community, the entire city comes together in a festive mode for this occasion year in and year out. After weeks of preparation, the crowd joyfully takes turns at the mud work, starting before dusk and continuing late into the evening, when nobody is left clean.
Even if ignored in the vote by the outside world, it's clear that Djenné's Great Mosque is alive and well thanks to a devoted local population. Its power to keep a community together is what, to me, elevates a man-made structure to the rank of a true wonder.
The writer would like to thank Kenya Airways for their help in planning this journey.