I am totally in love with the mosques from Mali. Check this out — here’s an example from Djenne, Mali:
They’re so beautiful! But wait! There’s more! They’re made out of mud, which is what they’ve got, right? Not a lot of trees in Mali. Not a lot of stone. It’s the Sahel (between desert and grasslands). So they use what they have. Which is dirt, basically. And they build these amazing structures from it. It gets even better. Some of them have been around for hundreds of years. Made out of mud. Which collapses in the rain. But they don’t let this happen. In Djenne, they recover and repair their mosque every year as part of a city celebration. Every year the whole mosque is recovered in mud and repaired. I love this. And I love that these buildings are so different than what we often think of when we think “mosque.” They’ve combined Islam with their traditional culture and come up with something practical that works for their climate and their lifestyle.
This is my favorite kind of art. It’s functional, it’s practical, it’s beautiful, and it’s alive. Two of my favorite buildings are the church of San Antonio in Padua, Italy, and the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, because when I visited them they both were so living. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost objects, so there’s a wall in the church covered with photos and notes, things people say that he’s helped them find. And there was incense when I was there, and people everywhere, using the church. And at the Al Aqsa mosque, people were performing ablutions outside, and after we’d taken our shoes off and gone in, we saw people talking and praying as we walked around inside. So many of these buildings seem like they’re more for tourists than for their community. I know that there’s a paradox here — I want to be able to see them, to experience them, but what adds a layer of interest and depth for me is the fact that the building is still so used. If it’s overrun with tourists, it’s hard for people to use it. But I want to be able to see it as a tourist. Around and around we go.
Back to the mosque at Djenne. Would you call it permanent or temporary? I would answer yes. Old or new? Again, yes. I feel like we have a complicated relationship with the new and the old, the temporary and the permanent, in this country. The American mentality is new is good. Doing it by myself is good. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps! Make a lot of money so you can buy new stuff! Me! It’s all about me! This community in Mali where the town works together to keep up their mosque is the antithesis to this American way of thinking. We want permanence — our buildings, made of often imported stone, brick, and wood, are much more permanent than the mosque at Djenne. Although as I’m writing this I’m thinking, what lasts longer than dirt? So this makes it interesting. They’re using the most permanent material on earth to build a non-permanent building. I kind of love that. If it’s left to deteriorate, it just becomes part of the earth again. Better than recycling, even! Instead, though, they re-mud. Genius!
Before you go, watch this seven minute video on the mosque and its re-mudding at Djenne. Bet you can’t watch just one minute. (Don’t take me up on that bet — it’s fascinating!)
Click here for the video: Great Mosque at Djenne