Eternal magic of mud
The great mosque of Djenne in Mali is one of those buildings that haunted my boyhood imagination. It never seemed real, more a surrealist fairy-tale illustration.
Even when I got to visit it some five years ago (after it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site) and found it fronted by a busy market and surrounded by buses, I still found it hard to believe.
Here, somehow, was a composite of the spirit of Sahara, surrealism and even a touch of Spain —Dali, Gaudi — mixed up in walls like termites’ nests, made of West African mud. It seemed at once a sort of natural outcrop of the muddy sandbanks of the nearby River Niger, a structure built by some desert spirit and, inevitably, a place of profound and ancient worship, older than Mohammed, older than Christ.
The mosque’s riddles have partly been solved in the pages of a new book by James Morris, the photographer, and Suzanne Preston Blier, professor of African-American studies at Harvard. Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa is a well-researched and beautifully presented study of the sculptural mud architecture of Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Far from being the work of nameless desert djinns (local spirits or “genies’‘), these often beautiful buildings were designed and built by architects for kings and emperors, making the best of local materials and know-how.
Some of those architects were slaves. And one, at least, was Spanish.
Abu Ishaq al-Sahili (c1290-1346), poet, lawyer and notary, was born and educated in Granada. He became architect to Mansa Kanku Musa, 14th-century emperor of Mali, who began a major building programme in about 1325 that culminated in the Djinguerber mosque, Timbuktu. The emperor is celebrated in a Catalonian map of 1375. “This negro lord,’’ says the legend accompanying his portrait, “is called Musa of Mali, Lord of the Negroes of Guinea. So abundant is the gold which is found in his country that he is the richest and noblest king in all that land.’‘
The Timbuktu mosque, like the Djenne mosque, has survived, at least in part — a fact that seems all the more remarkable given that these sensational buildings are constructed from mud. Each year, in gloriously splashy festivals, their walls are repaired and the ancient buildings live on. Far from being a wobbly material guaranteed to wash away, mud, as Blier is keen to point out, has an enduring life of its own. Here are buildings that are at once organic, animated and, if local traditions survive modernisation, almost eternal.
Even if they crumble, the buildings can be raised up again without too much strain. The existing Djenne mosque, for example, is barely a century old. The original, dating from the 13th or 14th century, was deliberately allowed to collapse during the jihad of Sheikh Amadu in the 1830s. The architect Ismaila Traore was paid by the French, who had taken control of Mali in 1893, to rebuild the mosque. Although it is traditional in many ways, its symmetrical, almost rational planning shows a certain degree of French influence; quite how much remains unclear.
The mosque is built on a platform of regular sun-dried mud bricks. The walls are between 40cm and 60cm thick. These allow the interior of the mosque, the world’s biggest mud building, to stay cool throughout the day, which is some achievement considering that outdoors summer temperatures reach 50Â°C. The palm beams sticking out from the walls serve as structural supports and as permanent scaffolding to bear timber platforms used for repairing and replastering the building with a mix of mud and rice husks each year.
What these magnificent mosques prove is that mud buildings can be far more sophisticated than many people living in a world of concrete and steel might want to believe. Mud is not just a material for shaping pots, but for temples, palaces and even, as so many West African towns demonstrate, the framing of entire communities. The very fluidity, or viscosity, of the material allows the architects who use it to create dynamic and sensual forms.
Morris’s photographic trips through the region in 1999 and 2000 record a world of architecture that, sadly, is increasingly under threat. Perhaps it is mostly poverty rather than culture and memory that keeps this rich and inventive tradition of building alive. The tendency in this part of the world, as in any other, is to move from naturally elegant traditional buildings to fast-buck junk.
Morris’s lens all but caresses the buildings it focuses on. Walls resemble elephant hides, or adopt esoteric geometries. Many of the buildings appear to have been conjured rather than built laboriously by hand. On close inspection — and Morris’s camera allows us to get very close — it is fascinating to experience the way in which the interiors and exteriors of these buildings flow one into the other, to feel the mood of the buildings change as light and shadow shift through the course of the day. Intriguing, too, to understand how the mud architects of West Africa made, and continue to make, a play of primary geometries just as those working in the Graeco-Roman and modern tradition did and do. And, finally, it is possible, with a keen eye, to imagine how the designs of these buildings flowed into the southern European consciousness — in particular, the Spanish experience.
Will this special architecture survive? Probably — at least for the time being, while these countries remain poor and off the beaten track. But in the long term? Fingers crossed. It does, perhaps, take anyone brought up in Europe some little while to learn to appreciate the inherent strength and magic of the adobe architecture of West Africa. Morris and Blier are excellent guides for the uninitiated. — Â