Musings on the Grand Mosques of Djenné and Bobo-Dioulasso, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and Western Bias

Keywords: Burkina Faso, African Architecture, Grand Mosque, Bobo-Dioulasso, mud mosque

Unlike the much publicized collapse of the roof of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, in Paris, when the roof collapsed in the Grand Mosque of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso in 2018, it did not make international news. The mosque is a masterpiece of the Sudano-Sahalian adobe mosque style, second in size only to the Grand Mosque of Djenné, in Mali, which is well known. The mosque is a source of pride for people of all religions in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. Burkina Faso is a country of numerous languages, many of which are endangered. The tradition of oral history is a primary reason why searches of written sources do not yield much information on this important architectural masterpiece. The author summarizes the scholarship on the Grand Mosque of Bobo-Dioulasso and adds her personal description and account, from a visit in 2019, in the hope of bringing more attention to this architectural masterpiece.

On April 15, 2019 a horrific fire erupted within the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

My colleagues were all horrified, and chatter went between “I am so glad that I have seen it,” to “I am so bummed that I had not yet seen it in person.” Everyone was familiar with the structure. Videos and commentary were on worldwide news. Debates raged over whether it could be rebuilt or not, and whose responsibility it was to do so.

In July or August of 2015 one of the most complete ancient structures in Palmyra, the ancient Temple of Baalshamin, was

destroyed during the Syrian Civil War. This structure was built in the second century BCE. Now it is gone, forever. For

archaeologists and ancient art historians this was a tragedy, but it was a brief blip in the network and cable news.

During the 2018 summer rainy season in Burkina Faso, in West Africa, the roof of the Grand Mosque of Bobo-Dioulasso, the second-largest surviving West African mud mosque, collapsed. It did not make the news, at all, at least not in the United States. I only knew about it because my son was living in Bobo at the time.

As an art historian, I value all of these monuments because they are visual history and building blocks of our culture; once they are gone they cannot be replaced, and their study can no longer shed light on civilizations of the past. Unfortunately, our educational system in the United States discusses great monuments of western art, undervaluing works from Asia, South America, and especially Africa.

Certain monuments of Sub-Saharan African art do appear in some art history textbooks, like the Great Friday Mosque of Djenné, in Mali.

Figue 1. Grand Mosque,Djenné

As sub-Saharan African architecture goes, this is one of the more popularly reproduced buildings. In the 9th edition of Mark Getlein’s Living With Art, a university art appreciation textbook, it is depicted with the information, “rebuilt in 1907 in the style of a 13th-century original.” And described as

constructed of adobe (sun dried brick) and coated with mud plaster, the imposing walls of this mosque have a plastic, sculptural quality. The photograph shows well the gentle tapering of the walls imposed by the construction technique as well as the small size of the windows that illuminate the covered prayer hall inside. The protruding wooden poles serve

to anchor the scaffolding that is erected every few years so that workers can restore the mosque’s smooth coating of mud plaster.” 1

The popular, open access Khan Academy states in an entry about the Great

Mosque that “According to legend, the original Great Mosque (of Djenné) was probably erected in the 13th century, when King Koi Konboro—Djenné’s twenty-sixth ruler and its first Muslim sultan (king)—decided to use local materials and traditional design techniques to build a place of Muslim worship in town. King Konboro’s successors and the town’s rulers added two towers to the mosque and surrounded the main building with a wall.” 2

In a short article in Architects’ Journal, Arub Saqib notes that the French, who colonized Mali, and other parts of West Africa, were bemused and confused by the apparent “temporary nature” of the building. European architecture, it seemed, was built of sturdier materials, meant to last long periods of time.3 Mud mosques, however, reflected local building materials and practices, and were built to last with proper maintenance.

That perceived temporary nature became a reality in the nineteenth century when jihadists in Mali promulgated “purer Islamic practices,” and by extension, purer mosque (Middle-Eastern) architecture. It was forbidden to destroy a mosque, but Seku Amadu, a Fulbe teacher and leader ordered the gutters on the roof of the Grand Mosque blocked, causing rain to soften and ruin the structure by 1836. 4 The iconic mosque was rebuilt in 1907. In 2013 H.J. Trevor Marchand, who witnessed the replastering of the Djenné Mosque in 2005 published a succinct history of the Djenné Mosque. 5 Now, due to political instability in Mali, the Djenné mud mosque has been added to the World

Heritage “in danger” list. 6

Other, smaller, mud mosques survive in Mali, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Guinea and Burkina Faso. 7 In fact, the Old Mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso appears to be the second largest surviving mud mosque, and a great example of the Sudano-Sahalian style, however, hardly any information is available on Bobo-Dioulasso’s architectural masterpiece. A Google search pulls up mainly terse touristy information, but an article dating from 2013 provides a nice description:

The interior of the mosque consists of an open court on the west end and a prayer hall on the east. The prayer hall consists of two sections built at different times. The old section is at the east end along the qibla, and consists of seven transverse aisles bordered on the west by the stairwell of the minaret tower and a long hallway. The old part of the prayer hall is supported by five rows of six thick, rectangular piers. Adjoining on the west end of the prayer hall is a structure containing two more transverse aisles built at a later date that opens through three doors onto the court. The court is partly covered by a tin roof, added in 1983. 8 proclaims it “One of the top amazing mud-brick buildings in the world, the Grand Mosque of Bobo-Dioulasso is one of Burkina Faso’s iconic landmarks. It is an excellent example of Sahel-styled mud architecture.” 9

Figure 2.

The Grand Mosque, Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

Figure 3.

Sacrificial bowls

Burkina Faso is a country of many languages, many of which have not been written down. The tradition of oral history continues, and is a primary reason why searches of written sources do not yield much. So, to add to what has been written of

Bobo-Dioulasso’s magnificent old structure, I will add my personal account, and relay what I was told by locals about the mud mosque, the day that I visited it on July 24, 2019.

My husband, son, driver Zaki (a man of Bobo ethnicity and incredible knowledge about Burkina Faso), son’s friend Karim and I met a guide at the Old Town section of Bobo-Diousasso. We visited the house of Sya, after whom the city was originally named a thousand years ago. Our guide related how Sya became “Bobo-

Dioulasso,” the “home of the Bobo and Dioula people.” Originally the city was divided into four quadrants where the Animists, Muslims, warriors and blacksmiths lived.

Behind Sya’s house we entered an animist sacrificial house with an altar in the corner where offerings were made to the ancestors. Blood and chicken feathers caked the surrounding walls and floor. Out back were bowls that held the remains of chickens sacrificed as thanks for births of babies. Moving from the Animists’ quadrant to that of the blacksmiths, we visited artists in their shops, bought brassware and fabric, and drank dolo (sorghum beer) out of hollowed out calabashes by an outdoor still. We watched children dance to the tunes played by griots on balafons (wooden xylophones), and watched other children play in the red water of the stream called Wè that comes from the place where the sacred catfish live in Dafra. Some catfish were visible in the water, too. A woman cooked shea tree caterpillars at an outdoor grill and served them on baguettes.

Figure 4.

View of mosque and two towers from roofs at the center of Old Town

We ended up at the Grand Mosque, which was surrounded by corrugated aluminum construction fencing. Since the collapse of the roof the previous rainy season the mosque has been closed for reconstruction. At this point the roof was fixed, but other repairs were still being made. Our Old Town guide handed us off to a member of the congregation who unlocked the door to lead us through the empty mosque. We left our shoes outside the door, and I winced stepping on pebbles on the red earthen floor.

Figure 5.

Mosque Interior

Our guide told us that The Grand Mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso was built in 1893, in traditional Sahel mud brick construction. We observed that the shape of the mosque is reminiscent of natural forms, like termite mounds, common in the countryside around Bobo-Dioulasso. The guide continued that twenty-two surrounding villages helped to build the mosque – Muslims, Christians and Animists worked together, as this building was a source of pride for them. Each village worked for six months over eleven years. Animists still hold their masked ceremonies behind the mosque. Cubbies were built inside the entrance of the mosque for shoes. Inside the prayer hall, one side was for men, the other for women. We climbed a narrow staircase to the roof, now rebuilt with grooves to channel off the damaging water of rainy season. There are several tower-like structures, the largest being a minarets (prayer tower). It is said that the tall tower visible from town, represents a man, and the shorter one a woman.10 Terracotta pots cover skylights. They are uncovered for services when it is not raining. An ostrich egg, a symbol of purity and fertility in many cultures, tops the minaret.

Figure 6.

Terra-cotta light-well cover

Figure 7.

Minaret topped by an ostrich egg

Against tradition, Bobo-Dioulasso’s mud mosque is now painted white to help protect the building from the ravages of rainy season.

Figure 8.

Chunks of termite mound

As we exited the building we observed chunks of termite mound which are mixed with mud to make stucco. Behind the mosque, we observed medicines or divining tools used by Animists. Animists helped build the mosque, and still perform their ceremonies behind it.

Figure 9.

Traditional medicine

What I experienced at the Grand Mosque of Bobo-Dioulasso was a feeling akin to the awe that I felt the first time that I visited Notre-Dame. Like the cathedral in Paris, here is a structure, a landmark seen from far away that is the center of the ancient city. Residents of the city of all religions admire and respect the structure, and it is part of the fabric of their cultural heritage. Its architectural style is distinctive of the region. I write this to draw attention to a landmark that is fairly unknown to people outside of Burkina

Faso. Architectural beauty comes in many forms, and in lands beyond Europe and North America. Experiencing the art and architecture of non-western cultures is enriching, and this building deserves more study and recognition.


1. Mark Getlein. 2010. Living With Art, 9th Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 282.

2. Elisa Dainese. “Great Mosque of Djenné,” Khan Academy. retrieved 2/25/2020.

3. Arub Saqib, 2013. “A Primitive Art.” Architects' Journal, 00038466, 11/22/2013, Vol. 238, Issue 19.

4. Alisa Lagamma, 2020. “Introduction.” In Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara. New Haven and New York: Yale University Press:2013. 29f.

5. Marchand, Trevor H.J. 2013. "The Djenné Mosque: World Heritage and Social Renewal in a West African Town." In Religious Architecture: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Verkaaik Oskar. 117-48. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press: 117-148. Accessed February 25, 2020.



Database searches turn up the rare article here and there on the Djenné Mud Mosque, and references to an exhibit about it in London, “Djenné:

African City of Mud,” RIBA, 2010. It has recently appeared in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Catalog of the recent show “Sahel: Art and Empires on the

Shores of the Sahara,” 2020, along with some smaller examples of mud mosques in the Sahel.

7. An article by Patowary, as well as the Sahel catalog illustrates eleven mud mosques. A search of “mud mosques” on yields photographs of dozens of mud mosques, mainly in Mali. In the rare book Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa by Suzanne Preston Blier (Author), James Morris (Photographer), there are additional mosques, including locations in Niger.



10. Alisa Lagamma notes the anthropomorphism of mud mosques in Ghana in the introduction to the Sahel catalog (p. 24).