Location: On the Niger River in central Mali, Africa.

Language: Fulfulde, Bamana, Jula.

Djenne ferry crossing on market day

History: Djenné is the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa. Founded between 850 and 1200 A.D. by Soninke merchants, Djenn served as a trading post between the traders from the western and central Sudan and those from Guinea and was directly linked to the important trading city of Timbuktu, located 400 kilometres downstream on the Niger river. It was captured by the Songhai emperor Sonni 'Ali in 1468.

Historically, Djenn was known as a centre of Islamic learning, attracting students from all over the region who were followers of the Moslem faith. A very large number of terracotta sculptures have been found in the Inland Delta of the Niger River area of Mali, which date from the last centuries of the first millennium A.D. through the 15th century.

The style is often referred to as the "Djenné" style, named after a city that rose to prominence in this area in approximately 500 A.D. and experienced great prosperity until the end of the 15th century.

Djenne rooftop labyrinth

Religion: Oral histories have been examined, including the story of Wagadu Bida, the founder of the Wagadu, or Ghana Empire. The myth tells of the birth of a serpent from the first marriage of Dinga, the leader of the Soninké clan. The serpent, named Wagadu Bida, was the source of fertility and well being. Each year a virgin had to be sacrificed to secure the blessings of the serpent.

One year, a young Soninké man, distraught that the girl he loved was to be sacrificed, slaughtered the serpent. The devastating drought that followed resulted in the dispersal of the Soninké and the founding of the Djenné culture. It is possible that the images of figures covered with serpents that were created in great numbers by the artists of ancient Djenné illustrate this myth and a subsequent cult of serpents. The numerous figures that show evidence of disease may represent supplicants who prayed to the spirit embodied in the shrine for healing.

Credits: All images on this page are photograph by P. Vallière and provided by Assou Sagara of SAGA Tours.