DJENNE Information

Location: On the Niger River in central
Population: n/a
Language: Fulfulde, Bamana, Ju
Neighbors: n/a
Types of Art: n/a
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 kilometers downstream on the Niger river. It was captured by the Songhai emperor Sonni 'Ali in 1468. Historically, Djenn was known as a center 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.
Economy: Susan and Roderick McIntosh have divided the occupation of ancient Djenné into four important phases. During phase I (ca. 250 B.C - 50 A.D.), occupants of the site seem to have lived in temporary shelters made of grass or brush, to have smelted iron, eaten fish and some domesticated cattle and to have made pottery with sand temper of the type associated with desert peoples to the north. During Phase II (ca. 50-400 A.D.), the people of ancient Djenné grew rice and lived in permanent adobe homes, and the site increased in size. During Phase III (ca. 400-900 A.D.), many more homes were built and were occupied in some cases for centuries. The McIntoshes excavated four inhumation burials and nine urn burials in a crowded urban cemetery that provides evidence of the growth of population and density. It is in such burials that most of the figurative ceramics have been found. Throughout these periods population growth was probably stimulated by trade in iron, copper, fish, rice, gold, and salt between the desert and the Sahel (McIntosh and McIntosh 1981:20). The city probably reached its greatest size late in Phase III/early Phase IV. By 1468 A.D. the site had been completely abandoned and was being garrisoned by troops of the Songhai conqueror Sonni Ali during the siege of the new city of Djenné (McIntosh and McIntosh 1981:15-17). The McIntoshes have no evidence of the reasons for decline and abandonment, but speculate that the site was the abandoned because it was associate with ancient "pagan" religious practices, and that the increasingly Muslim population wished to move to a new site more suitable for the construction of Muslim holy places, including the great mosque of Djenné.
Political Systems: n/a
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.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,