The Influence Of Islam On West African Architecture – Preservation Not Destruction!

Vey sad news have been spread all over the world through television. Several ancient buildings have been destroyed by ex-Gaddafi Taliban fighters who occupy presently the North of Mali, trying to introduce the law of the scharia. Amongst these buildings was a religious shrine, that was built in the 15th century in the style what is today defined as the Sudano Sahelien Architecture.

What has been destroyed is not only part of  the heritage of Mali and belongs to the Malian people, but it is at the same time the cultural heritage of the whole world. It is easy to tear something down ( a saying of my grandfather who survived two World Wars) – it is as easy as counting to one, two, three – but it can sometimes take centuries to build it.

The irony of this situation of destruction, reigning in the North of Mali is, that Islamic architecture heavily influenced the Sahel and Sudanian regions of West Africa during the 16th and 17th centuries with the use of mud bricks, adobe plaster and wooden support beams jutting from the wall to act as scaffolding for reworking. The architectural creations of the same religion( a peaceful religion in its essence)  are destroyed now by its extremist followers.

The influence of Islamic architecture on ancient West African architecture can be traced back to the 8th century with the arrival of Muslim traders. Arab Muslims incorporated existing indigenous architectural elements into designs originating in the Middle East.
It is mentioned in old documents that the famous Malian Muslim Emperor Mansa Musa returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca in the year of 1325, bringing back with him a baked brick technology to build five mosques, which influenced the future and the style of  West African construction.

The beauty of the Sahelian Sudano architecture lies in the fact that the Pre-Islamic West African architecture, that consisted largely of compact mud and tent structures was paired with centuries old Islamic design elements creating a completely unique and fascinating architecture, famous and admired all over the world. It is the perfect fusion of these two styles and cultures, that give the Sudano Sahelian architecture a mystical and deeply religious dimension.
It is a type of architecture that can be essentailly considered as organic, sustainable and ecological. Is Eco Design not what the West and the first world countries are trying to introduce into their societies on a larger scale ?
Let’s look to West Africa for inspiration and learn from it.
In the Sahel region, Islamic architectural styles of mosques and palace courtyards and high walls brought the concept of municipal city centers to West African cities.

Mosques were designed by using existing West African, Malian Dogon architecture consisting of conical towers, pilasters and buttresses that continue today to be a Sahel mosque’s primary characteristics.
Looking at these images of a mosque in Bandiagara in the Dogon Plateau one can sense easily the greatness of these buildings. They were taken by my very good friend Ralf Scheurer, an architect during a visit to Mali to the Dogon country.

One has to realize we are talking about mud- buidlings that date back to the 15th century and earlier. They have been preserved ever since just to be destroyed now.
What is happening in the North of Mali is a disaster and a catastrophe.

Preservation Not Destruction!

Categories: Africa, African Architecture, Arab, Islam, Mali, Mali Villages, Sahel, Sudano Sahelian, Tradition, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kodjo Kamissoko, The Guardian Of My Life

Kodjo Kamissoko, the guardian

“Do I really need a guard? “ I asked when I arrived in Nara.

“I would say you do “, one of my future Malian colleagues said, “we all have guards!”

” What for?”

“Well, for fetching water, buying meat, chicken and other groceries on the market, cutting the meat, watching the house, sweeping, ironing, heating water in winter for the shower, feeding the animals, keeping the children out of the yard, chasing stray dogs…I think you are supposed to work here. If you don’t have a guard you will hardly find the time to work.”

“What animals are we feeding”? Project Animals? “

“No, your livestock, I mean. You are goanna breed some chicken I assume for the kitchen. May be a little vegetable garden as well. And by the way there is a guy coming over this afternoon to show you two donkeys. You can just pick one and negotiate the price. You will only need one for a start “.

“My French is not yet that good to negotiate prices”, I worried loud.

” He does not speak French, I think only Soninke”, my colleague replied.

When I understood that a ” charette” a popular local means of transport – a donkey cart on two recycled car tires with a matching donkey – was needed to travel to the public well in Nara, queue in line behind the ones who have arived before you, manually fetch water in buckets and pour them into plastic barrels on the donkey cart and then travel back to the house to off-load the water into two other plastic barrels stored at the house  – an intense search for a guard started !

Kodjo Kamissoko, more than a guard rather a friend

Kodjo Kamissoko, A Soninke man in his forties was the chosen one and occupied “the guard position” for nearly six years. He lived on the same property with me. He became more my guardian and advisor than guard. Apart from doing all the above mentioned tasks he made the best Arab tea in Nara, knew the gossip and new stories always first, was great company and totally reliable. I will speak a lot about him.


He enjoyed long night conversations around the fire.

And he did make light more than once !

Categories: Africa, Arab, Mali, Market, Nara, People, Tradition, Travel, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Graceful – The Heritage Of Al Andalus

Three Graces In The Village Of Keybane Maure

In the picture you see three young girls of the” Maure (Moor) people in one of the project’s partner villages. Their mother language is called ” Hassanyia “.

The term Moor refers historically to people of Berber, Black african and Arab descent who came originally from Northern Africa and conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninisula. Their rule was a long and powerful one and lasted for over 800 years. The peninsula, today Spain and Portugal, was given the name ” Al Andalus ” by the Moors.

The Moors of Al Andalus brought regions under their control as far as today’s Mauretania, parts of Senegal and West-Africa.

The term Mauri, in French ” Maure”, was later used by European traders and explorers venturing into these regions, to describe the Berber and Arab groups that speak an Arab dialect called ” Hassanyia “.

Hassanyia is a very beautiful and melodic language to my ears.It exists only in certain parts of this world. Nara is one of them.

It is argued that the Moors who speak Hassanyia, or even the Moors in general, are not a distinct ethnical group. But once you have contact with their people it is evident how strong and distinct their cultural identity is.

I have mentioned that the Sahel region is one of the poorest on earth. But it’s people are one of the most graceful and proudest on earth that I have ever met.

Categories: Africa, Arab, Berber, Hassanyia, Nara, Nature, People, Tradition, West Africa, women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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