History of Djenne
In the heart of Mali in Africa, in the inland Niger Delta, 3 kilometers from the modern town of Djenné, lies the ruins of the Djenné-Djenno, an ancient sub-Saharan town, one of the best archaeological sites in the region and a reminder of the sub-Saharan civilization of pre-Islamic times. The site is located 570 kilometers from the capital city of Mali, Bamako and 130 kilometers from Mopti, the regional capital of Mopti Cercle where Djenné-Djenno lies. As per knowledge generated from repeated excavations of the archaeological site, the ancient town is estimated to have been occupied between 250 B.C. to 900 A.D. The place was deserted probably after the spread of Islam in the region when the occupants shifted to where the new city of Djenné now lies. Recognizing the outstanding historical and cultural significance of the ancient city, UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site in 1988.
Trade and Farming
The discovery of foreign artifacts like glass beads and copper ornaments at Djenné-Djenno dating well back before the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th and 8th Centuries proves the fact that international trade in sub-Saharan Africa was prevalent even in the pre-Islamic period. The fertile nature of the land around the town could have spurred the growth of agricultural practices and these ancient Africans possibly traded rice to obtain copper, salt, and dried fish from other parts of Africa. The town of Djenné-Djenno and similar settlements of sub-Saharan Africa could have also formed an important part of the trans-Sahara trade connecting the Mediterranean settlements and northern Saharan Africa to other parts of Africa. As per studies, trade in Djenné-Djenno was established as early as the 3rd Century BC.
Ancient City Life
Unlike the highly stratified cities of other civilizations of its time in other parts of Africa like Egypt, the urban settlement of Djenné-Djenno was not organized on the basis of hierarchy or social and economic power. As evident from the architecture of this archaeological site, the people of Djenné-Djenno lived in groups of corporate communities with each group identifying with similar ethnicity and work specializations. To maintain this social organization, the town was divided into around 40 mounds inhabited by communities with specific specializations who interconnected with each for their needs. This balanced structure of Djenné-Djenno probably led to its steady economic growth and made it a prosperous and self-sufficient settlement of its time.
Art and Architecture
The ancient artists of Djenné-Djenno sure deserved a lot of praise for their excellent works of art. Exquisitely beautiful and intricately carved terracotta figurines (such as the horse and rider pictured above) and sculptures representing different human forms and animal life were highly valued artifacts obtained from the ancient excavation site. Prior to the protection of Djenné-Djenno as a cultural property of national and international significance, these terracotta figurines and other works of art were often sold illegally in the black market to foreign buyers. The poverty prevailing in the region in the present times also makes it difficult to curb such practices despite significant measures being adopted by the concerned authorities. The buildings of the town included clusters of huts built of mud-brick separated from other clusters of similar kind. No central powerful architectural structure like a place of worship or a palatial building could be identified at the site.
Threats and Conservation
The town of Djenné-Djenno is currently protected under the provisions of the law since the archaeological site is listed as one of the national heritage sites of great importance. Some illegal trade involving its artifacts is, however, reported to exist. The expanding populations of the nearby towns and villages could also lead to the intrusion of modern settlements into this ancient site and hence it is important to re-define the boundaries of Djenné-Djenno to render its protected status more effective.