Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Preserving culture versus modernity: The Great Mosque of Djenne

Last Sunday's NYT had a fascinating article about the spectacular mud mosque of Djenne, Mali. The mosque is the largest mud brick building in the world, and the UN has declared the city as on official World Heritage Site. This means tourism and money for the preservation of the mosque (though current restoration of $900,000 is being funded by the Agha Khan Foundation). This is all well and good. The problem is that all the houses surrounding the Great Mosque are also made up of mud bricks, and they are also part of the heritage. The inhabitants living there, therefore, cannot make changes - even to the inside of their houses - without the permission of UN. This is a tricky issue: On the one hand, Djenne gets tourists in large part because of its status as the World Heritage Site. On the other hand, the very tourism drives the local economy and leads to changes in the local population that moves them away from being "authentic" - whatever that means. But there are also issues of who really benefits from this tourism:
The town was also a gateway that helped spread Islam regionally. When the king converted in the 13th century, he leveled his palace and built a mosque. Mali’s French colonizers eventually oversaw its reconstruction in 1907.
The Grand Mosque was again near collapse when the Agha Khan Foundation arrived to begin a $900,000 restoration project, said Josephine Dilario, one of two supervising architects. The annual replastering had more than doubled the width of the walls and added a yard of mud to the roof. It was too heavy, even with the forest of thick pillars inside the mosque supporting the high ceiling — one for each of the 99 names of God.
In 2006, the initial restoration survey ignited a riot. Protesters sacked the mosque’s interior, attacked city buildings and destroyed cars. The uprising was apparently rooted in the simmering tension among the 12,000 townsfolk, particularly the young, who felt forced to live in squalor while the mosque imam and a few prominent families raked in the benefits from tourism.
The frustration seems to have lingered. While the mosque graces the national seal, residents here appear markedly more sullen about tourism than in many other Malian cities. They often glower rather than smile, and they tend to either ask for money or stomp off when cameras are pointed in their direction.
With the mosque restoration nearing completion, the town is focusing attention on other critical problems — raw sewage and the restoration of the nearly 2,000 houses.
“There is a kind of tension, a difficulty that has to be resolved by not locking people into the traditional and authentic architecture,” said Samuel SidibĂ©, the director of Mali’s National Museum in Bamako, the capital.        
These are difficult issues and we need to find a balance somewhere. Read the full article here. Here is a short film associated with the article and it provides some nice visuals of the mosque and the surrounding town:


emre said...

They limit the number of tourists that access the site. This is the approach that the Peruvians took with the Machu Picchu. A more elaborate scheme is to create two tiers: a narrow window when anyone can visit, and the remainder for the well-heeled.

Salman Hameed said...

I guess the question is about the kind of control that local inhabitants desire. I was recently in Luxor, Egypt, and they have uncovered fragments of the 2 km long Avenue of the Sphinxes, built couple of thousand years ago - that connected the Karnak Temple with the Luxor Temple. When restored, this will be absolutely amazing! But the restoration will require an uprooting of people and houses that have been built in the last few decades. What if those inhabitants don't want to move? I think this is where we have to figure out the value of "heritage" versus the rights of the locals - and find a fair and equitable solution. A more extreme case would be the Bamuyan Buddha Statues, that were destroyed by the Taliban. In theory, they had a choice, since they were ruling Afghanistan at the time. But these statues also hold a world value. I feel the same way about the destruction of historical structures around Mecca (I had posted about it a few weeks ago).

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