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Mali Culture

Mali Architecture

The buildings of the Mali Empire, some of which like the Sankore mosque in Timbuktu still stand, are one of the most recognisable features of the region and have become international symbols of Africa’s rich pre-colonial history. Mali architects had a distinct disadvantage because of the rarity of stone in the region, and for this reason, buildings were typically constructed using beaten earth (banco) reinforced with wood which often sticks out in beams from the exterior surfaces. Despite the limited materials, the mosques, in particular, are still imposing multi-storied structures with towers, huge wooden doors, and tiered minarets. Other large buildings included warehouses (fondacs) which were used to store goods before they were transported elsewhere and which had up to 40 apartments for merchants to live in. Other examples of the Mali baked-mud buildings which impress today, although many are early 20th-century CE reconstructions, include the huge mosques at Mopti and Djenne.

On a smaller scale, excavations at Niani have revealed the remains of houses and their stone foundations, confirming later sources that the richer members of society built stone houses. Arab chroniclers describe another type of domestic building, which was constructed using beaten earth bricks and with ceilings made of wooden beams and reeds, the whole formed into a conical roof. Flooring was made using earth mixed with sand.

Mali Art & Culture

We have already noted that the Malinke had a rich tradition of recounting legends and community histories orally by specialised story-tellers know as griots. These stories, passed down from generation to generation (and continuing today), were often accompanied by music. During the Mali Empire, there were even songs reserved for certain people who alone had the right to have them sung in their honour, this was especially so for renowned warriors and hunters. Music was also an important part of religious festivals when masked dancers performed.

Pottery and sculpture were produced, as they had been at noted centres like Djenne since the 9th century CE. Sculptures are generally up to 50 cm tall and made of solid pottery but sometimes with a reinforcing iron rod interior. Wood and brass were other popular materials for sculpture and, to a lesser degree, stone. Decoration is typically incised, painted, or achieved by adding three-dimensional pieces. Subjects include human figures, especially bearded warriors riding a horse but also many kneeling or crouching figures with upturned faces. Figures are often realistic portrayals of ordinary people, sometimes showing symptoms of tropical diseases. Although it is rare for artworks of this period to come with a certain provenance obtained from professionally excavated sites, the sculptures are so numerous that it seems likely many were used as everyday decorative objects as well as for ritual or burial purposes.

DMU Timestamp: July 23, 2020 19:52

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