Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!
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Image credit: Ferdinand Reus. Released under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
Dusty Market Town
Djenné is the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa. It is situated on the floodplain of the Niger and Bani rivers, and it was founded by merchants around 800 A.D. Djenné flourished as a meeting place for traders, and by the 16th century, it was Mali’s most important trading center. The city had a direct river connection with Timbuktu, and was situated at the head of trade routes leading to gold and salt mines. The city came under the rule of many, including a Songhai emperor, a few Moroccan kings, and a Tukulor emperor. Over time, the city’s importance diminished. Now, Djenné is an agricultural trade center with beautiful Muslim architecture.
The city is hot and dusty, and is surrounded by dirt and scrub. Narrow roads squeeze between two-story mud-brick houses topped with a variety of decorative crowns and miters. The Great Mosque of Djenné towers over the marketplace, jockeying for space with the elegant buttressed mud-brick homes of merchants. The architecture is of a style found in no other city on Earth. Mud brick combines with palm-wood ceiling beams to create shallow internal domes under flat roofs. Pilasters divide the fronts of buildings into tasteful bays decorated with grilled windows. All surfaces are finished with a fine layer of mud plaster. And any home of consequence is topped with some sort of repeating crown, often including protruding bundles of wooden beams called ‘toron’.
Djenné’s greatest architectural achievement is its Great Mosque, befitting the city's status as a regional center of Islamic learning and pilgrimage. The mosque was built on a raised platform of sun-dried mud bricks. They are held together by mud mortar and plastered over with more mud, giving the walls a smooth, seamless appearance, except for the many tiers of toron. The walls are very thick, which is necessary to both bear the weight of the tall structure and provide insulation from the sun’s heat. Ninety wooden pillars support the ceiling of the mosque’s prayer hall, which can contain as many as 3,000 people. There are also roof vents with ceramic caps, which can be removed at night to ventilate the interior spaces.
The Great Mosque is maintained by a guild of 80 senior masons who coordinate an annual spring replastering. The event is almost like a festival. Weeks beforehand, the mud is cured and churned by barefoot boys. The night before, the streets are alive with the echoes of enlightened chants, drums, and flutes. The replastering begins before dawn. It is a team effort that involves everyone in the community. Men scale the sides of the mosque carrying baskets of mud. The protruding wooden toron provide a ready-made ladder. Children mix work and play as they dash around caked from head to toe with sticky mud. Recently, though, the festival has fallen under threat as it is more difficult to enlist the help of young people. The younger generations prefer to make money as tourist guides, or leave Djenné early, leaving the upkeep of the Great Mosque to their elders.
Djenné in Play
In a campaign, Djenné would be a great central town for the party to work out of as they adventure across a new region. The city's memorable appearance will help make it feel different from other towns the party has stayed in. Its status as a regional center of religious study justifies the presence of libraries stuffed with mysterious lore. And its location at the confluence of trade routes helps justify having lots of interesting adventure sites nearby. PCs might be asked to help ensure the spring replastering goes smoothly. Perhaps villainous outsiders have infiltrated the festivities and must be rooted out, or the young people must be convinced to participate. Furthermore, the entire layout of Djenné lends itself to three-dimensional combat. Narrow, twisting streets are perfect for ambushes. Flat roofs of uneven height set the scene for acrobatic brawls, even as the crowns provide cover as if they were crenelations. And with its many tiers of protruding beams, the Great Mosque cries out for a vertical combat fought by climbing from toron to toron.