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The old town of Djenné was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1988, which led to a boom in tourism. Since then, various development programmes have been proposed with the aim of preserving the architectural heritage of the mosque and traditional homes. These now form the links to intangible heritage which add to the richness of Djenné, including its relationship to Islam. It is sometimes difficult to make inhabitants’ expectations and respect for local values compatible with tourism and restoration projects. Only by taking into account the diversity in both tangible and intangible aspects of heritage, accompanied by a more equal redistribution of wealth, can tourism be allowed to develop in the context of sustainable development, leading to better living conditions for the population and the marginalization of radical Islam.

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1One of the objectives of World Heritage Site Inscription is to globally publicise a legacy in order to promote visits by tourists from all walks of life and to generate local development (Benhamou, 2010 ; Breton, 2010). In addition to preserving cultural heritage, it is also necessary to develop heritage resources in order to create wealth, which entails considering an equal distribution of wealth and giving meaning to these actions, in order to preserve local agreement and protect the consensus. This last objective can be clearly observed in the case of Djenné, a historic town in Mali, whose old town centre was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1988 and whose tourism profits could be better exploited and shared.

  • 1 November 2009, December 2010, January 2011 and November 2011.
  • 2 Malian Tourism and Lodging Office [Office malien du tourisme et de l’hébergement]

2This study is based on knowledge of Djenné that has been gradually acquired over a period of around ten years through annually-repeated field observations carried out in the town itself. It is the result of both in situ observation and data collection with the town’s various stakeholders, including its inhabitants. In addition to surveys conducted with residents in January-February 2006 on their visions for the heritage site, tourism and urban development, interviews took place in 2009, 2010 and 20111, before the Islamist occupation of the three northern regions of Mali. Semi-structured interviews, sometimes over several sessions, were carried out with different local actors such as heritage and tourism directors (Cultural Mission, OMATHO2), accommodation and catering professionals, guides and retailers, and local authorities and other local leaders (village chiefs, imams). Long interviews also took place with many Koranic teachers, marabouts, and various community representatives such as tourist guides’ associations, heritage defenders and Koranic school directors. The wider population’s impressions were collected during informal exchanges with Djenné residents from different backgrounds ; these exchanges touched on subjects ranging from tourist traffic and management of the mosque to the role of Koranic schools and the activities of marabouts in the city.

3In this Holy City of Islam (Holder, 2012), it appears that programming sustainable development that is, at a minimum, fair and peaceful, requires the selection of proposals that will allow not only for the alliance of Islam and tourism (Begum, 2005 ; Cissouma & Ouallet, 2010 ; Al Karjousli, 2011), but also for the distribution of income generated by heritage tourism (Ouallet, 2009), so that local people will support the project (Cissouma, Ouallet, 2009).

4The town of Djenné has received the UNESCO label for all its ancient sites. It covers the entire urban landscape for the ancient zone which is still inhabited, and was awarded especially for its architectural quality and its inhabitants’ knowledge. On the other hand, the exemplary nature of a local culture strongly linked to Islam through a close intangible link has not been taken into account as above all else, Djenné is a marabout city (Mommersteeg, 2009) whose people define themselves as being part of a Muslim community (Holder, 2006). For them, the development of activities can only be considered by preserving an urban identity that protects the values of the Islamic religion, in conjunction with the local education system and knowledge transfer in which Koranic schools, for example, should participate. All of these elements help form the city’s rich heritage (Brunet-Jailly, 2002) and should serve to reinforce the image of Djenné as a city of knowledge.

5However, the preservation of this wealth is currently being disrupted by a number of misunderstandings and deadlocks, creating a situation which is problematic for a city that has invested in tourism and which culminated in a major riot on 20 September 2006. In situ observations, exchanges with the population and repeated interviews with key representatives from traditional authorities (village chiefs, neighbourhood councillors), the Muslim community (imams, marabouts, Koranic teachers, talibés), the modern state (elected representatives, prefects) and key development stakeholders concerned by the issue of heritage (representatives of the Cultural Mission, representatives of associations) show that there are a number of possible avenues.

• Heritage selection and tourism development

6Djenné is located close to the confluence of the Bani and Niger rivers in the centre of Mali, an area known as the Niger Inner Delta. The city is a remarkable site that is appreciated by tourists, but is also difficult to reach. It is surrounded by water and is accessible only after travelling 30 kilometres around a seawall, crossing the Bani on a ferry and finally traversing a one-way bridge. It is also possible to travel around Djenné via canoe, an essential mode of high-water transport, to reach the surrounding villages. This is a tourist attraction for those wishing to see the city from the water. One of the unique features of this old inhabited city is that it was completely built with banco, which forms part of the urban landscape’s remarkable character as designated by UNESCO. Banco is a local building material made of a mixture of clay, straw and rice bran. Long ago, the mixture also included shea butter which is nowadays too expensive. The use of banco reflects local know-how, activities and a culture that incorporates not only the natural environment, but also an entire ancestral social organisation.

7Its inclusion on the World Heritage List gave new momentum to the city and has led to an increase in the number of visiting tourists – 40,000 per year. The local office for the promotion of tourism, OMATHO (Djenné branch), was created in the wake of the classification. Djenné has maintained a rather traditional character, one of its many assets, although this sometimes causes considerable problems (see below).

Three heritagisation approaches

8Djenné’s urban site is over 2,000 years old, as proven by American archaeological digs (McIntosh, 1980). The city’s history therefore fits into a long timeline ; tourism takes place both on the archaeological site, located a few kilometres from the centre, and the site of the modern city.

9Djenné’s old towns have been inscribed on the World Heritage List since 1988, following a proposal from the Mali government. It must be understood that the classification was granted both for the archaeological remains of Djenné-Djeno, dating from 250 BC, and the banco-built part of present-day Djenné (document 1).

10Document 1 : Old Towns of Djenné inscribed on the World Heritage List

11Google Earth.

12This institutional heritagisation, launched by the Mali government and approved by UNESCO, is only one local dynamic surrounding the city’s heritage. At the same time, other logics exist for designating sites as part of a cultural heritage. Scholarly logic led by marabout Mamadou Traoré, who was also called “Bia-Bia”, glorifies Djenné as a “blessed city” and a “holy city” of Islam. It was developed from manuscripts, the most well-known being the Tâ‘rîkh al-Fattâsh (Kati, c. 1665, revised in the 19th century), and from chronicles of great marabout families such as the late Bia-Bia’s, who was considered the greatest contemporary scholar on Djenné (Holder, 2012 b). This theme contradicts the pre-Islamic Djenné and therefore is hindered by the discourse that accompanies the development of the city’s archaeological sites and their role as places to visit. A third heritage approach is of a more popular nature. This “bottom-up heritagisation” (Cissouma & Ouallet, 2007) claims responsibility first and foremost for social values of both Islam and of social harmony at the local scale and does not take tourists into account. It allows citizens to participate in the life of the city and concerns only the inhabited part of the city, with very little focus on the cumbersome Djenné-Djeno archaeological site.

13The Djenné-Djeno site, unoccupied for millennia, remains a study site for archaeologists. Preservation and development actions have been carried out on the archaeological site to make the remains more visible. Visits are organized for tourists by the Cultural Mission, which is an original structure in Mali representing both the Malian government and UNESCO at designated sites. The Mission is locally responsible for heritage management.

14Maintenance of a heritage element as fragile as banco requires special attention – in this case, annual re-plastering. However, issues such as local poverty and inheritance issues mean that the local population cannot always carry out repairs (Cissouma & Ouallet, 2007). Therefore, some residents sometimes prefer to modify and modernise the architecture, e.g. by laying tiles, much to the dismay of tourists and heritage experts (Cissouma & Ouallet, 2009). The city’s listing under the UNESCO label implies that it is bound to the Venice Charter, but residents and the Cultural Mission team consider the Charter to be far too restrictive.

15Various restoration programmes financed by external donors have taken place with the restoration and conservation plan directed by ICOMOS (Africa Scientific Journal, 1996). The main restoration programme for Djenné’s earthen architecture was launched in 1996 as part of a bilateral agreement between Mali and the Netherlands (Bedaux et al., 1996). This cooperative effort lasted seven years. The programme, which ended in 2003, restored 98 typical Djenné houses of different styles (including Moroccan architecture, and another kind of architecture known as toucouleur) by training local masons in traditional banco techniques (Maas & Mommersteeg, 1991). Not all inhabitants are pleased with these projects ; they point to other priorities and would prefer access to the amenities and comforts which have become impossible to obtain during restoration. Furthermore, a sizeable number expressed fear that their properties would be seized (Cissouma & Ouallet, 2007). However, the restoration projects have delighted tourists who are looking for tradition and authenticity (Lazzarotti, 2003).

16The World Heritage designations of the archaeological site and the old banco city centre have simultaneously contributed to the growth of tourism.

Development of the tourist economy

17Tourism has grown considerably in Djenné since the city was officially designated at the international level ; it has since gained a worldwide reputation. The arrival of tourists has resulted in the development of different sectors including hospitality, catering, crafts, tour guides and trade.

  • 3 OMATHO, Djenné branch, unpublished report. 1,000 CFA francs equivalent to approximately €1.50.
  • 4 Malian Office of Tourism and Accommodation, Djenné Office.

18The development of crafts has been particularly important. Each tourist spends an average of 1,000 to 3,000 CFA francs3 per trip, so by taking into account the average number of arrivals (estimated by the OMATHO4 at 8,000), it can be calculated that crafts bring in a considerable sum : 8,000,000 to 24,000,000 CFA francs per tourist season. Development projects, generally defined in terms of sustainable development, are directed towards the population and target the craft sector, as it creates jobs. Such is the case of the project funded by the National Tourism Organisation for Djenné craftswomen.

19Hotels and guest houses were also built during the tourism boom. Today, the city of Djenné has eleven hotels and guest houses, including one – Le Campement – from the colonial period. The remaining ten were built after inscription on the World Heritage List, three of them by outside investors, offering various levels of comfort. Prices also vary according to reputation, location and services offered, ranging from 2,500 CFA francs for a terrace spot to over 36,000 CFA francs for an air-conditioned room at the Hôtel Djenné Djeno (document 2).

20Document 2 : Hospitality offers in Djenné

21OMATHO [Tourism and Accommodation Office of Mali], Djenné.

22Despite the increasing number of accommodation offers, the mediocre quality of the amenities and sloppy service mean that tourists spend very little time in Djenné, which tends to be a stopover on tour operator itineraries for the Dogon country. Prices are also a deterrent, especially when compared to the quality of infrastructure and amenities. The relatively short time that tourists spend in Djenné is confirmed by the number of entries and overnight stays, which are very similar (document 3).

23Document 3 : Number of entries and overnight stays in Djenné from 2005 to

24OMATHO, Djenné.

25This has also been confirmed by an analysis carried out by Djenné Patrimoine, a highly active local heritage association. According to a survey carried out in 2002 (Djenné Patrimoine, 2002), the length of time tourists spent in Mali was frequently long : two to four weeks for 42 % of respondents, and more than four weeks for 24 % of respondents. On the other hand, visits to Djenné were very brief : 11 % of visitors did not stay overnight, 53 % spent less than two days and only 16 % stayed for more than three days. It should be noted that tourists often rely on guides to organise their trips, choice of hotel and often the duration of their hotel stay. Furthermore, there is a very narrow tourist season as it is concentrated within the dry season (wintertime in Europe). This time of year coincides with the typical holiday period, and temperatures in Mali are moderate ; thus, December, January and February correspond to the high tourist season. However, as insecurity has increased in the north of Mali, there has been a sharp fall in tourist numbers. Tourism stopped completely with the Salafist invasion of the northern regions of the country in April 2012. Document 4 compares the 2007 and 2011 tourist seasons at a Djenné hotel, and very clearly shows this drop in tourist visits.

26Document 4 : revenues and expenditures in the 2007 and 2011 tourist seasons (in CFA francs).

27Hôtel Tapama, Djenné.

28Furthermore, tourism development in Djenné has legitimised certain development projects, opening up the city to the rest of the world. A few years after the World Heritage designation, the dike road connecting the Djenné ferry crossing at the “Djenné crossroads” [Carrefour de Djenné] (the junction with the route linking Bamako and Mopti) was paved. However, no effective transport service has been set up on this short stretch and reaching Djenné remained an ordeal for anyone wishing to travel there. With a personal vehicle, the only obstacle is to arrive or depart before nightfall to anticipate the ferry crossing. Indeed, this does not work after dark ; drivers arriving a little too late must spend the night on the riverbank waiting for the first departure at 7 o’clock the next morning. Ultimately, a coach service was finally implemented in 2005. It initially provided a direct link between Djenné and Bamako, once per week, but frequency was later increased to three coaches per week.

29Tourism is also a source of revenue for the town council : every tourist must pay an entry fee of 1,000 CFA francs. Counting on an average of 8,000 tourists, the total theoretical sum paid to the city can reach 8,000,000 CFA francs and in certain years, the total can rise to 15,000,000 CFA francs. Unfortunately, revenues from this tax often vanish ; nobody can openly say where these funds go and this is a major source of local discontent.

30Guides have also benefited from the boom in tourism. Although 27 official guides work in Djenné, there are also around 100 unofficial guides. Prices paid by tourists depend on the guide’s experience and competence, but also on their persuasive ability and tourists’ financial means. Individual spending can reach 5,000 to 10,000 CFA francs per tourist.

31The money flow is therefore indisputable, but is still not enough to initiate sustainable development. Heritage and tourism potentials have not achieved the ideal synergy (Gravari-Barbas, 2012) that would allow the city to take advantage of a real development dynamic. Local tourism expectations are strong, but tourism-sector based development has not been achieved because of the lack of a comprehensive project and an inability to manage and redistribute. Most residents continue to live on meagre local resources and money sent by those who have left the city. A number of factors hamper the city’s growth, limit local improvement and even create frustration.

• Issues surrounding tourism in Djenné : potentials and challenges

32Potentials for development, especially in terms of tourism, are very important, but resources are not always exploited effectively. Some of them have simply not been given any attention. This is the case for matters related to the living and intangible heritage of Djenné, including social and cultural expressions, Koranic schools, and marabout knowledge.

Lack of institutional proposals for heritage restoration

33The cultural heritage has been enhanced by raising the population’s awareness on the safeguarding of elements institutionally considered to be the heritage of the town of Djenné, namely earthen architecture and archaeological sites. In this context, the Cultural Mission of Djenné launched awareness-raising directed at the population on the preservation of archaeological sites and the conservation of local banco architecture. The Cultural Mission has also managed to establish partnerships with various actors involved in local development, particularly since the increase in the number of associations created following decentralisation in the early 1990s. The Djenné Patrimoine association, the masons’ society, guides’ association and the association of citizens for city development are now invited to participate in a more or less active way according to the proposed development programmes. These groups, once mobilised around conservation efforts, are likely to play an essential coordination role transmitting messages and respecting established standards. Panel discussions have also been initiated. The Djenné Patrimoine association has proven to be particularly dynamic by publishing an online5 newsletter and organising conferences.

34The house restoration programme mainly conducted through cooperation with the Netherlands has, to the delight of tourists and conservation supporters, allowed the preservation of some houses with unusual architectural styles. These houses are listed on the various tourist routes throughout the city and they also provided work for masons.

35The city’s water supply was developed at the same time, but was not integrated into an overall vision for urban development and heritage preservation. This urban development project was beneficial because it has brought the convenience of running water, but it has also led to new environmental issues ; the sewerage issue has not yet been resolved. Djenné has become a dirty city with some foul-smelling streets that are totally impassable during the rainy season.

36Djenné’s tourist fame is related mainly to its mosque, which is considered to be a gem of earthen architecture. The mosque dates from the 14th century, when King Koi Komboro converted to Islam in 1380. He destroyed his palace and built a large mosque in its place (Sa’dî, 1655). In 1819, Djenné was annexed to the Massina Empire, whose founder Sékou Amadou had the mosque destroyed by clogging the gutters. The pretext he gave was that the form of Islam practiced by the Djennekes of the time was tainted with animist practices. He ordered a new one to be built a few hundred metres away. At the time of colonisation, the French colonial governor William Ponty agreed, apparently at marabout Almamy Sonfo’s request, to perfectly recreate the ancient mosque of King Koi Komboro. Work began in October 1906 and was completed a year later. The present mosque dates from this period and it is still the largest banco structure in the world.

37The use of sun-dried mud is an attractive feature of the Sahel, but it is vulnerable to rain and requires annual maintenance in which all Djenné residents participate. For around one hundred years, annual re-plastering organised by the Djenné community has allowed the mosque to be maintained (document 5).

38Document 5 : annual re-plastering of the Djenné mosque – 23/02/2001

39© Jean Debrie.

40Unfortunately, the increasing weight of the earth used during plastering has weakened the building. A restoration program was thus entrusted to the Aga Khan Foundation in 2006 to repair the mosque. However, the first series of expert interventions met with resistance from locals, who claimed that they were not involved. It was the very principle of restoring the monument and not the type of restoration that was contested. Stemming from the locals’ feelings of exclusion, the debate came down to the rightfulness of foreigners to enter the mosque. Arguments, largely made for the sake of respecting Islam, were used to denounce certain misappropriations. This mobilisation indeed reflects a broader discontent of the population.


41In a city whose heritage is directly linked with religion, the issue of Islam is used both by those who wish to stop the tourist movement, and by those who want to confiscate a portion of the revenues, or those who expect it to be more equally distributed. The fact that non-Muslims are forbidden to enter the mosque (document 6) has stirred up strong feelings, and again raised the question of the tourist status of a place whose main attraction is banned from tourist visits. In this context, the involvement of experts from the Aga Khan Foundation was the last straw and this caused a major riot in 2006. This was the result of pre-existing dissension in the Muslim community, which presented itself as a group united around Malekism, but in reality was beginning to show cracks.

42Document 6 : Sign forbidding entry to non-Muslims in front of the Djenné mosque, World Heritage Site – 09/01/2005

43© Soufian Al Karjousli.

  • 6 This riot has been mentioned in the Malian press – see for example: Les Echos, 21-25 September 2006 (...)

44During the 2006 riot, the crowd attacked symbols of the authorities and ransacked anything that had been funded by foreigners ; the mayor’s home was attacked and vehicles belonging to the imam’s family were also vandalised. In the city, fire hydrants were destroyed. The riot resulted in one death and 48 arrests6.

45The shock generated by the riot in this small-yet-renowned Malian city had a dual effect : tourist numbers fell, and fundamental questions arose about local development, such as the link between the heritage designation and equal access to all of the designated areas including, in this case, for non-Muslims.

46The written ban was followed a few years later by the arrival of even more tourists, directly in connection with the city’s designation by UNESCO (1988). However, it should be noted that the debate had already been launched as early as the 1970s, but it began to reach a new scale with the confiscation of tourist revenues from the monument. In the 1990s, an informal visiting system was set up which only benefits a few well-placed individuals able to get tourists in for a fee. Without the ability to publicly denounce the misappropriation of these profits, those who were excluded resorted to religious arguments to challenge such practices and to give themselves legitimacy. In fact, the question on the ban has been a way for those who could not control entry into the mosque to express their discontent : that is, nearly the entire population. The challenge of the diverted revenues results in a denunciation of the acceptability for visitors to enter this religious building. The ban on tourists entering the mosque is, of course, a serious loss for the community when compared with the number of tourist visits to the city. Despite the proclaimed ban, “motivated” tourists will always be able to get what they want by paying a discreet but rather high sum to “those who can get you in”. These people are never mentioned by name, as the argument has become theological in order for the challenge to be accepted at the cultural level. The ban is becoming an increasingly hot topic. Beyond the mostly-unanimous facade, a very small minority continues to profit from managing admissions alone, but in a roundabout fashion. The majority claims the prohibition to be a condemnation of local misappropriation. The mindlessness of globalised Islam (Al Karjousli, 2009) reinforces this prevailing argument. Religious differences exist in Djenné, but the argument around “respect for Islam” as it is wielded by all of its members to proclaim the need for a ban on visiting the mosque to non-Muslims, serves as a guarantee of respectability. The nation’s general movement of re-Islamisation (Holder, 2009) is often accompanied by a facade whose words are full of stereotypes (Al Karjousli, 2010). In Djenné, therefore, disagreements on the mosque are not built on religious rivalries between different traditional marabout brotherhoods, support for Ançar Dine reformism (Holder, 2012), or even sympathy for the da’wa movement, close to the Hanbali school where proselytizing is locally important ; they are, in fact, based on rivalries around the question of access to this classified mosque, a central resource for the city. Moreover, in other non-classified mosques in Mali, access to non-Muslims poses no problem. Other studies (Greffe, 2000) show, on other grounds than Islam, this kind of tension linked to the right to visit religious buildings.

47In Djenné, actual tourist spending does not benefit the community, or does not benefit it enough. This influx of money can thus lead to many frustrations. New proposals have recently been made by certain local actors, including the head of Djenné guides and other independent parties, so as to improve the management of what has become a central issue. This has, at the same time, fostered greater awareness from other local actors, including marabouts and Koranic scholars, while other potential resources remaining in the city have not been tapped. For example, this is the case for the future of the Koranic schools and other directly or indirectly related activities. The issues of tourism development, the type of support that populations provide for tourist activities as regards local culture and how it is possible to promote the image of a Holy City of Islam are now the centre of every debate.

Towards the inclusion of a recognised living heritage

  • 7 Surveys, January–February 2006
  • 8  F. T., survey conducted on 31/01/2006
  • 9 H. S., survey conducted on 28/01/2006

48Beyond just visible or material structures, collective memory considers heritage to be any social cohesion organised around the mosque during its annual repair. Many rivalries exist, but the ability to silence them for this annual event is a test for the city (Ouallet, 2012). Much testimony given by surveyed inhabitants expresses this feeling7 : “heritage means agreeing8” was one answer given when asked what exactly heritage in Djenné is. Another interviewee said that “good relationships are what allow the ceremonies to be organised9”.

  • 10 “Islam” refers here to the culture as well, not only the religion (Islam)

49For the population, heritage is indeed the strong bond uniting human beings through both the visible and the invisible. The people of Djenné consider the cultural dimension to be more important than the material. For them, heritage is the link that unites the private and the public through common activities, whether repairing the mosque, visiting holy places or all the actors associated with them. Islam10 as a heritage is perceived here as a base around which the entire society of Djenné is formed (Holder, 2006).

50Now, at the institutional level, the mosque of Djenné seems to be the city’s only essential heritage ; the restoration of the ancient banco houses is seen as an exception. What is considered to be an institutional heritage is a tangible heritage, to which donors give a value. As set out in Rodrégos, it is a positive heritage (Dos Santos J. Rodrégos, 2011), that is, one that is likely to have a short-term economic impact. Revenues are expected after the buildings are restored, once tourists directly see “authentic” architecture. Architectural issues have therefore received all the attention. However, this has caused other heritage elements of the city to be forgotten which in turn have been neglected by participants in the city’s development. Thus, everything relating to the city’s living heritage, which is much more complicated to include, has been set aside for now. It is a heritage marked by the people as a key part of their city’s identity, but it is ignored both by modern institutions and development programmes. The populations’ traditional activities around their monuments, Koranic schools are much more difficult to manage and they are instead designated as a nuisance by official developers. New demands from civil society actors can emerge via associations. Associations, such as the association for Koranic school teachers, aim to more effectively highlight this unofficially-chosen part of local heritage. Adopting an associative status should allow a formalisation of what has been forgotten by the institutions. The transformation into an association is a way to make visible the claim surrounding the recognition of this largely intangible heritage.

51For the time being, no element of this intangible heritage has been taken into account, whether it concerns the idea of a unifying, sharing form of Islam which brings together all its practitioners around a single mosque, and therefore is supposed to redistribute potential profits generated by the monument, or whether it still concerns the issue of Koranic schools.

52The importance of the Djenné mosque for a large majority of the city’s residents does not arise from an architecture that is prized by foreigners. One of the mosque’s strengths is its uniqueness ; it symbolizes the unity of all believers and all of the community of Djenné around the monument. This social harmony is expressed in the plastering ceremony, which must mark the ability to overcome disagreements. Heritage is carried here by a symbol of spirituality and Islam, not by the building. What counts is gathering in one single place, rather than the aesthetic or historical value of the building. At a time when Friday mosques have multiplied all over Mali, even in cities much smaller than Djenné, the persistence of a single mosque in Djenné is a powerful symbol.

53Agreement around cultural, religious and social values can be promoted by organising mosque visits for tourists, by promoting traditional ceremonies, or safeguarding projects for ancient manuscripts that would make them the symbol of a rich local culture, on condition that this intangible heritage be included. However, the issue of admission to the mosque has become a hugely dividing issue. The ancient manuscripts project is overseen by the Cultural Mission, but it has had trouble moving beyond conflicts.

54The Koranic schools continue their existence in Djenné by still working in their traditional mission to maintain local traditions and knowledge historically obtained by their place in the global networks of Islam (Al Karjousli, 2008). These schools are the very reflection of a system perpetuating the transmission of knowledge which is being questioned by the formal system. Koranic teachers complain that formal education does not take into account the educational and cultural values that formerly associated Islamic teaching with learning a trade. Many locals say that Djenné would not be Djenné without its marabouts and Koranic schools. There are currently around 100 marabouts (Koranic teachers and magical/religious specialists) in the city, and Koranic schools effectively remain a key element in their existence there. They continue to bring the city to life, providing atmosphere and background sounds with the chants of their talibés [students] (documents 7 and 8). Thus, it is a true living heritage. However, the old town was inscribed on the World Heritage list on its own with none of these pillars of Djenné society being included in heritage preservation programmes.

55Document 7 : Koranic school, Djenné 2010 – 26/12/2010

56© Soufian Al Karjousli.

57Document 8 : Koranic teacher, Djenné, 2010 – 26/12/2010

58© Soufian Al Karjousli.

59In Djenné, marabouts’ resentment for the modern system is all the more important, as they believe they have been totally forgotten in the heritage designation process. No particular formal recognition has identified them. According to them, this means that traditional skills could be lost as the modern education system is widely implemented. They jointly acknowledge that deteriorating economic conditions have reduced most Koranic teachers to poverty, and regret all the more that they have not been considered, as they do not benefit from tourism-related revenues. They are aware of having failed to take part in a heritage designation which could have included the knowledge otherwise associated with their schools and, through a form of Islam combining Koranic teachings and traditional activities, would allow their students to receive an education that would lead to future jobs. In the wake of the rapid development of the associations kindled by decentralisation policies, several associations have sprung up over recent years to defend the Koranic schools. The Tiharou association is firstly dedicated to promoting traditional Koranic schools, as opposed to the madrasas. An association of Koranic school directors was formed in January 2006, and counted 60 directors in 2011. It is currently looking for a project based around the heritage of Koranic schools, which could rally donors. The city’s classification in its entirety requires reflection on their inclusion within the context of a comprehensive heritage development programme.

60The lack of official recognition of this living heritage, the basis of local culture and the raison d’être of Djenné in the traditional heritage of Mali and the heritage of Islam, means that a large part of social energy and knowledge production are lost. The relegation of these elements into a kind of unrecognised heritage institutionally fans the resentment of excluded populations who will notice the flaws in the system by identifying the adverse effects of tourism.

Ambivalent effects of tourism

61According to most of the people encountered during interviews and informal conversations, the role of tourism is very positive in Djenné, for reasons including : the income it generates ; the purchase and restoration of homes abandoned by their owners for financial reasons ; the development of a form of unified tourism which allows the growth of associations ; and also tourist support for the young people of Djenné. Some Djenné guides were indeed able to build their businesses with the support of tourists with whom they have formed special bonds.

62However, investigations have also revealed that some residents are shocked by the behaviour of certain tourists – their clothing, how they act towards sacred places (there are rumours that some tourists have allegedly kissed inside the mosque), and alcohol and drug consumption. Some also complain that tourists make use of children at the expense of official guides by paying reduced prices. The economic power gained by these children leads them to adopt new habits that are looked down upon by locals : showing less respect for parents, abandoning their studies, and alcohol and drugs use. A number of young guides identify themselves with a category of tourists in an attempt to draw them in, by adopting new attitudes that are reprehensible in local traditions.

63Alongside these realities, an entire business has sprung up just for items that may be interesting to foreigners. The entire handicraft sector benefits, but a black market has also arisen around items that are not officially sold, as they are considered to be heritage elements, whether for their locally holy nature, or for their historic or unrecognised cultural value. The latter cases are illustrated by trafficking in archaeological objects and the black market for ancient manuscripts. The site of Djenné-Djeno is inadequately guarded. One single guard is not enough to dissuade intruders and archaeological artefacts are disappearing from the site. With ancient manuscripts, the problem is different as they are preserved by families. The increasing heritage value of these ancient manuscripts means that they are increasingly sought after, and their sale on the black market has boomed. Delays in their preservation and pressure from certain parties, in addition to the fact that institutional procedures to safeguard them remain very complicated and even random, all mean that an entire black market has sprung up for reselling these manuscripts. Only the British Library is carrying out a serious project on this issue. The collection, preservation and digitisation of certain manuscripts has begun with this program. Other official donors have not yet committed. An entire parallel business has been implemented. The manuscripts can be found in the hands of resellers, tourists and, one may hope, antique dealers who are aware of their value and know how to preserve them in order to resell them at astronomical prices. Before our very eyes, a heritage going well beyond a single illuminated manuscript is being destroyed, as it is the contents of the manuscripts that are of the utmost importance. Entire testimonies of local history are disappearing.

64The black market also deals in walha, Koranic tablets used by talibés during their education. Copying Koranic verses onto these tablets gives them a sacred value. Using a qalam, a reed pen dipped in a mixture of charcoal and Arabic gum, the talibé copies verses from the Koran. The walha have a holy function – not because of the wood plank itself, but from the Koranic scriptures which have been inscribed upon it. The water used to clean these Koranic writings is collected by the marabout every day to be reused in care practices, in particular. There is some tourist demand for these tablets ; each can bring the seller between 3,000 and 20,000 CFA francs. It can thus be quite tempting for some to resell them, although locally it is an unacceptable act. Any child who loses his walha faces heavy punishment by his Koran teacher. The parallel market for walha means that they are losing their function as a talibé’s educational and spiritual tool. It thus becomes a mere bauble possessed by a tourist, and loses its sacredness. Objects that previously had no market value have entered the economic field in this way.

65In Djenné, the consensus is that tourism has brought about to an overall economic inflation. Thus, food products are more expensive in Djenné than in Bamako, the capital. A system of regulation has been implemented, leading to three different price brackets for products, depending on the buyer’s origin. The lowest price is for “real” Djenné locals, that is, those who speak the local languages ; however, these people do not buy all the products. Next comes the price for non-Djenné locals ; they originate from elsewhere but live in Djenné. Finally, the highest prices are applied to tourists (a few thousand per year : document 3) and catering and accommodation services (document 2).

66For certain products such as fish, residents can only very rarely buy quality goods, despite the fact that the city is surrounded by water. They can only buy small fry, as the bigger fish are reserved for restaurants or frozen and exported to the capital 400 kilometres away. Large sums are deposited in advance by buyers before the products are fished. Amounts can climb to 500,000 CFA francs. Tourist pressure and urban demand from the capital play an important role in determining the price and availability of such products.

67A sustainable development project cannot depend on support from a single economic sector. The heritage project may allow tourism to develop, but other areas are interdependent. Thus, in this small World Heritage town, its heritage development and tourism promotion cannot occur without joint support for the development of primary sector activities (agriculture, fishing and livestock) which occupies the majority of the population, who are still not properly fed. Poverty remains such an issue that access to basic needs is not possible. The very few means that local services and organisations have access to cannot resolve such problems. In the end, people obtain the resources necessary for daily survival and welfare from the foundations of society. These resources are called “mutual assistance” and “exchange of services”, and are accessible only by long-term participation in social networks. These networks exist in the collective memory (Cissouma & Ouallet, 2007) and were repeated into the 1980s by traditional education, with a great deal of them manifesting through Islamic values. This memory is the vehicle for an intangible heritage which, alone, allows links to be established. For the people, heritage is essentially a form of social capital (Bourdieu, 1980) permitting access to other dimensions of capital – amongst others, economic, education and cultural ones.

68In Djenné, heritage development involves its perception as a plural concept, and which includes intangible dimensions that are intrinsically linked to the built heritage which for the moment, is the only target of institutional development.


69Tourism is undeniably a source of revenue for the people of Djenné and the city itself, but the new wealth is partially confiscated and residents are demanding a bigger piece of the pie. They ask for the classification not to exclude them from the modern era, but rather for it to allow them to establish a better management system for the mosque. These demands are sometimes expressed violently (see the 2006 riot) and are also visible by a radicalisation of expression, particularly with regard to the prescriptive standards of Islam (closing the mosque to tourists, for example). In the city of Djenné, heritage is directly related to religion, but the issue of Islam is being increasingly exploited. Some manipulate this exploitation to protect the image of Islam they truly believe in. Most, however, hope to obtain more control over revenues, while others expect a more equitable division of wealth and effective participation by inhabitants in the development project. In this way, tourism will lead to a sustainable development linking heritage and tourism. Meanwhile, in the wake of the 2006 riot and the occupation of the country by Islamists (April 2012, spring 2013) and their implementation of radical Sharia law in the northern regions, as well as the liberation of the territory in spring 2013 following the French military’s intervention, the issue of touristification and its terms in relation to the form of heritage designation remains problematic.

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1 November 2009, December 2010, January 2011 and November 2011.

2 Malian Tourism and Lodging Office [Office malien du tourisme et de l’hébergement]

3 OMATHO, Djenné branch, unpublished report. 1,000 CFA francs equivalent to approximately €1.50.

4 Malian Office of Tourism and Accommodation, Djenné Office.

5 Website of the Djenné Patrimoine association [in French]:

6 This riot has been mentioned in the Malian press – see for example: Les Echos, 21-25 September 2006 or l’Indépendant, 28 September 2006.

7 Surveys, January–February 2006

8  F. T., survey conducted on 31/01/2006

9 H. S., survey conducted on 28/01/2006

10 “Islam” refers here to the culture as well, not only the religion (Islam)

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Diama Cissouma Togola et Soufian Al Karjousli, « Capture the wealth of heritage in a Holy City of Islam : the problem of developing tourism in Djenné in Mali », Via [En ligne], 4-5 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2013, consulté le 01 décembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Diama Cissouma Togola

Geographer and Professor at the University of Bamako. She has also been an Invited Professor at the French universities of Rouen and Rennes 2. She began her research work on the theme of urban environment and is currently working on heritage, tourism and Islam in Mali. She is currently conducting research under the “Mali Contemporain” Priority Solidarity Fund, on heritage strategies in the holy cities of Mali.

Linguist and islamologist. He is currently teaching Arab-Muslim civilisation and Arabic language at SUPELEC Rennes (France). His work focuses on the analysis of Muslim societies and their relationship to Islamic heritage and modernity. He is currently leading a research programme on sub-Saharan manuscripts, including in Mali, as well as on the question of Islam’s current developments in Mali.

Soufian Al Karjousli

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