The Inland Niger Delta is located between the Bani and Niger rivers in present-day southwestern Mali. These waterways have provided the region with a fertile floodplain and a natural thoroughfare for trade, both of which helped secure the area’s central position in the economic, social, and urban histories of the western Sudan.
Jenne-jeno (“Old Jenne”; Djenne-jeno), site of the oldest known city of sub-Saharan Africa, was populated as early as 250 B.C. and expanded to become a major urban center by 850 A.D. Archaeologists have determined from slag deposits that the original inhabitants of Jenne-jeno worked iron from the earliest days of the site’s occupation. This iron industry is among the earliest known in sub-Saharan Africa, antedated only by that of the Nok culture.
In addition to its importance as an ironworking center, Jenne-jeno was the region’s first known significant trading crossroads. Food surpluses such as dried fish, staple grains, and oil were likely exchanged for items of trans-Saharan trade such as stones and salt. Abandoned by 1400, Jenne-jeno left behind tells (settlement mounds) containing the remains of a once-thriving city, including funerary pots and a multitude of buried statuary. Since the vast majority of the statues have been unearthed from sites without documentation or regard for their burial content, the age and significance of these objects is not well understood.
The town of Jenne (Djenne) was founded near Jenne-jeno between 800 and 1250 A.D. and grew to become an even more significant trans-Saharan trading center than its neighbor. By the fourteenth century, gold, kola, and slaves from the southern savanna, salt and manuscripts from the Sahara, and the staple foods of the Inland Niger Delta were bartered here in an extensive web of trade reaching as far as northern Africa and Europe. By the sixteenth century, Jenne had become one of the foremost market centers on the African continent.
Ideas as well as goods were exchanged at Jenne and, with its trading partner Timbuktu 220 miles to the north, the city became an important site of Islamic religion and scholarship. The city’s first Islamic king, Koi Konboro, constructed its first Great Mosque, of adobe, in the thirteenth century. Although the original structure no longer stands, a remarkable adobe mosque was rededicated in its place around 1906–7.
Because of its strategic location as a trading crossroads, the Inland Niger Delta has been contested and conquered by a succession of empires throughout its long history, including the Mali empire, the Songhai empire, the Bambara of the Segu kingdom, the theocratic Fulani state of Cheikhou Amadou, the Tukulor empire, and finally the French in 1893. The country of Mali achieved independence from colonial rule on September 22, 1960.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Inland Niger Delta.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ind_1/hd_ind_1.htm (October 2000)
Bourgeois, Jean-Louis. "The History of the Great Mosque of Djenne." African Arts 20, no. 3 (May 1987), pp. 54–63, 90–91.
Phillips, Tom, ed. Africa: The Art of a Continent. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Prestel, 1995.
Prussin, Labelle. Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.