There is an extraordinary mosque in Bogué, Mauritania, whose design is quite unlike any other I know of. The floor plan of this tiny mosque, only 12 m across at its widest, is configured as a khâtim. The khâtim, literally “seal” in Arabic, is a design device often used by Sufis. Equivalent to the mandala of Indic religions, a khâtim combines geometrical elements of the circle and the square. Sufis use this device to link realities in the microcosm to their essential, macrocosmic Reality. In West Africa, one finds khâtims woven into fabric and worn, drawn on manuscripts, inserted in talismans, etc. In the case of the mosque in Bogué, the device under-girds the architectural plan (below).
The khatim mosque was erected in Bogué’s Escale neighborhood in 1922. Escale (literally “landing” in French) is the oldest neighborhood of the town. It is situated on the right embankment of the Senegal River, above the floodplain (see map below). This is where riverboat trade with Saint Louis used to be conducted and it is where the colonial authorities established administrative and commercial institutions. The rest of the town lies inland from the river and is linked to the Escale neighborhood by a causeway. The Senegal River marks the border between Mauritania and Senegal. There is no bridge; crossing is provided by pirogue. Foreigners must seek a visa to cross (visas cannot be obtained on site), but nationals of the two countries can cross the river border with ease.
According to Cerno Sada Lam, the Grand Imam of Bogué who I interviewed in January 2004, construction of the khâtim mosque was initiated by the town’s Tijânî sheikhs. It was built on a site formerly occupied by a great tree. Accompanying me in the field at the time were Cheikh Oumy Mbacké Diallo, a research associate from Touba, my office buddy John Shoup (anthropologist) and Labelle Prussin, architect and art historian.
The mosque is flat-roofed and built of adobe (sun-baked earth brick). It has a concentric plan. A six-sided central hall is surrounded by an eight-sided gallery enclosed within a ten-sided perimeter wall. Like the other historic adobe mosques of Futa Toro, the Bogué mosque does not have a minaret as such. The building’s outstanding vertical element is provided by the massive qibla wall, which consists of a deep central mihrâb (indicating the direction to Mecca) with a staircase to the roof on its left side and a symmetrical entrance vestibule on its right. The volumes of the qibla wall protrude above the roof. Roof-level openings within it allow indirect light to illuminate the interior space.
In 1962 a larger mosque was built a few blocks away. It was constructed of concrete according to a conventional West African mosque plan: a flat-roofed rectangular prayer hall supported by columns and preceded by twin minarets on its entrance facade. Yet most of the men of Bogué Escale prefer to pray in the small adobe mosque rather than the new concrete one. Moreover, supererogatory prayers and Sufi dhikr sessions are also conducted in the khâtim mosque. You can download the Google Earth placemark (kmz file) for the khâtim mosque of Bogué by clicking here.
For more information on the historic adobe mosques of Futa Toro see Jean-Paul Bourdier & Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Drawn from African Dwellings (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1996) and Jean Boulègue’s “Mosquées de style soudanais au Fouta Tooro” (in Notes africaines, #136, pp. 117-119, 1972). On the uses of khâtims by West African Muslims see Labelle Prussin’s Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa (University of California Press, 1986).