Geert Mommersteeg

In The City Of The Marabouts

An enthralling book on the beauty and mysteries of Islamic culture in Africa

Djenné in Mali, the ‘pearl of the Niger valley’, is the city of the marabouts. Famous for its mud architecture, it is also a centuries-old centre of Islamic culture. Countless marabouts, Koran scholars, still live in this city, and during Geert Mommersteeg’s stay they gradually initiated him into the knowledge of the holy word.

Amulets have a central role in ‘maraboutage’ which can serve as protection against illness or evil but can also serve to obtain riches or power, or to help a woman conceive or a man look for a wife. The magic of the written word is essential to the amulet. Written letters capture the power of spoken wisdom (which evaporates), thus making it available for the person who carries these words. Mommersteeg himself received an amulet from a marabout to make a girl fall in love with him, and he was allowed to be present while it was being made. He reveals in detail the technique that was used: the language of the Koran, numerology and astrology were all required.

The religious ingenuity with which people in Djenné solve their daily problems is especially fascinating. For the great questions of life answers can be found in the Koran, but for day-to-day worries you need a marabout. The marabouts have their own version of the doctrine of predestination: everything in life has been laid down by God, but some things happen only if you pray for them, and others only if you give alms. The marabouts are outstanding intermediaries; they know how God can be addressed most effectively, which amulets are the most powerful, and which alms are best for nudging the future in the right direction.

Mommersteeg looks above all for connections between the public and the secret knowledge of the Koran in everyday reality. The value and the charm of this book lie in the author’s honesty and modesty. He puts himself in the position of pupil and questioner in order to slowly lead the reader into a strange, and at first glance hermetically sealed world.

In de stad van de marabouts is a candid and fascinating story by an anthropologist in Mali, enthralled by the world of Islam. A special love has blossomed between Mommersteeg and Djenné. His book is an amulet that many can enjoy.

de Volkskrant

It is exciting to experience how his patience and tact are constantly rewarded with knowledge that the scholars divulge little by little.


Geert Mommersteeg

Geert Mommersteeg is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utrecht. He has conducted extensive field research in Djenné (Mali). He is a member of a scientific committee for the conservation of Djenné architecture. In de stad van de marabouts (In The City Of The Marabouts) was…

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In de stad van de marabouts (1998). Non-fiction, 192 pages.
Copies sold: 2,000

With glossary and references



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