Djenné, despite its proximity, was never part of the Mali Empire. It existed as an independent city-state protected by walls and the geography of the inland delta. According to legend, the Mali Empire attempted to conquer the city 99 times before giving up. Djenné would not be conquered until 1473 by the Songhai Empire under Sonni Ali. The siege of Djenné is said to have lasted 7 months and 7 days culminating in the death of the city's king and its capitulation. The widow of the city married Sonni Ali, and peace was restored. In 1591, Morocco conquered the city after destroying Songhai's hold in the region. By the 1600s, Djenné had become a thriving centre of trade and learning. Caravans from Djenné frequented southern trading towns like Begho, Bono Manso, and Bonduku.
The city continued to change hands several times. Djenné was part of the Segou kingdom from 1670 to 1818, Massina under the Fulani ruler Amadou Lobbo from 1818 to 1861, and the Toucouleur Empire under Umar Tall from 1861 to 1893. The French finally conquered the city that year. During this period, trade declined and the city's importance with it.
Attractions include the tomb of Tupama Djenepo, who in legend was sacrificed on the founding of the city, and the remains of Jenné-Jeno, a major city from the 3rd century BC until the 13th century.
Approximately eight hours by road from Bamako, Djenné is notable in that it becomes an island when the rivers rise at the end of the rainy season. However, problems of a different nature were reported in 2008 when it was said that Djenné was "drying up" because of a controversial dam, completed in 2007, across the Bani River at Talo, about 150 km upstream. The weekly market, when buyers and sellers converge on the town from the surrounding regions, is a key tourist attraction.
Due to an unsavoury incident with an Italian fashion photography shoot, the great mosque is out of bounds for non-Muslim tourists.
The inhabitants of Djenné mostly speak a Songhay variety termed Djenné Chiini, but the languages spoken also reflect the diversity of the area. The villages around it variously speak Bozo, Fulfulde, or Bambara.