How many religious structures in Africa do you know? Recent years have seen a rapid mushrooming of religious institutions across Africa as more people grow in their faith or start a new life as believers. While this may paint a picture of a newly religious continent, the truth is, Africa has long been a continent steeped in religion. This is not only evidenced by the indigenous beliefs found across the continent, but also by the historical places of worship that have stood the test of time to tell the story of the continent’s beliefs in all its vibrant diversity.
Africa’s famous sacred buildings are a source of great fascination. From the rich history to the unique architecture, there’s a lot that lends allure to these structures. This list of ten edifices from the ancient and modern world is in no way all-inclusive, but it’s a fair representation of the extraordinary religious structures across this vast continent.
Let’s Take a Look at 10 religious structures in Africa from the Ancient and Modern World.
1The Great Mosque of Djenné
The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali is among the most astounding buildings in the world. The mosque, which is considered one of the greatest creations of the Sahelian architecture, was entirely built from mud, making it the world’s largest mud-brick building. In fact, the whole town of Djenné is made up of houses built from mud architecture since the 14th century. The building process involves drying clay bricks in the oven to harden and make them heat resistant. The bricks are stacked together to create walls, then plastered with mud.
Over the decades, the Great Mosque has collapsed twice, and the one that stands today was completed in 1907. To keep the building from falling apart, an annual week-long festival is held, where residents come out in numbers to plaster and repair it.
One of West Africa’s most important Islamic centres, the monumental structure has giant walls dotted with wooden beams that protrude through to the outside. The roof has several holes covered by terracotta lids, which serve as an inlet for fresh air during hot days. At the top of the pillars are conical towers capped with ostrich eggs — a symbol of fertility and purity.
2Ben Ezra Synagogue
Egypt was once home to a thriving Jewish community of over 100,000 members. Now, following their mass exodus to Israel after 1948, the numbers have dwindled to less than 50. But, the physical reminders of the North African country’s rich Jewish history remain. Egypt is dotted with synagogues that attest to its Jewish past. One of these houses of worship is the 9th Ben Ezra Synagogue, originally a Christian church in the 9th century.
Located in Cairo, the synagogue is believed to be on the site where the pharaoh’s daughter found baby Moses in the reeds. The building has been renovated numerous times over the centuries. In the 12th century, it was restored by Abraham Ben Ezra, rabbi of Jerusalem. In 1890, a hoard of historic papers was discovered in the synagogue, revealing the history of the North African Jewish community.
3Church of St. George
The town of Lalibela, Ethiopia, is known for its extraordinary rock-hewn churches. Created between the 12th and 13th centuries, the 11 medieval churches were carved out of volcanic tuff rock – each one is literally cut out of stone, with its roof on the level of the ground. The churches are testament to the supreme level of Ethiopia’s ancient architecture.
The finest of these Christian sites is the Church of St. George, standing at approximately 12 metres high. It boasts a roof in the form of a cross, three doors, an interior decorated with remarkably done murals and carvings, as well as several arch-shaped windows. Some of these windows feature cross motifs. The church, along with others, was the brainchild of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, who reigned from 1181 to 1221.
The city of Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire is home to one of the most significant churches in the world: the Yamoussoukro Basilica, also known as Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro Basilica. At 158 metres high and with a capacity of 18,000 people in the interior and 300,000 in the yard, the imposing edifice is the world’s largest Christian church, having surpassed St Peter’s in the Vatican upon its completion in 1989.
The Yamoussoukro Basilica was constructed with marble imported from Italy and boasts 5,000 shades of stained glass windows from France. Each of the church’s 7,000 seats has its own conditioning system. The church was commissioned for by Cote d’Ivoire’s former President, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Despite the country’s ironically small Christian population, the church has become a national pride and one of the most important Roman Catholic shrines in Africa.
The Yamoussoukro Basilica took five years to build and came with a price tag of US $300 million.
5Nan Hua Temple
Looking at the Nan Hua Temple, you would be forgiven for thinking you are in ancient Asia. This elaborately decorated temple, which looks like it’s been cut out of a Chinese postcard, is located in the bushveld town of Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa. It covers 600 acres of land, making it the largest Buddhist temple and seminary in Africa.
The Nan Hua Temple is the African headquarters of the Fo Guang Shan, a Chinese Buddhist monastic order. The Bronkhorstspruit City Council donated the land to build the sanctuary in 1992, and construction began in October of the same year.
The temple is open to visitors looking to immerse themselves in its peaceful splendour. There, you’ll find three large Buddha statues known as the Triple Gem Buddha. There’s also a meditation centre for anyone looking to absorb the transformational magic of the spiritual practice.
6Monastery of Saint Anthony
As a nation deeply steeped in history, Egypt is home to some of the world’s best-known monuments. It is also where you’ll find the oldest monastery in the world: The Monastery of Saint Anthony. Planted deep in the Red Sea mountains, the church traces its origins back to the 4th century.
The monastery was founded by the followers of Saint Anthony, the first Christian Monk. At the age of 34, Anthony chose to dedicate his life to God and started living a life of asceticism. He gave away his wealth and possessions to the poor and retreated to the desert where he lived in solitude as a hermit. After about nine years in seclusion, the saint emerged from his retreat. In 313, when Christian persecution ended, he relocated to a cave in a mountain in the Eastern Desert, where the Monastery of Saint Anthony was established.
Over the years, the monastery was increased in size. Today, the main parts include the Church of St. Anthony, the Church of the Apostles, the Church of the Virgin, the New Church, the Fort, and a guesthouse. There’s also a library, which houses an immense body of manuscripts, and a museum which chronicles the history of the site.
The monastery offers guided tours to tourists and is inhabited by more than 100 monks who live a life of prayer in the solitude and stillness of the desert.
7The Great Mosque of Kairouan
The UNESCO World Heritage city of Kairouan, Tunisia, harbours one of the most significant mosques in the world. The Great Mosque of Kairouan, founded in 670, is a treasure trove of history and is at the heart of the city’s heritage. The mosque also enjoys recognition as the oldest Muslim place of worship in Africa.
The structure was originally built by a general named Uqba ibn Nafi as a Friday Mosque used for communal prayers on the Muslim holy day. The establishment has gone through several transformations over the years. It was rebuilt at least twice in the 8th century. In the 9th century, Prince Ziyadat Allah I tore down the mosque and rebuilt it in more stable materials of stone, brick, and wood.
Covering 10,800 square metres, the ancient mosque consists of a courtyard, prayer hall with 17 naves, a minibar, and a pool known as the Old Cistern. The building is an architectural wonder that combines a range of influences, including pre-Islam, Eastern Islamic, Umayyad, Byzantine, and Roman.
8Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion
Ethiopia’s Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is one of the most famous churches in the world for a few reasons. It’s a historical treasure believed to have been built in the 4th century during the reign of Ezana, the first Christian King of Ethiopia. The church, located in the heritage city of Aksum, has been rebuilt several times since then.
But despite its rich history, perhaps one thing that has made the structure known the world over is its claim that the church is in possession of the Ark of the Covenant. The legendary Ark is the gold-covered wooden chest that contains the Ten Commandments written on two stone tablets. For centuries, the holy object was kept in the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem. So how did it end up in Ethiopia? According to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, the object was taken to the East African country during the reign of King Menelik I, believed to be the son of the superbly wise King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Although the church claims to possess the Ark, its whereabouts remain a bone of contention among researchers and scholars alike. Proof of the holy object’s Ethiopian location is not readily available as no one can see it except for a solitary monk who guards it for life.
Located in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nizamiye is believed to be the biggest mosque complex in the Southern Hemisphere. This religious centre was built by Turkish businessman and philanthropist, Ali Katircioglu in 2012. Nizamiye is fashioned after the 16th-century Selimiye Mosque in Turkey, a building that showcases spectacular Ottoman design.
The mosque boasts 21 domes, with the main one framed by four towering minarets. More than 200 stained-glass windows adorn the building. The interior is a breathtaking sight, featuring intricate hand-painted designs.
The complex includes community facilities such as a school that takes 800 pupils, a clinic, conference rooms, shops, bakery, bookshop, and a restaurant.
10Jummah Masjid Mosque
There’s more to Mauritius than just stunning beaches, lagoons and reefs. The island nation of 1.2 million people is made up of diverse traditions and religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and others. One of the most prominent religious buildings in the Indian Ocean island is the Jummah Masjid Mosque, unmissable in the capital Port Louis.
Formerly known as the Mosque of the Arabs, the edifice was built in the 1850s, combining Indian, Creole, and Islamic architecture. As the Muslim population grew in Port Louis, a larger mosque was needed. So, in 1857, more land was bought by Muslim merchants, leading to the expansion of the Jummah Masjid Mosque.