Ancient African architecture has a mystical charm that reveals the true nature of the continent that is steeped in tradition and culture. While we live in modern times with beautiful modern buildings, it is the primeval structures that burst with ageless allure and fascination. From Mali to Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Egypt, if the following structures and sites could speak, they would tell endless tales of their contributions to civilization on the continent.
Aksum and Lalibela – Ethiopia
Aksum is an ancient city in northern Ethiopia that flourished between the 1st and 13th centuries. This Iron Age kingdom was a thriving trade centre, trading in ivory, spices, ebony, and hides with Egypt, Greece, Rome and lands as far away as Persia and India.
Aksum is renowned for its giant stelae and expertly carved obelisks that were erected at the tombs of Ethiopia’s ancient kings when the city was the centre of a great empire. The largest standing obelisk is more than 1, 700 years old, weighs more than 160 tonnes, and stands 24 metres above the ground – the equivalent of a nine-storey building. It features two false doors at the base and decorations that resemble windows along all sides. Aksum boasts more than 120 stelae, each made from single pieces of granite, and standing as high as 25 metres.
In Ethiopia, awe-inspiring art and construction doesn’t end with Aksum. The mountain town of Lalibela, home to a cluster of rock-hewn churches, is equally mesmerizing.
The 11 spectacular churches of Lalibela were not constructed – they were excavated. Carved out of volcanic tuff rock more than 900 years ago, the famous churches were created in a range of styles. Some of them were chiseled into the face of the rock while others stand as isolated blocks. The level of architecture displayed at Aksum and Lalibela is a work of consummate skill and speaks volumes about Ethiopia’s ancient civilization and society.
Built and occupied between the 11th and 15th centuries, Great Zimbabwe was the capital and central power of one of the greatest civilizations in Africa. The Shona empire spread across present-day Zimbabwe and even reached as far as eastern Botswana and South-eastern Mozambique. In its heyday, it was home to about 18, 000 people.
This 900-year old ancient African city is testament to a culture of great wealth and architecture skill. The high level of craftsmanship that was employed in the construction of the site is astounding.
The ruins’ most enduring and striking remains are the granite stonewalls, which were constructed without the use of mortar, using a method called dry stonewalling. This involved gingerly placing stones one on top of the other, each layer slightly more recessed than the last to produce a stabilising inward slope.
Great Zimbabwe’s method of construction is unique in Africa’s architecture. Although there are instances of similar work elsewhere, none are as grand and remarkable as Great Zimbabwe. As Zimbabwean archaeologist and art historian Peter Garlake puts it, the walls display “an architecture that is unparalleled elsewhere in Africa or beyond.”
Djenné – Mali
Located on a bend of the mighty Niger River, the medieval town of Djenné in Mali has been known for its striking mud-based architecture since the 14th century. The town’s nearly 2,000 flat-roofed houses are built entirely of mud.
Djenné has for centuries been an important Islamic centre, renowned for its monumental mosque that stands imposingly in the middle of the town, dwarfing everything else in sight. Constructed entirely of sun-dried mud bricks coated with clay, The Great Mosque of Djenné is considered one of the greatest creations of the Sahelian architecture. Standing four storeys high, the mosque is the world’s largest mud-brick building.
The giant walls are studded with wooden beams protruding through to the outside. Though the building is steady, it’s still vulnerable to forces such as rain, which erodes the walls.The original mosque fell into disrepair in the 19th century. It was only in 1907 that a new mosque was built on the site of the first one. In an annual week-long festival, the villagers come out in numbers to repair the building and keep it from falling apart.
Of course, this list would not be complete without the mention of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, Egypt.
While Egypt is famous for great cultural advances in every area of human knowledge – from the arts to science, technology and religion – it’s perhaps best known for its incredible monumental architecture characterised by the pyramids.
The Egyptian pyramids are some of the most spectacular man-made structures in history. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex, is the only surviving structure out of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.