Monday, March 8, 2010

Before the Ruins

African architectural heritage, not too unlike the manner in which it is biologically and culturally diverse, was and is quite varied. There was no one style of urban framework. Of course, as the saying goes, a superficial issue such as "beauty" is in the eye of the beholder, and so, a subjective issue. Architects though, are more likely than regular observers of different trade, to look beyond the exterior of architecture, and appreciate the work in its completenessfrom inside and out, which entails its basic foundations, the material composition of building material, the question of cosmetic value vs. functional value [not to leave out the immediacy of material availability and economic viability] and where they intertwine, to urban layout. It is easy to criticize work from a distance when one is not the preparer of the work at hand. The first pictures that come to mind of many regular folks when African architectural heritage is uttered, is anything from the grand pyramids of Egypt, the mud-molded grand mosques of Timbuktu, the rock-carved churches of Lalibela, to the stonework of the Great Zimbabwe. Today, when Africa is uttered in "Western" entertainment media circles, the average "Western" viewer who has not ventured into this part of the world, simply think of images of simple village life, as generally invoked by media concerns like Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, or National Geographic, and associated architectural stereotyping, is one of simple mud huts with straw roofs. These same views generally think of the continent as one big gigantic country, with no nation-states or variety, let alone signs of urbanization and cosmopolitanism. Reactionary "Western" venues even project the illusion that African territories were generally devoid of signs of "modern" looking urban setups when European colonial enterprises intruded there, and that these same brutal totalitarian colonial regimes went onto move these territories towards the path of complex urban setup and socio-economic framework. Quite to the contrary, and what is often omitted in these romanticized imagery of colonial totalitarianism, is that little regard was given to the concerns of the conquered, let alone the fruits of years of their hard work; rather, concerted implementation of destroying these very things was undertaken, comparatively overnight. Architecture that could have served as preservation of and testament to pre-colonial Africa urban heritage were subject to premeditated colonial terrorism and wanton destruction. For examples, look no further than the following imagery; click on all images for greater resolution...

We'll start here with running several images of distinctive Akan western African architectural work, and treatment they got from British colonial intruders, as they provide examples of what happened to urban centers on the continent, in the hands of European imperialist intruders. Below, gives an idea of the integrity of the a 17th century Akan mausoleum before its destruction in the hands of the brute British colonial force:

This was what became of it, after wanton British destruction:

The destruction from another angle:


What follows, are examples of culmination of peoples' sweat and labor put in place since the 17th century before the British decided to intrude and treat it with utter British terror campaign and destructionvisual aids that put to lie the reactionary Euro-centric revisionist claims regarding lack of bustling urban cities on the continent prior to European colonial involvement:


What happened to examples of these sorts of constructive work, when subjected to handy British "work":

It is funny how European colonial terror destroyed everything in its path, only to subsequently have the cult avenues of reactionary "white" nationalism propagate the above-mentioned notion that European intruders met up with non-functioning societies, with no signs of city life, who needed to be "rescued"; the remedy to this, was supposedly the callous destruction of societies' years of hard work and necessities of life, and then say that, that which was destroyed never existed. 

Other images of both constructive work, and their subsequent destruction in certain cases...


Apparent here, is some British fellow with a big white hat on, radiating a body language of coziness, and likely posing to be shot next to a fenced Akan urban setting.























A cleaned up Besease temple on the right hand side, as compared to the one on the left.

To the left (above, depending viewer's screen size), is the building show above earlier; the destruction meted out by the brute british is even more apparent here.

Such destruction was part and parcel of elaborate propaganda campaign of brute colonial totalitarianism, to lend legs to the big lie that colonialism was supposedly a goodwill, albeit unrequested, gesture of "civilizing" the others; destroying the very "civilized" things these Europeans would later attempt to proclaim themselves as the "agents of introduction". If any example is needed, then consider the following for instance, as cited on a Wikipedia site:
On May 15, 1817 the Englishman Thomas Bowdich entered Kumasi. He remained there for several months, was impressed and on his return to England wrote a book, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, which was disbelieved as it **contradicted** prevailing prejudices.
The effects of the propaganda of lies were such, that the few objective observers of European societies were simply not believed for candidly reporting what they saw firsthand.

Many more images like this can be found herecourtesy of Flickr poster: Link

Now, the more familiar images on the net and subjects of forum discussions:


 Relic of ancient Ghanaian complex, photo and sketch of foundations at Koumbi Saleh.

More snapshots of ancient Ghana remains, foundation vestiges, and the relatively more preserved structures...

From R. A. Kea's (2004) Expansions And Contractions: World-Historical Change And The Western Sudan World-System, we are told:

The depth of Koumbi Saleh’s occupation levels, amounting to tens of meters, represents not only the different stages of successive construction and re-construction of the city but also an antiquity that can probably be traced back to the second half of the first millennium b.c. The lowest levels of the tumulus have yet to be excavated (Thomassey and Mauny 1951; Thomassey and Mauny 1956; Mauny 1967: 72–74, 470–73, 480–82; Mauny 1970:149–50; Vallées du Niger 1993:110; Berthier 1997).

And then, a few passages later...

Beyond the cemeteries are the remains of many constructions. They include a series of stone watchtowers, which extend for a distance of eight kilometers beyond the city’s fortifications, as well as many clusters of habitations that are probably the ruins of settlements that housed artisans, peasants, herders, royal servants, and soldiers, and also cemeteries,and tumuli. These ruins **have not been systematically excavated**, hence their dates of construction are not precisely known. Potsherds and artifacts collected on these settlement sites resemble objects recovered from the Koumbi Saleh tell, suggesting that the chronologies of the hinterland settlements and structures and the city are consonant and that they shared the same material culture.

...Beyond the cemetery, there are several large structures that archaeologists believe were used to store agricultural produce for the needs of the city’s resident population, merchant caravans, and transhumant camel pastoralists. The produce was most likely imported from the SV, although some probably came from the MNV. Beyond the produce storage facilities are the ruins of numerous settlements; however, since they have not been excavated, little is known about their functions and inhabitants.

The above fits in right with an earlier point made on this site, about "Western" research teams blindsided by biased fixation on areas where they presume to be more directly pertinent to European's remote and not-so-remote origins, be it population origins or that of culture; in Africa, these areas are eastern Africa, that has earned a reputation as a hub of human paleontology and northeastern Africa, home to world's first known centralized polity spanning a wide territory, as well as to human movements that would lead to demic diffusions of important social necessities into Europe, like farming and literacy. Areas like western Africa, are therefore subconsciously or what not, given the backseat, in "Western" enthusiasm in digging further for pieces of humanity's history. We see the same trend in molecular genetics. So, while it may sound like a broken record, the governments and locals of these areas have to take initiative to protect the material remnants of their history, dig for more, write or re-write it as it should be and pass it onto the future generation.

A section of a ca. 1000 year old Eredo rampart [Nigeria].

Apparently, many complexes presided in the 'western Sudan' in antiquity, and it seems that as new complexes supplanted declining ones, considerable sections of preexisting landscape were reorganized, including replacement with the then new urbanization and infrastructure setups, thereby understandably obscuring the broader infrastructure setup of the outgoing complex, save for scattered relics here and there. It is no wonder then, the more immediate signs of older layers of social shifts are readily seen trails like ramparts, architecture-foundations, and as one source puts it,...

"The flood plain of the Middle Niger of West Africa is line with hundreds of ancient tells rivaling those of Asia both in area and in clues to the emergence of city life...the Middle Niger is dominated by numerous monumental tumuli (McIntosh 1991:203)" - R.J. McIntosh

There are several very specific examples of how different stratigraphy or layers of urbanization (occupation) in Ray A. Kea's (2004) Expansions And Contractions: World-Historical Change And The Western Sudan World-System, with regards to, for example, ancient Ghanaian complex.

There was a time in history, the world was very close to having lost the grand ancient pyramids of Egypti.e. instantly vanish from history, when there was a decision at a high level of the then local authority to have them destroyed to make way for "modernization"; had that happened, there would be some tongues wagging today, about how they could not have ever existed [but presumably just myths designed to uplift young African minds]consider it a possibility.

Mosque in Mopi, Mali. An elaborate example of Sudano-Sahel architecture tradition, going back to ancient Mali, in this case.

Below is an artist's rendition [reportedly of Heinrich Barth's recounting of his and associates' ca. 1853 trip to the place; source of the work that is reputed to make note of this imagery: Heinrich Barth, Reisen und Entdeckungen. Gotha 1858, vol. 4 ] of what the ancient Mali urban setting likely appeared to an observer from outside the walls of the city:

Speaking of walls, it was customary for many ancient African cities or urban centers to mark their sovereignty with extensive wallscommonly referred to as ramparts. An example of this has already been posted abovethe Eredo rampart, although what is visible in that image, is part of the ditch which accompanied the construction of the wall. Below, we have examples of walls themselves, again in Nigeria; the ancient Kano City walls:


 This is what the UNESCO site tells us about these relics:


Ancient Kano City Wall is a 14km radius earth structure, while associated sites are made up of these features, Dala Hills, Kurmi Market and Emir's Palace.

The ancient Kano city wals were built in order to provide security to the growing population. The foundation for the construction of the wall was laid by Sakri Gijimasu from 1095 - 1134 and was completed in the middle of 14th Century during the reign of Zamnagawa. In the 16th century, the walls were further extended to their present position. The gates are as old as the walls and were used to control movement of people in and out of the city. Though, most of them are largely in ruins.

Dala Hill is an archaeological site of an ancient settlement dating back to the 10th century AD. It is the source of the evolution of Kano City and a vital reference point in the development of Hausa Kingdoms, societies and cultures which greatly influenced the early indigenous civilizations in the savannah zone of the Western African sub region.

Kurmi Market is one of the oldest and largest local market in Africa. It used to serve as an international market where North African and some European goods were exchanged for domestic goods through trans-Saharan trade. The market was, and still is, laid out' in lanes. Each lane consists of traders, who trade in identical good, e,g leatherwork, textiles, iron and brass work, spices etc.

Emir's Palace was built by Muhammadu Rumfa who ruled Kano from 1463 to 1499. The palace has 3 gates namely Kofar Kwaru, Kofar Fatalawa and Kofar Kudu. The palace is divided into 3 sections. At the south are the Administrative buildings with rooms (Soran Zauna Lafiya, Soron Giwa and Soron Bello and Rumfar Kasa). The central part houses members of the emir's family and at the northern parts are the stables and the servants' rooms.

Snapshots of the aforementioned Emir Palace complexdisplaying both the renovated and the less renovated sections of the complex:

Captions for the images above - from top to bottom and left to right: top two images; are of the Soron Gabjeje gateway, top-2nd row images - left to right; the first is an unidentified structure of the palace complex, the 4th image next to it, is that of one of the entrance structures of the complex, the 3rd row images - left to right; the first image appears to be one of a renovated reception room, and next to it, is the image of guests posing in front of a section of the palace, 4th row images; palace personnel posing for photo and next to it, courtesy of, is the image of Round crenellations of royal mosque wall in the palace complex, 5th row images - left to right; South elevation of royal mosque in first court, and North gate of first court with royal mosque to west, 6th row images - left to right; South façade of the Soron Giwa audience hall, and Inner reception courtyard with Soron Giwa at left and Soron Ingila at back left, 7th row images - left to right; Original 15th century gate Kofar Fatalwa, and Free standing reception hall, note grooved motifs in dark plaster, 8th row images - left to right; Front elevation of free standing reception hall, and 15th century northern wall, still with moat, 9th row images - left to right; both are images of Northern wall with 15th century Kofar Fatalwa at left and modern gate at far right.

Below, is a citation of a brief history on the palace complex from one website:

The Emir's Palace at Kano, which today continues to define the axis of the city, was built in the fifteenth century by Sarkin Rumfa (also Rimfa). Rumfa transformed the fabric of Kano, and was said to be the author of twelve innovations in Kano, including the palace and the Kurmi market, according to the Kano Chronicle. However, before the erection of the Gidan, or Dakin, Rumfa (sic. House of Rumfa), there existed a palace, the south gate of which now serves as the passage from the Sarkin's private courtyard to the royal graveyard. The 33-acre palace continues to house about 1,000 people in some of the most desirable housing in Kano.

The palace grounds occupy the highest space in Kano. The entire palace complex is embraced by a wall of 20 to 30 feet high from the outside the height of which never exceeds more than 15 feet from the inside. Visitors at the turn of the twentieth century commented on the wall's durability, which was said to have been 15 feet thick in some places. It is tapered inward and surmounted by rounded crenellations. The exterior wall, similar to the exteriors of the buildings inside the complex, is modestly decorated with shallow arched grooves traced in the mud plaster. The eleven mile wall was once surrounded by a moat with a parapeted bridge to the main south gate.

The main entry gate of the complex, Kofar Kudu, is located in the southern façade of the wall. This gate that has bronze detailing, is recessed from the line of the wall. Within the walls of the recession are studded loopholes, as once a mantelet was hung in front of the gate. Legend has it that this southern gate was sealed by Muhammad Rumfa in the 1480s, soon after the completion of Gidan Rumfa, on the advice of the town's official Islamic scholar, or malam, who prophesized that as long as the southern gate was sealed, the Rumfa dynasty would remain in power. Not until just before 1806 was the mantelet ostensibly removed, and the Rumfa dynasty then fell from power. The palace compound used to contain grazing land for the royal cattle as well as the houses of the palace retainers, public reception rooms, and the apartments of the Sarkin himself.

After entering through the confines of the outer wall of the palace complex, one is confronted on the same axis by the impressive and more recent Soron Gabjeje gateway. The graceful two-story height of the doorway of the gate is buttressed by two sturdy gatehouses. The thick tapered sides of the gatehouses visually hug the slender central passage. Though the defining feature of the passage is the central steeped arch interrupted by a thin-railed passage, the side buttresses complement the center through the replication of vertically elongated windows. These side gatehouses also mimic the central roofline crenellations and corner pinnacles, which in Hausa architecture define the intersection of interior and exterior walls. Numerous other gates set up a hierarchy of accessible space through a series of courtyards. One such gate, which leads into the Soron Giwa (or Hall of the Elephants), is said to demarcate the space for the pasturing of the royal elephants. Like the Soron Gabjeje, each gate is set in an impressive gatehouse called a zaure (plural, zauruka). Many of the gates, which originally were circular entrance vestibules, have taken on a rectangular shape, such as the Soron Gabjeje gateway. This early twentieth century transformation from round to rectangular rooms is a larger trend in Hausa architecture.

The Soron Gabjeje is the first court of the palace complex. The north gate of the Soron Gabjeje, which leads to the reception rooms, is much more modest. Entering through it into the next courtyard, one enters a passage that is flanked on the east by the royal audience chamber. At the end of this passageway is yet another gateway, the Soron Giwa, which leads into a private royal courtyard. Crossing this passage leads one to the outer room of the Sarkin's private apartments.

This processional access of the palace resembles an elongated version of a typical Kano house, where entry through a zaure (in this case the Soron Gabjeje) leads to the semi-private kofa gida courtyard which is bounded to the north and east by reception spaces. As in a traditional Kano house, one proceeds from this space into the private apartments which shelter the family's private cikin gida. In the case of the palace, the main reception rooms, the Soron Ingila to the northeast of the courtyard, and the Soron Giwa to the northwest of the courtyard, were built of clay with a door on each side, and were connected by narrow dark passages.

The most elaborately decorated parts of the palace are these two royal audience chambers. The Soron Ingila interior reaches a height of between six and eight meters. The room is divided in two by high domed bays created by five arches each. These intersecting arches comprised of coupled corbels, are a unique element of Hausa architecture called bakan gizos. The main audience chamber is comprised of 20 such corbels forming ten bakan gizos. These structures are covered with azaras, heavy rigid timbers that are resistant to termites and decay, laid in two directions. These are then covered with layers of azaras set horizontally until they reach the height of the dome's apex. These azara's are usually plastered into the wall, which is made of tubali, or sun dried bricks. The plaster reveals the azara's coffering which defines rectilinear shapes on the wall surfaces. In the ceiling these beams are often left exposed to reveal their linear patterning. Inlaid enamel bowls stud the intersection of the arches. The massive doors to the room are comprised of planks bound together by iron bars fastened by nails and then ornamented with circular brass heads.

Practically the entire ceiling and walls are decorated with grooved patterns and bold paint. The ceiling, the beams and the floor are stained a deep black by the varnish from a locust bean shell. The walls are plastered with a mixture that includes mica, giving the walls a silvery sheen. This plaster is burnished with a stone to give the raised sections of the grooves this soft gleam rather than a glittery effect. Mica is non-static and therefore does not attract dust as well as repelling spiders and hornets from building their webs and nests inside the dark buildings.

The palace undergoes constant restoration and has been replastered multiple times throughout the centuries. More recently, yellow dye has been introduced to the micaceous clay giving the sheen more of a gold than silver tint. Also more recently, restoration craftsmen have gummed mica flakes onto the yellow base.

The soffits of the arches and the ceiling panels in between are decorated with brightly painted sculpturally molded abstract designs. The abstract designs are coupled with more figural features, including a picture of an ablution jug, or santali, near the doorway. In another reception building, designated for the signing of the Sarkin's visitor book in the mid-twentieth century, one can find a representation of a sword painted onto the wall. These more bold designs are probably from the 1930s and 1940s and are more representative of an increasingly popular deeply incised style from southern Hausaland. Along with the attention to constant maintenance and repair, craftsmen have maintained stylistic license in applying new patterns and colors.

The northernmost section of the palace opens onto a public space, through the Kofar Fatalwa, still very much in its fifteenth century form. The dendal, or public plaza, runs on an east-west axis and aligns the Friday Mosque, or Masallacin Jumma'a, with the north-south axis of the Emir's p
alace. - Courtesy of

The following is an undated sketch of the City of Kano architecture found on a Princeton University web page, displaying a complete structure on one side, with what appears to be the foundation beneath it, and then several styles of barbed-wire roofing ornaments, and a rendering of a building entrance section:

Though the complex had been around by ca. 15th century, below is a 19th century rendition of the city of Kano, dated to 1850; the artworkentitled "Stahlstich von Kano", according to a Wikipedia postingis reportedly stored at the "Meyer's Universum":

The above, the original, appears to have been replicated elsewherealso posted on the aforementioned Princeton University web page, seemingly with the observer of the latter extrapolating in areas where necessary; compare the images:

Relatively monotonic in its shading themes compared to the original, aside from a few scenic differences, and hence, more sketch-like than the original rendition. The replica displays a few straw-roofed cylindrical structures amidst a network of rectangular structures, with a stream in the anterior view.

Other monuments in Nigeria:

Tower/minaret of uncertain date, here is the Gobarau tower in Katsina, Nigeria. It is generally believe to go back to the 14th century. Others reckon it was around by the 16th century...


 Another tower; this one is the minaret of the Great Mosque of Kano, dating back to the 15th century:

Both towers have unmistakable elements of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural tradition about them. With regards to the Great Mosque of Kano, it fared the same fate that we've come across here time and again: destruction under the watch of colonial intruders. Here is an interesting piece about the mosque, courtesy of library:

There is very little documentation of the original Great Mosque of Kano, which was destroyed in the 1950s, though it was said to have been the most impressive in West Africa. The mosque was probably predated by a low-profile rectangular mosque sanctuary built in the fourteenth century. The subsequent great mosque is attributed to a collaboration between Sarkin Muhammed Rumfa (c. 1463-1499) and the Egyptian Cabd al-Rahman. It was the first mud mosque of the soro, or tower, type in Nigeria.

By the late fifteenth century, there was a high frequency of commercial and religious contact between the Songhay in present day Mali and the Hausa states of northern Nigeria and the Maghreb. According to the Kano Chronicle, Cabd al-Rahman came to Kano from Egypt to confirm Islam's hegemony and build a friday mosque with a minaret, in lieu of the sacred tree which rose above the modest pre-extant mosque.

However, upon its construction, the minaret-like tower took on the functions of a mosque, and minarets did not establish a foothold in local design until the period of revived orthodoxy during the West African jihad. The tower, which borrowed terms from the Maghribi and Songhay words for minaret or tower, is described as a sawma' (from the Maghribi) or a sumiya (from the Songhay). What distinguished the Great Mosque of Kano from either of these regional types however is the singular monolithic tower, without external division such as the steps or ramps that mark the Songhay Tomb of Askia, which is said to resemble a southern Algerian shrine. Instead, dum boards, used for re-enforcement, create an internal staircase. The tips of these boards do not project from the exterior as do the toron of Songhay architecture.

The Great Mosque of Kano is said to have been shifted to a new site in 1582 by Muhammed Zaki, and rebuilt yet again due to disrepair sometime between 1855 and 1883 by Sarkin Kano Abdullahi dan Dabo. This mosque, the one that was lauded and remarked as impressive, was perhaps not structurally different from the first mosque built by Sarkin Rumfa. Its 20 meter tall tower was surmounted with pinnacled buttresses and surrounded by a high wall. After its destruction in the 1950s, the British Government sponsored the building of a new mosque in gratitude of the Nigerian role in WWII. This new central mosque has no outstanding similitude to any indigenous Nigerian architecture

 Below, are other familiar relics circling the net:

Note the common theme, with regards to African urban traditions and spoken of here, about the propaganda of lies, destruction and looting by colonial intruders:

The conical tower and stone outer walls of the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe, the largest single ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Great Zimbabwe, believed built by a Shona population between the 11th and 15th centuries, was an important trading center at its height. In the late 19th century, Europeans pillaged the site, and until Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, genuine archaeological scholarship about the site's history was censored by the [colonial] government. Only recently has the sacred natural water fountain on the site been reopened and the local community permitted access to it. Photos: Neville Agnew. - courtesy of

Relics from the archeological successor-complex to Great Zimbabwe:

Notes courtesy of The hill complex entrance to Khami National Monument in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Situated between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, Khami, the capital of the Torwa state, prospered as a trading post and missionary stop from the mid-15th to mid-17th centuries. Chinese and Portuguese ceramics and Spanish silver have been found among Khami's granite walls. Today, vegetation damage, burrowing animals, and trespassers foraging for firewood and building stones threaten the site.

Apparently, Great Zimbabwe and its successor complex thereof were part of a trade network that extended as far east as India and China.

Near the center of the continent, was the so-called "Vili kingdom", Loango, in what is today Congo; the following is presumably how it appeared to European observers when they arrived in the 17th century:

Image caption: Loango city on the Atlantic coast, in a 17th century print from Olfert Dapper’s, Description de lÁfrique (French, German, and original 1665 Dutch editions are evident in the inscriptions). Founded in the 12th century as one of a cluster of Equatorial African kingdoms, Loango was in full engagement with Europeans and global trade by the 16th century. Scenes include: king's palace; wives' compound; crier's tower; royal wine house; royal dining house; public audience court; royal garden; and wives' garden.

Another rendering of the capital in what is now Congo; this one is reportedly the work of Thomas Astley, dating to 1745, making it a later rendition than the above example:


On the eastern corner of the continent, Kenya, lies the ruins of a mosquethe Great Mosque of Gedidating back to ca. 15th century or so,...

More from Gedi; this one a palace in ruins:

From left to right, image captions courtesy of View of sunken audience court looking east with the main gate in the background, and View to southwest of the anteroom of the main quarters from audience court.

An excerpt from on the monument:

The palace was built in the early fifteenth century in the mysteriously undocumented Arab-African city of Gedi, which was abandoned in the sixteenth century. It is still uncertain whether the royal family inhabiting the palace may have been related to, or in competition with, the sheikh of nearby Malindi. The palace covers an area of about a quarter acre in the northwest quadrant of the city and, like many of the houses in Gedi, is constructed almost entirely of red earth mixed in with the coral rag and lime dug from its site. Palm frond roofing, or makuti, originally covered most of its rooms, until its walls were reinforced at a later date to support a permanent lime concrete roof.

The palace is made up of multiple courts connected by series' of rooms, all enclosed within a walled precinct. It is divided into two main sections, comprising the main quarters of the palace to the south and the slightly smaller annex, built later, to the north. The courts that cover two-thirds of the palace served as receiving spaces, and were sunken so as to allow for the enjoyment of longer cooling shadows.

Who could forget the famous rock-carved churches of Lalibela, dating back to late 12th and early 13th centuries; below is the Bete Giyorgis rock-carved church:

In Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, here is the so-called nine bay "Small Domed Mosque":

Image captions courtesy of Top left image; East façade of mosque, note central dome with octagonal pillar flanked by barrell vaults on each side.- small domed mosque, 2nd image; West façade of mosque with mihrab projection at left, and 3rd image; South façade of mosque showing interior of south barrel vault.

To the southwest of the Great Mosque of Kilwa was the nine bay Small Domed Mosque, which was built in the mid-fifteenth century and is now only partially standing. Though built two-hundred years later, the Small Domed Mosque mimics the Great Mosque's thirteenth century vault and dome addition. The nine bays are arranged in a square, three bays long and three aisles wide. The central bay is larger than the rest through a lengthening of the middle bays and a widening of the central aisle...

There are many elements in the Small Domed Mosque similar to those of the Great Mosque. The height of the column capitals, each one-third of a cubit or 16 cm high, are the same in both mosques. Hereafter the similarities are proportional. The Small Domed Mosque's columns are of a lesser girth of 55 cm2. The height of the two story columns are appropriately scaled down to 138 centimeters from base to capital and 147 centimeters from capital to cornice at the second tier.

It is postulated that the decoration on the mihrab is from a date later than the fifteenth century. These defining features consist of chamfered grooved capitals flanking the mihrab rising out of adjacent pillars and supporting an arch. From this frame, the mihrab is rebated back from the wall, within which runs a painted floral stringcourse, likely added in the eighteenth century. Interlaced carved coral bosses, bordered with a pattern of an interlocked s-shaped motif, occur on the spandrels to the sides of the arch. Above the mihrab, two bowls are inset into either side of a rectangular plaque. These features represent the development of the early classic mihrab in East Africa.

The Small Domed Mosque and its nearby contemporary, the Jangwani Mosque, are the only two examples of a nine-domed mosque in this area.

Since we are pressed for space, some finer details about the mosque have been omitted here, but for full notes, visit

The Great Mosque of Kilwa mentioned above:

Image captions courtesy of Top to bottom and left to right - 1st image; East façade of South hall with projecting wing to the left.- Great mosque, 2nd image on the top right; West façade from the south. Note barrel vault behind the line of domes, 3rd image; Doors and windows of the west façade of the south extension, 4th image to the right; Interior vaults of south hall looking northeast, 5th image; Dressed coral arch within the south hall. Note groined squinches to the left and right, and 6th image to the right on the very bottom; Wall niche in the northern wall of the southern hall.

Courtesy of, a few notes on the Great Mosque of Kilwa...

The Great Mosque of Kilwa is the earliest remaining mosque structure on the East African coast, though it is predated by elements from the Kizimkazi Mosque in Zanzibar. The Great Mosque, which now stands at the edge of modern Kilwa, was built in at least two distinct stages, which can be seen in the marked difference between the small northern prayer hall built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and the subsequent fourteenth century southern enlargement. Furthermore, segments of a tenth century foundation predate both sections of the existing mosque layout. The Great Mosque of Kilwa, which is entirely roofed by domes and vaults, has since its construction been widely acknowledged as one of the first mosques built without a courtyard.

The Mosque has four notable sections, and reveals them as follows...

Northern Prayer Hall
The original prayer hall was built in the eleventh or twelfth century and was subsequently modified in the thirteenth century. It was composed of 16 bays divided by nine pillars holding a flat roof of coral plaster. The original pillars were octagonal columns each carved from a single coral stone and measuring 140 centimeters tall and 40 centimeters square. Coral stone has a lime content that hardens with water and saturates the porous coral to create concrete. This sanctuary measured about 7.8 meters side and 12 meters along the qibla axis. The east and western side wall each had three arched doors that were embellished in the thirteenth century with recessed spandrels.

With the thirteenth century modifications the columns were replaced with those made of timber and a more elaborate roof support structure, including transverse beams and side pilasters, was installed. According to the Kilwa Chronicle, the beams and columns were installed in wood because stone carving craftsmanship in Kilwa had declined. The coral blocks of the ceiling were also plastered with concrete upon which an interlocking circular pattern was engraved. The original walls of the mosque were lined with a second wall of square cut coral blocks set in a thick mortar.

The later mihrab in the northern prayer hall likely dates from the fifteenth century because of its stylistic elements. Its high arch, surrounded by a boldly framed architrave, is rebated by chamfered pilasters. The recessed apse has a fluted semi-dome and multiple string courses. To the east of this mihrab are four dressed blocks of coral stone projecting from the wall in a shelf and probably indicating a minbar.

Northern Ablution Area
To the west of this prayer hall was an ablution court joined to the mosque via an anteroom. This sunken courtyard contained a tank, a well, and a washroom, as well as large round sandstone blocks set in the floor to exfoliate the feet after washing. From the south side of this court, a stairway leads to the roof. The northwest corner of the anteroom leads to a small vaulted chamber that may have served as a private room for the imam. From this room an unroofed passageway runs along the north exterior of the mosque behind the qibla wall. This passageway was partially divided and may have been used or intended for the placement of graves as was common in the coastal tradition.

Southern extension and the Great Dome 
In the early fourteenth century, Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman, the builder of the palace of Husuni Kubwa, built an extension from the east wall of the northern prayer hall, which wrapped around forming a large open court. A very narrow barrel vaulted corridor, consisting of 30 bays complete with dressed coral panels and supported by coral columns ran directly southward. This extension juts out slightly to the east, creating a wing that deviates from the otherwise orthogonal plan. Within the space where the wall splays, two small irregular rooms were preceded by a small porch containing a tank filled with smooth quartz pebbles, a sandstone foot-rubber and a bench. Behind this small assembly of rooms is a somewhat larger plainly vaulted room. This long room leads into a square room four meters across which carries the great dome. 

This dome, noted in the Kilwa Chronicle, is thought to be the first true dome on Africa's east coast. It was supported on squinches and decorated with dressed coral panels. After his visit in 1331, Ibn Battuta remarked on the splendor of the dome, which was, until the nineteenth century, the largest dome on the East African coast. Beyond the Great Dome is a string of ablution rooms with a well. Latrines and water tanks were added, partially enclosing a large open space between it and the northern prayer hall.

Southern Enclosure
According to the Kilwa Chronicle, after the death of ibn Sulaiman in 1333 the mosque fell into ruin. Not until the early fifteenth century, under the reign of Sultan Sulaiman ibn Muhammad, was the mosque reconstructed and the southern fully court enclosed. Sometime between 1421 and 1442, the southern hall was roofed with barrel vaults with domes placed atop alternate bays. This extension made the Great Mosque at Kilwa the largest covered mosque on the east coast of Africa.

The southern enclosure utilized the pre-extant enclosure walls to the north, south and east and created a new 20 meters long western wall which squared off the space. The enclosure was then divided into 30 bays, six aisles long and five aisles wide from east to west. The bays lining the perimeter of the enclosure as well as the bays in the central north-south aisle are surmounted by domes, the most northern and southern of which were shallower than the rest. The two domes serving as entrance bays along the eastern side are internally fluted. The more southern of these fluted domes enters from the great dome. The remaining eight bays, which flank the central axis, are barrel vaulted. Due to the slightly irregular angles of the southern court a few of the bays are shortened by 20 centimeters. 

As with the other vaults from Kilwa, the Great Mosque's vaults and domes are constructed out of lime coral concrete. These domes are about 20 to 30 centimeters thick and shaped into hemispheres supported by groined squinches between which run pointed arches. These arches are supported by two-tiered columns which are octagonal at their base and become squared half way up. The octagonal segments of the columns have rectangular coral panels on the alternating faces. Along the walls the arches are supported by engaged columns or corbelled brackets. The capitals of the columns were made from single coral blocks and carved with concave carved angle brackets. On the western face of the enclosure, windows and doors alternate in the bays between the embedded columns.

A large room with a corbelled roof was built at the far southwest corner of the southern hall. Two doors lead from the south wall onto a narrow lane separating the Great Mosque from the Great House complex.

A final addition of a second mihrab was added at a much later date. The mihrab for the larger congregation using the south hall is located at the northernmost end of the central axis and juts into the northern prayer hall

Turning attention back to western Africa,...

Ancient city in Chinguetti, with the minaret of the Great Mosque in direct view:

Ancient town of Wadane:

Ancient town of Walata, which was at one point part of ancient Ghanaian complex:


As the last few images show, contrary to opinionated noises in some socializing avenues of the net, western Africans did build out of stone bricks, as part of the variety of architecture in the region, which continued through to the common era; that they didn't do so in other occasions, simply has to do with the question of what is more immediately and hence economically viable—lack of intellectual insight is a non-factor. In fact, one of earliest examples of surviving structures in the region, is also found in the Tichitt-Walata region, in the form of a network stone-brick structures (stonemasonry)—a common theme in both that general region and regions further south [think 'Great Zimbabwe', for example]:

Some of the gossip-folks implicated above, of course ignore developments such as these, and look to the ancient Nile Valley monuments like the Great Pyramids as some sort of measuring yardstick for the rest of continent; while ignoring these material records of the region, such individuals proceed to ask what people in ancient western Africa were doing, since according to them, they don't know of anything that hints to what was going on in the part of the continent in the time frames at hand. Well of course, they are bound to be ignorant, even according to their own rationale, precisely because they don't avail themselves of the necessary motivation to dig for information, and hence, squash unnecessary ignorance. The great pyramids are doubtlessly an impressive feat, but even these are the outgrowth of Saharan traditions. Africans are not monolithic and not every culture thereof is therefore going to visually express themselves through grand pyramids. So, why other parts of the continent are expected to replicate such, is anyone's guess but those folks who seek to downplay architecture traditions "not as grand" as the pyramids. That said, earlier on this site, the following was noted about the Tichitt-Walata stone structures:

Between 4000 BC and 1000 BC: At Tichitt-Walata—"Before 2000 BC, what is today the southern Sahara was inhabited by significant numbers of herders and farmers. On the rocky promontories of the Tichitt-Walata (Birou) and Tagant Plateaus in modern day Mauritania, they built what are considered among the earliest known civilizations in western Africa. Composed of more than 400 stone masonry settlements, with clear street layouts, some settlements had massive surrounding walls while others were less fortified. In a deteriorating environment, where arable land and pasturage were at a premium, the population grew and relatively large-scale political organizations emerged - factors which no doubt explain the homogeneity of architecture, settlement patterns, and material culture (e.g., lithic and ceramic traditions). This agro-pastoral society traded in jewelry and semi-precious stones from distant parts of the Sahara and Sahel, while crafts, hunting, and fishing were also important economic pursuits...Their elites built funerary monuments for themselves over a period extending from 4000 to 1000 BC." [sources: see Ray A. Kea, and Mauny, R. (1971), “The Western Sudan” in Shinnie: 66-87. Monteil, Charles (1953), “La Légende du Ouagadou et l’Origine des Soninke” in Mélanges Ethnologiques (Dakar: Bulletin del’Institut Francais del’Afrique Noir)]

This same general area would subsequently host parts of the ancient Ghanaian complex; again, as cited here before:

200 BC to the 2nd A.D. The Ghana/Wagadu Heartland

The historical importance of the Tichitt-Tagant complex and the Mema district derives from the development of the Ghana/Wagadu state organization in the area, probably between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century A.D. Together with the Hodh and Awkar districts, they formed the kingdom’s heartland for more than a thousand years (see fig 7) (cf. Robert-Chaleix 1989: 264). With a few exceptions, the first millennium A.D. was a time of fairly continuous and political consolidation of the system in its struggles with Kawkaw/Gao formation, on the one hand, and the Anbiya/Sanhaja formation in the WS, on the other.
- by Ray A. Kea, Department of History, University of California at Riverside, 2004

Obviously, the subject of African architectural traditions is simply far too extensive to be justly covered in one space here, i.e. if one were to give more examples and the fine details of their underlying architectural specificities, which as we've seen from the mere few select examples touched upon here, can be quite insightful; so, we will wind down here, with an example of how African architectural tradition, utilizing sun-dried bricks of muda readily accessible material in the Sahara-Sahel zones, the use of which has either been scorned at and/or dismissed as "too simplistic" by some untrained observers, can be exported afar, with perhaps some people of the latter areas being in the little-know to without even being aware of the fact: It is what has been dubbed as the "Nubian vault". Here is the idea: [The concept] makes it possible to build houses with vaulted roofs (on top of which a traditional flat roof terrace can be constructed) using basic, readily available local materials and simple, easily learnt, procedures.

Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy studied the concept, applied it, and subsequently took it other areas of the continent and places afar:

Today there are two centers in France inspired by Fathy. Both work with owner-builders in West Africa and the Middle East: CRATerre (Centre de Recherche en Architectures de Terre) of Grenoble and the Development Workshop of Lauzerte have helped introduce the Nubian technique of mud-brick dome and vault construction among villagers in Mali, Niger and Iran. In Egypt, Fathy's ideas can be found in the work of architects, planners and cultural developers in numerous institutions. - Courtesy of

Application in the U.S....

"The allure of elegant earthen architecture can be life-changing. At least that was the case for urbane New Yorker Simone Swan, who in the 1970s became fascinated with the ideas and designs of renowned Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. Then the 40-something executive head of the Houston-based Menil Foundation, Swan moved to Cairo to study with Fathy. She became his most passionate advocate, and transplanted his adobe building techniques to the Southwestern United States." - Catherine Wanek, 

There is nothing new, of course, about this phenomenon of the export of African architectural traditions to locations outside of the continent; it goes back to as far as Dynastic Egypt in recorded history, when architectural designs spilled over to ancient Greece and subsequently, Rome. One can critique aspects of the variety in African architectural tradition all he/she wants purely on superficial grounds, but it does not take away from the richness and dynamism of this heritage, that rivals the greatest examples elsewhere. In fact, the continent has hosted the earliest attested to examples of moves towards urbanization found anywhere, going back to ever since even before modern humans appeared (clickable); Africa is therefore the last place that Africa-haters should be harping on about, about needing to learn the concept of urbanization and/or the corresponding architecture from outsiders. It is after all, also home to the world's first and one that remained tallest monuments in the world until well into the common era—the Great Pyramids, outgrowths of Saharan traditions and an example of African ingenuity.

*This post will be continuously be built on as time goes by.

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*Others, as cited.