Sunday, January 23, 2011

Modernization of Sahelian/Sudanic Archtectural Traditions

There is an attitude of dismissal amongst personalities who are foreign to and scornful of African cultures, with regards to elements of Sahelian/Sudanic architectural traditions, as merely simple structures of mud. Never mind the multiple layers of design both in physiology and building-material that constitute the Sahelian or Sudanic architectural traditions. In an earlier posting, the long tradition of building in stone in western Africa, along with several mud-built designs, was elaborately covered [see: Before the Ruins]. Perhaps nothing gets the point across better than photography, just how elaborate and sophisticated the otherwise "bland" looking architectural designs are; paint-jobs can do wonders in bringing out the true sophistry of these designs, that perhaps unpainted architecture do not make as apparent.

In ancient times whence a number of Sahelian or Sudanic buildings were simply left unpainted, the primary driver was perhaps one of practicality of dealing with regular sandy/dusty winds of the Sahel, which would necessitate constant repainting or cleaning jobs; in other words, the facilitation of easy maintenance was likely the overriding reason for a number builders to leave their structures unpainted. Other old Sahelian/Sudanic structures were of course painted. However, new paint jobs on renovated old Sudanic architecture, along with newly built structures adopting the very same fundamental designs as the old structures, bring out the actual sophistry of Sudanic design traditions. Take a look [attn: Click on all images for greater resolution]:

Image caption: Here we have building structures of the Emir Palace complex in Nigeria. The image on the left hand side is that of an original structure, largely built with mud and unpainted. Compare that structure with the one in the image on the right hand side. The structure in the right hand side image is part of the same complex as the structure in the left image. However, this structure appear to have undergone a mild renovation effort, mainly involving new paint job. Notice that the structure in the left image is all but painted, though it too might have received some mild maintenance work, that simply restores but not alter the original building. The paint job noticeably makes a big difference to the eye, with regards to the projection of sophistry that the building structures emit. The building in the right image shares essentially the very same fundamental Sahelian/Sudanic architectural design as the building in the left image, yet with the paint job done on the former, it comes out a bit more sophisticated in outlook than the latter. We will notice this trend in other examples that follow.

Image caption: The image shown earlier on the right hand side, above, is re-used here for additional demonstrative purpose. Again, the buildings in the two photographs share the very same fundamental ancient Sahelian/Sudanic design. However, while the building on the left has only received mild renovation, largely in the form of paint work and possibly minor wall reinforcements in areas where needed, the building in the right image has undergone a relatively more elaborate renovation. This building [in the right hand side image] appears to have received some additional wall plastering, that are highly textured when compared against the relatively plain kind seen on the building in the left image, and more elaborate paint job with colorful designs. All this is done without sacrificing the original Sahelian/Sudanic design of the building, and goes to show that with enough paint job, the basic Sahelian/Sudanic design that might be dismissed by some as a fairly modest or simple design at first glance turns out to actually be one of complexity and mastery of sophistry. 

Images of other modernization undertakings:

Image caption: The building on the left image is another renovated old building of the Emir Palace at Kano, retaining the Sahelian/Sudanic design tradition. The palace was built in the 15th century, under Muhammad Rumfa (reign: 1463-1499). Once again, this particular building had undergone some elaborate renovation in the form of additional wall plastering, sporting highly textured wall surfaces, and colorful designs painted on parts of the wall. The characteristic pointed edges of the roof, as visible in all images of the Emir's Palace, are part of a host of ancient Sahelian/Sudanic architectural traditions. The tower-like entrance in the right image is actually a new structure added to the old Emir Palace. This doesn't take away from the fact that even this new addition sticks to traditional Sahelian/Sudanic design concept. It too sports the pointed roof edges seen on the other and original buildings of the old Emir Palace. Like the older buildings, it retains the concept of drainage chutes placed on the roofs of the buildings.

Similar designs from Senegal...

Image caption: This building in the Sandaga Market, Senegal, has all the basic characteristics of Sahelian/Sudanic architectural traditions as those seen in the Nigerian-based Emir Palace, shown above. Though this particular building may be of a relatively modern construction, it too has those characteristic pointed roof edges, with drainage chutes projecting from the roof. With its elegant construction, not to mention its reasonably modern outlook, this building actually represents the fact that old Sahelian/Sudanic concepts live on to this day, with updated building-construction methods incorporated into their structures, and is testament to the fact that contemporary western Africans have not totally abandoned local architectural customs. High-rise sky-scrappers may have become a fairly common sight in contemporary African metropolises, but the age-old Sahelian/Sudanic traditions are here to stay.

Other relatively modern buildings following the ancient Sahelian/Sudanic design concepts in Nigeria...

Image caption: This is the Palace complex of the Emir of Bauchi. It reportedly dates to around the 19th century, but as one can see, it retains the ancient Sahelian/Sudanic architectural concept, with its distinctive pointed roof corners and semi-curved lower windows and top-pillars of the floor atop the entrance structure. If someone were to look for modern examples of indigenous architecture, one can turn to structures like these as examples.

Image caption: These are images of the Emir of Dutse Palace complex. It is said to have been constructed some time in the 19th century. Some sources place that date to around 1807. Notwithstanding the date, the palace adopts the recurring theme of structures and edges/corners with pointed-tips atop the roof, along with the semi-curved windows and pillars. The building is given a coat of white interrupted by highly decorative themes everywhere.

Now, reflecting back on older buildings, some of which continue to stand today, and design concepts:

Image caption: Here, we have images of segments of the Palace complex of the Emir of Katsina. The Palace, also called Gidan Korau, is said to date to around the 14th century, and so, it is a fairly old building. Of course, it has seen some maintenance work and some new additions to the complex over time, but the main complex is as original as it was in the 14th century. It was built under Muhammadu Korau in 1348 AD. Later additions made to the complex, are said to include the Council Chamber that was built under Emir Dikko (1906-1944), the Masonic Council Chamber built under Sir Usman Nagogo (1944-1951), the conversion of the "a room attached to the Emir's inner chamber" into a Polo gallery, and a Treasury chamber built in 1908. The image on the left is that of an entrance structure of the main palace, and the image on the right, is that of a wall of rooms flanking an entrance structure with a tower atop; the wall-like structure complex is called the Kofar Soro [See below]. The tower, which may well have been either added at a later time than when the main palace was built or renovated, has the classic pointed edges on its roof corners.

The following piece is quoted, courtesy of the website '', because it provides local Nigerian lexicon (in italics) for the anatomical elements of the Katsina Emir Palace mentioned above, many of which reappear in other building structures adopting ancient Sahelian/Sudanic design traditions, and the piece also gives a more elaborate account of the palace's features:

The Palace was encircled with a rampart ‘Ganuwar Gidan Sarki’ (which is now extinct). The main gate which leads to the Palace is known as ‘Kofar Soro’ while the gate at the backyard is called ‘Kofar Bai’ (now extinct).

The Emir’s residential quarters which is the epicenter of the Palace, is a large compound built in the typical Hausa traditional architecture. The buildings are made of conical-shaped and sun-dried clay bricks (Tubali), KwababbiyarKasa (mud), and Kyami (rafters). Other materials include Asabari (rafters), iron doors and windows, Jangargari (red soil), Loda and Makuba (colorants). The Kyami is a strong and termite-resistant wood flank which is obtained from the deleb palm tree (Borassus Flabeliyer) called Giginya in Hausa. Loda is a plant, the leaves of which when pounded and soaked, provide a viscous fluid which is mixed with Jangargari or Makuba. The Makuba is a colorant as well as protective paint obtained from the empty pods of locust bean tree. Asabari is door mat made from a long hollow grass called Tsaune.

The wall of the house is about 90 centimeters at the base. It is enforced with high quality clay mixed with cow-dung and grass. A mixture of Jangargari, Makuba,FararKasa and Loda was used to adorn the outer walls and the interior of the rooms with beautiful artistic designs. The mixture also serves as protective plaster. This explains why the buildings withstand the effects of harsh weather for many centuries.

The roofing of the rooms is made of Kyami and Asabari. The main entrance and reception room, Babban Zaure which is bigger and higher than the others leading to the compound is supported with an array of semi-circular pillars called Bakangizo (Cobweb) or Daurin Guga designs. Other buildings with such designs include the visitors’ waiting rooms. Attached to the edges of all the roofs are the Indararo (Water Chutes) to drain rain water. The four corners at the top of the building are decorated with many Zonkwaye.

The royal compound is divided into three sections:

Soro: Is the section where the Emir and his family live.
Barga: Is the yard where the Emir’s royal stables, slaves and house servants live.
Gidan Ganye: This section contains the royal garden and the Emir’s guest house. This area also serves as a relaxation area for the Emir.

Other parts of the compound include a mosque, clinic, a stable and children’s playground.

Attached to the Babban Zaure is the Emir’s inner chamber in which he sits with his Senior Councilors to receive State Officials and other important people. To the north-west of the house is the old Council Chamber (Tsohuwar Majalisa) which was built by Emir Dikko (1906-1944)). Close to the house to the south stands the Masonic Council Chamber (Sabuwar Majalisa) which was built by Sir Usman Nagogo (1944-1951). The two council chambers serve as venue for the Emir, his Councilors and District Heads to meet and deliberate on matters affecting the Emirate. Also attached to the Emir’s inner chamber is a room which was converted into a Polo Gallery ‘Dakin Kwaf’. It contains pictures of Katsina’s earliest polo teams and cups won by the Emirs dating back to early 1920’s when the game was introduced in Nigeria.

Beside the Emir’s residential house are two other quarters called ‘Cikin Gida’ and ‘Saulawa’ which are within the precinct of the rampant. These quarters house the Emir’s personal servants such as the Sarkin Dogarai, Shamaki, Turaki, Sarkin Zagi, Shantali, Baraya, Sarkin Lihidda, Sarkin Mota, Rumbuna etc. The Saulawa quarters may have been the area where the royal granaries stood.

The Katsina Emir’s Palace also houses the first Treasury in Northern Nigeria (built in 1908), the Emirate Council Conference Hall and the Office Complex of the Secretary to the Emirate Council. The establishment of the first Polo Gallery in Nigeria and the first modern treasury in the Palace explains why Katsina is considered the leading centre for adoption and expansion of foreign ideas and innovations.

Image caption: The image on the left is that of the original Great Mosque at Kano, before its destruction at the hands of Europeans in 1938. The mosque was constructed under the aforementioned Muhammad Rumba (reign: 1463-1499). Notice the angular and flat surfaces of the tower-like structure, as seen on a number of Sahelian/Sudanic style architecture shown earlier, even though its a mosque. The building sports drainage chutes, as seen in other buildings already seen above. Behind the first structure, is another one, sporting the classic pointed-roof edges. In the image on the right, we have the Gobarau minaret of Katsina built during Muhammad Korau's reign (1445-1495). It too sports the sharp angular tower-like appearance, and flat surfaces. As a recurring theme, the roof sports drainage chutes.
Here's an interesting little trivia on the Gobarau minaret, again courtesy of '':

The era of Korau (1445 – 1495), also known as Muhammad Korau, is regarded as an important period in the history of Katsina for several reasons. First, he was the first Muslim king. Secondly, he was the first to rule from the Birnin Katsina. Thirdly, it was during his time that the celebrated Islamic scholar Muhammad Abdulkarim Al-maghili visited Katsina where he was reported to have taken the noble profession of teaching and prompted the building of Gobarau mosque to serve as a centre for spiritual and intellectual activities. This was apparently done in order to raise the standard of learning in Katsina and impart a new socio-political culture, which would help in creating an Islamic State with well-defined institutions.

The tradition of Islamic reform which was started in the reign of Korau was carried further during the reign of Sarkin Katsina Maje, who was noted for his desire to implement Islamic practices among his people. The outcome was that those among his subjects who were nominal Muslims were made to observe the obligatory prayers, and bachelors were forced to get married in order to live a decent life. Another achievement of Maje was the construction additional mosques in the kingdom. This led to the expansion of knowledge and the growth of Islamic institutions.

By the end of the 16 th century, Katsina began to produce indigenous scholars of international repute. These included Muhammed B. Masani al Barwani al Kashnawi who was originally from Borno, and Muhammad al-Kashinawi popularly called Ibn Sabbag (Dan Marina). There was also Muhammad al-Fulani al Kashinawi who became famous in the secret sciences (alu’um al siriya), mathematics and astronomy. Muhammad al-Kashinawi was educated in Katsina. Later, he traveled through Egypt to perform the Holy Pilgrimage. On his return, he stayed and taught in Cairo where he died as a guest of al-Jabarti. Among his works is ‘al-Durr al-Manzum wa Khulasat al Sirr al Maktum fi Ilmi al-talasim wal Nujum’ which he compiled in Cairo in 1734 AD.

Towards the end of the 18 th century, Katsina came into conflict with the powerful Kingdom of Gobir. The hostilities started in 1788 when the Gobir army conquered Maradi and advanced to Birnin Katsina. Sarkin Katsina Agwaragi (1778-1799) came out with an army and after unsuccessful attempt to reach a peaceful settlement, a battle line was drawn. The Gobir army was surrounded and destroyed with many of their warriors killed.

Below, is schematic of building traced back to the old City of Kano:

Sports the flat surfaces and the somewhat protruding entrance segment, reminiscent of the entrance sections on other Sudanic-style architecture, like say, the Katsina or the Kano palaces. Perhaps this shape can best be made out from the floor layout printed on the schematic. The structure shows brick-like layout on the side of the building.

A considerable number of Western Sudanic buildings made use of mud, as it was the most accessible material, but other materials were primarily used in other occasions, like stone; in some cases, a composite of these materials were incorporated into the building structure. However, if one were to look past the material used in erecting these buildings, one will find that what may seem like simplistic designs at first glance, actually mesh simplicity with some degree of sophistry simultaneously [which is not always an easy thing to do], that allows the old design concepts to easily emerge as modern architecture, with just a mild touch of up-to-date construction techniques.

*Be on the lookout for possible future updates or modifications.


Flickr-hosted images

Some of the other sources [for stuff mentioned in this topic] not specified here, can be located here: Before the Ruins


Romello said...

Do you think you could write about Joel Irish's 2006 study?

Pretty Pauline said...

These are beautiful! Your blog is a treasure-trove of information. What a peaceful place to come and learn with my kids. Thank you!

Mystery Solver said...

Pretty Pauline,

Thank you for the encouraging feedback. I'm glad that you enjoy my work.


I believe that I've read the study in question. I'll look into it again.

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