Africa is the second most populous continent on planet, and home to many of humanity’s most impressive ancient cities, empires, and architectural creations. There are impressive ancient ruins in every country across the continent. From megalithic monuments to medieval cities, here are a handful that every history, archaeology, and travel enthusiast should know about, besides the pyramids of Egypt:
Qohaito is an ancient, urban garden city dating between 700 BC – AD 700. Surrounded by many towns and hamlets, it’s actually a cluster of 750 different sites, including tombs, watch towers, cisterns, kilns, rock paintings, residential houses, a huge 2,500 year-old dam which still works today, and the distinctive, pre-Christian ruins of the Temple of Mariam Wakino (pictured). Overall, it’s one of the biggest and most complex urban sites south of the Sahara. With wealth built on local trade, agriculture, and production, it predates the Kingodm of Axum and was part of a cultural network that included other spectacular urban clusters, like those at Keskese and Matara around 30km to the south.
Dating back over 1,000 years, these mighty stone walls are truly impressive. They were once part of a vast fortified settlement covering 11,130 square metres, and which was occupied by the Lohron or Koulango people who controlled the region’s gold mines when the site reached its peak in the 1400-1700s. It is the best-preserved of ten similar forts in the area, all linked to gold mining and the trans-Saharan gold trade, and Loropeni’s fortunes only declined when the centre of power shifted south to Ghana. Today, the ruins are overgrown and crumbling, but recent archaeological excavations have produced radiocarbon dates that show its origins were even earlier than previously thought, and further archaeological work is expected to yield exciting new information…
Over 1,000 megalithic stone circles and related sites dot the landscape between the River Gambia and the River Senegal. They cluster in four groups around Wassu, and Kerbatch in Gambia, and Wanar and Sine Ngayene in Senegal. Some have been excavated, revealing archaeological material dating back as far as 300 BC. Other finds span the last 2,000 years, including burials, pottery, iron tools, and ornamental objects. The stones were extracted from nearby quarries using iron tools and skilfully shaped into cylindrical or polygonal pillars, with some weighing up to a whopping 7 tons.
Leptis Magna was the birthplace of Septimius Severus (r. AD 193–211), one of Rome’s most famous Emperors. Originally founded by Phoenicians around 600 BC, the city was absorbed into the Roman Empire in AD 46. Septimius enlarged and embellished it, making the city one of the empire’s most beautiful. He later went on to campaign in Britain, eventually dying in York, and in the following centuries, the city was variously taken by Vandals, Berbers, and the city of Al-Khums. In 1816, part of it was then taken by the British… to the British Museum, and then installed at Windsor Great Park, along the A30 London Road, where you can still see it today.
In AD 1100, King Lalibela set out to construct a ‘New Jerusalem’ after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The result of his directive was eleven monolithic medieval churches carved out of bare rock, with doors, windows, columns, multistorey floors and roofs all chiselled out by hand. This gigantic endeavour was further expanded with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs, as well as villages with two storey circular houses with interior staircases and thatched roofs.
In Africa, just as in Europe, many national origin stories in Africa begin with a blacksmith. Douroula is one of a series of extensive Iron Age sites, spread across Burkina Faso, which include about 15 huge iron ore smelting furnaces, as well as mines, dwellings, and other furnace structures. Dating back to 800 BC, Dourola provides the oldest evidence of iron production in Burkina Faso, and demonstrates that people have been producing their own iron here for over 2,700 years, with production technology widely disseminated across the whole region by around 500 BC. The massive, still-standing furnaces are not only impressive in appearance, but in global terms they are also among the earliest examples of iron production in the world.
The history of the Kushite Empire is entangled with that of Ancient Egypt, with the two variously intermarrying, and falling under eachothers rule. Gebel Barkal, along with three other sites Kurru, Nuri, Sanam and Zuma, represent the Napatan (900 – 270 BC) and Meroitic (270 BC – 350 AD) cultures of the second kingdom of Kush. As well as pyramids, they include other types of tombs, temples, burial mounds and chambers, living complexes and palaces. They exhibit an architectural tradition that shaped the political, religious, social and artistic scene of the Middle and Northern Nile Valley for more than 2000 years (1500 BC – AD 600), and the corbel vaults of the tombs of Kurru constitute a new building technique which influenced Mediterranean architecture from 700 BC onwards.
Occupied from the 9th to the 19th century, Kilwa Kisiwani was a Swahili trading city, whose wealth was based on control of Indian Ocean trade with Arabia, India and China. Kilwa merchants dealt in gold, ivory, silver, carnelians, pearls, perfumes, Persian faience and Chinese porcelain, and the city minted its own currency in the 11th to 14th centuries. The city reached the peak of its prosperity in the 13th-14th centuries, and when the great traveler, Ibn Battouta, stopped here in 1331-1332, he described it as one of the most beautiful cities of the world. Its decline only began when the Portuguese established a presence and while many parts of the city remain unexcavated, there are substantial standing ruins built of coral and lime mortar, including the Great Mosque, the palace Husuni Kubwa with its large octagonal bathing pool, and an entire urban complex with houses, public squares, and burial grounds. In fact, thanks to the Zamani Project, you can explore the whole thing in 3D.
Recent archaeological excavations indicate that construction of the twin cities of Gao-Saney and Gao-Ancient began in AD 700, and were poulated by merchants, manufacturers, and a royal family who wielded wealth and enormous power, built on the profits of Trans-Saharan trade. At Gao-Ancient, archaeologists unearthed the remains of some of the most impressive tenth-century buildings in the West African Savannah, including stone-built housing (pictured), pillared buildings, and an immense royal palace and castle whose walls are several metres think. Discoveries have also included jewellery, glassware, crucibles, perfume bottles, medical equipment, and crockery from China. These two impressive cities represent just one small aspect of the region’s extensive medieval heritage.
Great Zimbabwe was the capital of a bustling kingdom during the late Iron Age. Once home to an estimated population of 20,000 people, the city itself occupied 2.78 square miles, making it the largest set of ruins in sub-Saharan Africa. The ruins are split across three distinct zones: the Hill complex, with its jawdropping ‘amphitheatre’; the Great Enclosure, with its 10m high walls, towers, and passageways; and the Valley Complex. Construction dates back to AD 900, and at its peak (AD1300-1500), the kingdom controlled more than 39,000 square miles and produced two-fifths (600 tonnes) of the total mined gold at the time.
Khami arose from the collapse of the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom from 1450, and includes a complex series of elaborately decorated dry-stone granite walls, terraces, passageways, and galleries. The royal residence was located towards the north on the Hill Ruin site, with adjacent cultivation terraces. The population lived in huts, surrounded by another series of phenomenal granite walls, and still has the longest decorated wall in the region.
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