Ancient African Architecture: A Complete Guide for Travelers

When we talk about ancient African architecture, the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is Egypt’s mysterious pyramids. But there’s more to see in Africa than just the pyramids. 

Africa is one of the largest continents and has the second largest population. Within this continent, there are fifty-four nations. Even though Africa is mostly known for its safari and adrenaline packing adventurers, there are more to see and do than just those. 

Among these massive lands, there are many ancient African architectural sites to see and admire. You’ll find structures like cathedrals, mosques, and more, and you’ll be able to see how the architectural designs have developed over time.

Africa, as a continent, has gone through a lot in terms of power shifts and wars. So, there are many structures to admire, which stood the test of time.

Today, we present to you the best of ancient African architecture. Have a look!

1. Djoser’s Pyramid, Egypt

As expected, the original pyramid in Egypt is the oldest building in Africa. This pyramid was the first to be built, and that’s why compared to the other pyramids, this one was built differently. 

Most of the pyramids we see in the movies are smooth on the sides, but this pyramid was built on layers. You can say that this pyramid was the prototype for the other pyramids.

The layers or pyramid or steps have different names. These steps are called “ “mastaba” or “House of Eternity.” Each of these steps or mastaba is large enough to be a tomb. Also, the top-most step was made into the tomb of the Pharaoh of Djoser. 

It’s truly a wonder how they built these pyramids as well as the pyramids that came later on. That’s why most of the architectural amazements are found in Egypt. 

Now, let’s talk about the brain behind this design. The person who came up with the idea was Imhotep. Imhotep wasn’t only an architect, but he was also a physician. 

Interesting Facts:

  • This pyramid was built from 2667 BC to 2648 BC
  • Imhotep was a commoner but later was praised as a God.  
Djoser’s Pyramid, Egypt
Photo by David McEachan from Pexels

2. Pyramids of Northern Sudan

Pyramids will always be an architectural feat, no matter where they are. There are many pyramids located outside of Egypt. One of the pyramids located outside of Egypt is the pyramids of Northern Sudan. 

You may think that Egypt has the highest number of Pyramids, but that’s not the case. Current Sudan has the highest number of Pyramids – 223 structures to be exact. 

There was always a competition present between Nubia and Egypt in terms of wealth and power. Both rulers influenced each other, and there were times of war and peace between the two nations. 

The pyramids of the then Nubia were under construction from 4th century BC to 3rd century BC. Interestingly, before the pyramids in Nubia came into being, there was no pyramid being built in Egypt or any place besides the valley of Nile. 

These pyramids, like any other pyramids, acted as the final resting place for Kings and Queens. An interesting feature of these pyramids was that every pyramid was richly decorated. But, now, you’ll see that the top of the pyramids has been destroyed.

The reason behind this is that from 1800 to 1870, an Italian explorer by the name of Giuseppe Ferlini visited there. In hopes of finding treasures, he smashed the head of the pyramids. The most he destroyed was in the year of 1820 – around 40 pyramids’ top. 

Interesting facts:

  • Modern-day Sudan was once known as Nubia or Kush. 
  • Sudan has almost double the number of pyramids in Egypt. 
Pyramids of Northern Sudan
Source: commons.wikimedia.org

3. Clay Palace, Ghardaia

Moving our attention from the pyramids, let’s focus on some castles. One of the amazing palaces built in Africa is the clay palace located in Ghardaia, Algeria. Deep within the Algerian Sahara Desert remains the M’zab valley. This valley houses many ancient cities that were fortified. 

During the tenth century, these cities were built by people known as Mozabites. Mozabites were the followers of Ibadi Islam. Since then until now, the clay palace is standing tall and looking fantastic. From top to bottom, as the name suggests, the palace is made out of clay. 

Because it’s located in the Sahara desert, every infrastructure has been built with clay and stones. The reason is that the materials used to build them kept the insides cool during the summer and cozy on winter nights. 

Interesting Facts:

  • The palace is made from clay and stone.
Clay Palace, Ghardaia
Source: commons.wikimedia.org

4.Djenne, Mali

On reading history, you’ll see that every civilization built beside rivers was heavily influenced by the traders that came to the area. Mali was no exception. Many Muslim and Christian traders used to visit these lands. 

During this time, the mosque of Djenne was constructed. From the thirteenth century, this mosque had become a hub for trading, knowledge, and practicing Islam. 

The mosque of Djenne is considered one of the best historical landmarks in Africa, and it features a distinctive design. On the outside, you’ll see sticks standing out of the mosque’s infrastructure. These sticks are kept there so that the maintenance of the mosque becomes easier – they were truly thinking ahead. 

The rest of the mosque is made out of earth bricks, which were then coated with plaster. Also, the mosque is built on a platform so that any flood can’t damage the mosque.

Interesting Facts:

  • The construction of the mosque began in 800 CE and finished in 1250 CE. 
  • On a special occasion, the residents of the city come together and replaster the mosque
Djenne, Mali
Source: Flickr

5. Church of St George, Ethiopia 

Located in Lalibela, Ethiopia is the Church of St George. The church is below the current surface level, so if when you’re viewing the church from the surface, you’ll see that the roof was built like a crucifix. Ethiopia has been ruled by many rulers and dynasties; you can see the reflection of those inside this church. 

You can find many carvings, some resembling greek words. Other than that, you can see sculptures of a two-headed eagle, star of David, and many more. Here, you can see the various aspects and representations of Christianity through different times. 

Interesting Facts:

  • Out of the 11 other medieval rock churches, the Church of St George is considered to be the best. 
5. Church of St George, Ethiopia
Source: irisharchaeology.ie

6. Valley of Kings, Egypt

You might think that Egypt is only known for its pyramids, but assuming that will be wrong. There’s much more to see in Egypt than you can imagine. One of those places is the Valley of Kings. 

Besides the pyramids, the valley of kings is another place for the Kings’ final rest. Going inside, you’ll find sixty-three tombs dating back to the sixteenth century BC. On those tombs, you’ll find stories from the past along with other antiquities. You also learn about the stories we heard about Pharaohs being in their tombs with everything they need for their afterlife. Overall, you can know more about the daily lives and cultures of the then society.

Interesting Facts:

  • One of those powerful kings was Tutankhamun
  • Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered there back in the twentieth century. 
Valley of Kings, Egypt
Source: Pixabay

7. El Jem, Tunisia

Visiting El Jem in Tunisia, you’ll be able to see the magnificent architecture of the Roman Empire. El Jem is basically a small town in Tunisia, where you can find well preserved historical sites. 

Visiting the city, you’ll find a majestic creation of the Roman Empire showing the architectural feat of Roman architecture. This site is an amphitheater, which dates backs to the third century. 

If you go to the top-most seat, you can clearly see the arena where the animals and gladiators fought for life while entertaining the empires. 

Interesting Facts:

  • Back then, this amphitheater could hold almost 35,000 people
  • The amphitheater acts as the hub of the city.
El Jem, Tunisia
Photo by Sergio Gómez from Pexels

8. Tin Mal Mosque, Morocco

Constructed in 1152, Tin Mal Mosque in Morocco is one of the few mosques in the world you can visit while being a non-muslim, and it’s a mosque that you’d want to visit. 

The construction of the mosque hasn’t been finished, and for that reason, there’s no roof to the mosque. Visiting the site, you’ll see that the sunlight gives the mosque a majestic look. Even though the mosque was abandoned, the pillars were designed carefully and still look very elegant. 

Interesting Facts:

  • The mosque is deep within the Atlas mountain
Tin Mal Mosque, Morocco
Photo by Taryn Elliott from Pexels

Bottom Line

In conclusion, these are just some pieces of the magnificent ancient African architecture you can wonder at. Africa, being one of the largest continents, has the most land area and holds a lot of gems. Whether you’re looking for inspiration or just want to get lost in an ancient time, Africa is a great place to start. 

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