Architectural Wonders of Pre-colonial Africa

By: Izehi Amadasu

In Africa, there are very few historical structures left as most of them were destroyed by Europeans in their bid to seize power. Much of what's left are the ruins of some of the structures and accounts of explorers including drawings and paintings.

Since many of them were destroyed, it has led to this wide spread idea that all African people built were small rounded huts with thatched roofs. Pre-colonial Africans did build some impressive structures. Some of which ar discussed in this article:

The Pyramid of Giza

The pyramid of Giza is quite well known throughout the world and is often referred to as the Great Pyramid. The pyramid was the tallest structure on earth for 3,800 years and was constructed between 2580-2560 BC. It was built for Pharaoh Khufu and must have required a great deal of planning and infrastructure.

The pyramid is made of lime stone and granite which is deemed to have been transported from a quarry. What is spectacular is that the stones are not held together with mortar but fit perfectly with great precision. The pyramid is made up of about 2.3 million blocks which are all very heavy. Modern day scientists are still trying to figure out how the workers were able to transport and fit stones of such sizes in order to construct the pyramid. The pyramids of Giza are the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World to remain largely intact.

The Walls of Benin

The walls of Benin are a series of interconnected earth works known as 'iya' estimated to be 16,000 kilometers long. The walls were constructed between the 13th to 15th century and were described in the Guinness book of records in 1974 as "the world's largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era".

The walls were so long that it is estimated to have taken 5,000 men working 10 hours a day for 97 days to complete. However this does not include the time it must have taken to extract the mud and prepare it for use. When the scientist Fred Pearce saw the walls, he described it as being "four times longer than the walls of China and consumed a lot more material than the Pyramid of Cheops".

The walls were destroyed in 1897 by British soldiers during which other structures were destroyed and artworks looted. However, the walls of Benin are an indication of a thriving pre-colonial African kingdom.

Stone City of Great Zimbabwe

The stone city of Great Zimbabwe is a collection of stone buildings believed to have been built between the 11th and 15th century. The buildings span an area of 7.22 square kilometers and are recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. The buildings are said to have been constructed by the ancestors of the Shona people and are made of dry stone fitted together without any mortar.

A lot of controversies have surrounded the ownership of the city as racist people have deemed that Africans were not capable of such. Political pressures were put on archaeologists to deny that they were constructed by African people. Textbooks, guidebooks, newspapers and films were all censored. It has since been established that they were built by the ancestors of the Shona people and are the largest stone structure after the Egyptian monuments.

Much of the buildings have been destroyed by Europeans who were in search of gold and artefacts some of which were sent to museums in Europe and South America.

The Stele of Axum

The Stele of Axum is sometimes referred to as the Obelisks of Axum. They are a series of structures found in Ethiopia built by the people of Axum in the 4th century. The biggest standing Stele is 24 meters tall. The stele is exquisitely carved to resemble a nine-storey building. It has two false doors on either side. It is so intricately decorated that the false windows and doors all have carved locks which shows a level of craftsmanship that was not common many years after it was constructed.

One of the Steles was taken from Ethiopia to Rome in the 1930s where it remained until it was returned to Ethiopia in 2008 and assembled. The level of infrastructure and organisation it took to construct a project of this kind is an indication of the widespread influence and wealth of the kingdom of Axum.