Africa’s greatest ancient Cities


Kilwa Kisiwani

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Kilwa, in full Kilwa Kisiwani, former Islāmic city-state on an island off the coast of what is now southern Tanzania. Founded in the late 10th century by settlers from Arabia and Iran, it became one of the most active commercial centres on the east coast of Africa. Held briefly by the Portuguese (1505–12), it thereafter gradually declined in importance and was finally abandoned. Extensive ruins remain, including mosques, a Portuguese fort, and the great Husuni Kubwa palace (13th–14th century).Related image

Many of the Swahili settlements showed complex layouts that reflected social relations between groups, however at Kilwa, there are many questions still left unanswered about the town layout. The cemeteries were located on the edge of the town, which was common for the region, and large, open spaces were likely used for social gatherings. An important city for trade, around the 13th century there were increased fortifications and a greater flow of goods. For these to take place, there would need to be a form of political administration overseeing the city, controlling the movement of goods. Much of the trade networks were with the Arabian peninsula. Kilwa Kisiwani reached its highest point in wealth and commerce between 13th and 15th centuries CE.

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Evidence of growth in wealth can be seen with the appearance of stone buildings around the 13th century CE, before which all of the buildings were wattle-and-daub. The socio-economic status of the individuals residing there could be clearly seen in the type of structure they were living in. Among Kilwa’s exports were spices, tortoiseshell, coconut oil, ivory, and aromatic gums, as well as gold and slaves. At around this time, Kilwa had seized control over the trade of gold at Sofala. The wealthy also possessed more commercial goods than the individuals who were of the lower class did. Luxury cloths and foreign ceramics were among a few of the items they would have owned, though some items, such as luxury clothes, do not preserve in the archaeological record. For approximately 500 years, Kilwa was minting coins. This lasted from about A.D 1100-1600 and the coins have been found across the region, including Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe

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Great Zimbabwe is a medieval city in the south-eastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument began in the 11th century and continued until the 15th century. The edifices were erected by the ancestral Shona. The stone city spans an area of 7.22 square kilometres (1,780 acres) which, at its peak, could have housed up to 18,000 people. It is recognised as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a centre for trading, with artefacts suggesting that the city formed part of a trade network linked to Kilwa and extending as far as China. Copper coins found at Kilwa Kisiwani appear to be of the same pure ore found on the Swahili coast. This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory; some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground. That international commerce was in addition to the local agricultural trade, in which cattle were especially important. The large cattle herd that supplied the city moved seasonally and was managed by the court. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads and other non-local items have been excavated at Zimbabwe. Despite these strong international trade links, there is no evidence to suggest exchange of architectural concepts between Great Zimbabwe and centres such as Kilwa.

Great Zimbabwe appears on Abraham Ortelius’ 1570 map Africae Tabula Nova, rendered “Simbaoe”.

Causes for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the site around 1450 have been suggested as due to a decline in trade compared to sites further north, the exhaustion of the gold mines, political instability and famine and water shortages induced by climatic change. The Mutapa state arose in the fifteenth century from the northward expansion of the Great Zimbabwe tradition, having been founded by Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe after he was sent to find new sources of salt in the north; (this supports the belief that Great Zimbabwe’s decline was due to a shortage of resources). Great Zimbabwe also predates the Khami and Nyanga cultures.

Benin City

 

Related imageThe Kingdom of Benin, also known as the Benin Kingdom, was a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria. Its capital was Edo, now known as Benin City in Edo state. It should not be confused with the modern-day Republic of Benin, formerly the Republic of Dahomey. The Benin Kingdom was “one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa, dating perhaps to the eleventh century CE”, until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897.

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The original people and founders of the Benin Kingdom, the Edo people, were initially ruled by the Ogiso (Kings of the Sky) who called their land Igodomigodo. The first Ogiso (Ogiso Igodo), wielded much influence and gained popularity as a good ruler. He died after a long reign and was succeeded by Ere, his eldest son. In the 12th century, a great palace intrigue erupted and crown prince Ekaladerhan, the only son of the last Ogiso was sentenced to death as a result of the first Queen (who was barren) deliberately changing an oracle message to the Ogiso. In carrying out the order of the palace, the palace messengers had mercy and set the prince free at Ughoton near Benin. When his father the Ogiso died, the Ogiso dynasty ended. The people and royal kingmakers preferred their king’s son as natural next in line to rule.

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The Oba had become the mount of power within the region. Oba Ewuare, the first Golden Age Oba, is credited with turning Benin City into a city state from a military fortress built by the Ogisos, protected by moats and walls. It was from this bastion that he launched his military campaigns and began the expansion of the kingdom from the Edo-speaking heartlands. A series of walls marked the incremental growth of the sacred city from 850 AD until its decline in the 16th century. To enclose his palace he commanded the building of Benin’s inner wall, an 11-kilometre-long (7 mi) earthen rampart girded by a moat 6 m (20 ft) deep. This was excavated in the early 1960s by Graham Connah. Connah estimated that its construction, if spread out over five dry seasons, would have required a workforce of 1,000 laborers working ten hours a day seven days a week. Ewuare also added great thoroughfares and erected nine fortified gateways

Meroe

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Meroe is an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi, Sudan, approximately 200 km north-east of Khartoum. Near the site are a group of villages called Bagrawiyah. This city was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for several centuries. The Kushitic Kingdom of Meroë gave its name to the Island of Meroë, which was the modern region of Butana, a region bounded by the Nile (from the Atbarah River to Khartoum), the Atbarah and the Blue Nile.

At Meroë, pyramids of the Kushite rulers

The Kingdom of Kush which housed the city of Meroë represents one of a series of early states located within the middle Nile. It is one of the earliest and most impressive states found south of the Sahara. Looking at the specificity of the surrounding early states within the middle Nile, one’s understanding of Meroë in combination with the historical developments of other historic states may be enhanced through looking at the development of power relation characteristics within other Nile Valley states. The site of the city of Meroë is marked by more than two hundred pyramids in three groups, of which many are in ruins. They have the distinctive size and proportions of Nubian pyramids.

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Hebrew oral tradition avers that Moses, in his younger years, had led an Egyptian military expedition into Sudan (Kush), as far as the city of Meroë, which was then called Saba. The city was built near the confluence of two great rivers and was encircled by a formidable wall, and governed by a renegade king. To ensure the safety of his men who traversed that desert country, Moses had invented a stratagem whereby the Egyptian army would carry along with them baskets of sedge, each containing an ibis, only to be released when they approached the enemy’s country. The purpose of the birds was to kill the deadly serpents that lay all about that country. Having successfully laid siege to the city, the city was eventually subdued by betrayal of the king’s daughter, who had agreed to deliver the city unto Moses on condition that he would consummate a marriage with her, under the solemn assurance of an oath.

Carthage

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The name Carthage  is the Early Modern anglicisation of French Carthage from Latin Carthāgō (cf. Greek Karkhēdōn  and Etruscan *Carθaza) from the Punic qrt-ḥdšt “new city”, implying it was a “new Tyre”. The Latin adjective pūnicus, meaning “Phoenician”, is reflected in English in some borrowings from Latin—notably the Punic Wars and the Punic language.Carthage was the center or capital city of the ancient Carthaginian civilization, on the eastern side of the Lake of Tunis in what is now the Tunis Governorate in Tunisia. The city developed from a Phoenician colony into the capital of an empire dominating the Mediterranean during the first millennium BC. The legendary Queen Dido is regarded as the founder of the city, though her historicity has been questioned. According to accounts by Timaeus of Tauromenium, she purchased from a local tribe the amount of land that could be covered by an oxhide. Cutting the skin into strips, she laid out her claim and founded an empire that would become, through the Punic Wars, the only existential threat to the Roman Empire until the coming of the Vandals several centuries later.

The Carthaginian republic was one of the longest-lived and largest states in the ancient Mediterranean. Reports relay several wars with Syracuse and finally, Rome, which eventually resulted in the defeat and destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War. The Carthaginians were Phoenician settlers originating in the Mediterranean coast of the Near East. They spoke Canaanite, a Semitic language, and followed a local variety of the ancient Canaanite religion.

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The fall of Carthage came at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC at the Battle of Carthage. Despite initial devastating Roman naval losses and Rome’s recovery from the brink of defeat after the terror of a 15-year occupation of much of Italy by Hannibal, the end of the series of wars resulted in the end of Carthaginian power and the complete destruction of the city by Scipio Aemilianus. The Romans pulled the Phoenician warships out into the harbor and burned them before the city, and went from house to house, capturing and enslaving the people. About 50,000 Carthaginians were sold into slavery. The city was set ablaze and razed to the ground, leaving only ruins and rubble. After the fall of Carthage, Rome annexed the majority of the Carthaginian colonies, including other North African locations such as Volubilis, Lixus, Chellah, and Mogador.

Timbuktu

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Starting out as a seasonal settlement, Timbuktu became a permanent settlement early in the 12th century. After a shift in trading routes, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves. It became part of the Mali Empire early in the 14th century. In the first half of the 15th century, the Tuareg tribes took control of the city for a short period until the expanding Songhai Empire absorbed the city in 1468. A Moroccan army defeated the Songhai in 1591 and made Timbuktu, rather than Gao, their capital. The invaders established a new ruling class, the Arma, who after 1612 became virtually independent of Morocco. However, the golden age of the city, during which it was a major learning and cultural centre of the Mali Empire, was over, and it entered a long period of decline. Different tribes governed until the French took over in 1893, a situation that lasted until it became part of the current Republic of Mali in 1960. Presently, Timbuktu is impoverished and suffers from desertification.

Timbuktu was a regional trade centre in medieval times, where caravans met to exchange salt from the Sahara Desert for gold, ivory, and slaves from the Sahel, which could be reached via the nearby Niger River. The population swelled from 10,000 in the 13th century to about 50,000 in the 16th century after the establishment of a major Islamic university, which attracted scholars from throughout the Muslim world. In the 1600s, a combination of a purge by a monarch who accused the scholars of “disloyalty” and a decline in trade caused by increased competition from newly available trans-Atlantic sailing routes caused the city to decline. The first European to reach Timbuktu, Alexander Gordon Laing, did not arrive until 1826, and it was not until the 1890s that Timbuktu was formally incorporated into the French colony of Mali. Today, the city is still inhabited; however, the city is not as geopolitically relevant as it once was.

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Perhaps most famous among the accounts written about Timbuktu is that by Leo Africanus. Born El Hasan ben Muhammed el- Wazzan-ez-Zayyati in Granada in 1485, his family was among the thousands of Muslims expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella after their reconquest of Spain in 1492. They settled in Morocco, where he studied in Fes and accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North Africa. During these travels, he visited Timbuktu. As a young man he was captured by pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to Pope Leo X, who freed him, baptized him under the name “Johannis Leo de Medici”, and commissioned him to write, in Italian, a detailed survey of Africa. His accounts provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries. These descriptions and passages alike caught the attention of European explorers. Africanus, though, also described the more mundane aspects of the city, such as the “cottages built of chalk, and covered with thatch” – although these went largely unheeded.

Written by James Gathitu

I am a writer, performer, creative entrepreneur, and adventurer! My journey has been crazy and has led me at this very moment to you.

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