Iron Age Architecture in Africa
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Iron Age Architecture

low stone walls in several rooms
Palace at Meroe, ca. 900 BC
(thanks to Royal Ontario Museum)

During the Iron Age, more parts of Africa started to trade with other parts of the world, and got rich enough to build in stone. In Meroe (modern Sudan), the kings and queens built themselves a big palace by around 900 BC. By 700 BC, people were building solid pyramids in Meroe, but they were smaller and much later than the ones in Egypt.

ruined pyramids
Pyramids at Meroe (modern Sudan) ca. 700 BC
square stone tower in ruins
Tower at Yeha (Ethiopia), ca. 700 BC

Further south in Ethiopia, people were also beginning to build in stone, with a temple-tower dating the same time as the Meroe pyramids. The Ethiopians built their tower in the same style as the Arabs they were trading with.

greek doric temple
Temple of Zeus at Cyrene (modern Libya), ca. 475 BC

Wealth began to spread along the North African coast, too, as the people there started to trade with the Greeks and the Phoenicians. By the 800s BC, the Garamantes in Libya were building hill forts and living in mud-brick houses with stone foundations and floors paved with crushed potsherds. The city of Cyrene got started about 630 BC, and soon had stone houses, paved streets, and Greek-style temples.

Carthage houses
Carthaginian houses ca. 150 BC (modern Tunisia)
front of very fragmentary monument
Reconstruction of Numidian
monument to Massinissa (?)
(modern Algeria, 130 BC)

Still further west, Phoenician colonists from West Asia founded the city of Carthage around 800 BC. They, too, began to build stone temples and houses with water drains and pebble floors. Soon Carthage was a big city with paved streets and a system of stone walls and docks at their seaport. West of Carthage, in what is now Algeria, the Numidians also began to build in stone about 300 BC, with a strong stone wall around Cirta and probably large public buildings. There was a Carthaginian city at Volubilis in Morocco by the 200s BC, with a temple to Baal and a mudbrick city wall.

On the other side of the Sahara Desert, in West Africa, the Soninke people were also beginning to build forts out of stone at Tichit by 500 BC. The Nok people, further south, weren't building in stone yet (even though they were smelting iron), but around 500 BC they began to move from stick houses to mud-brick houses. By 250 BC, Djenne-djenno (in modern Mali) had a 13 foot high mud-brick wall all the way around it, and almost 30,000 people living inside the walls.

Learn by doing: build a sand castle with a wall around it
More on African Architecture in antiquity

Bibliography and further reading about the architecture of ancient Carthage:

More African Architecture in antiquity
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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