African Architecture in the Middle Ages
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Medieval African Architecture

stone building with thin towers
Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo (Egypt, 900s AD)

December 2016 - The Middle Ages saw a tremendous explosion of architecture all over Africa. In Egypt, the Fatimids built mosques and forts, and the new city of Fustat (Cairo).

a church cut into bedrock, so it's under ground level
Rock-cut church at Lallibella (Ethiopia, ca. 1300 AD)

Increased trade with India made the people of East Africa rich enough to build stone palaces, houses, city walls, mosques, and churches. Like their trade partners in India, Ethiopian and Sudanese Christians often cut their churches out of the living rock instead of quarrying stone.

Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe (ca. 1200 AD)

Further south, in Zimbabwe, trade in ivory and gold made people rich enough to build in mudbrick. By around 1200 AD, as trading increased, they were rich enough to build in stone at Mapungubwe and Thulamela (in modern South Africa) and Great Zimbabwe.

Kairouan mosque
Mosque at Kairouan, 800 AD
A tower from Timbuktu

All across North Africa, people rich from trade with West Asia and the Italian city-states of Europe built many fine stone forts, castles, and city walls. The new Islamic rulers abandoned many old Roman towns, building new cities next door: the people of Alexandria moved to Fustat (now Cairo); the people of Carthage moved to Tunis. The new city of Kairouan, the fourth holiest city of Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, grew out of the desert. New towns needed new buildings, especially mosques and minarets.

floor made of broken pottery
Yoruba pottery pavement
(modern Nigeria, 1000 AD)

By this time, enough trade caravans were crossing the Sahara that West African people could afford to build bigger towns too. In ancient Ghana (now southern Mauretania), rich traders lived in stone houses, and attended stone mosques. The new cities of Oualata and then Timbuktu (in modern Mali) were still mostly built out of mudbrick, but on an impressive scale. At nearby Djenne, there was a much bigger mudbrick mosque. Even further south in Ife (now southern Nigeria), by 1000 AD the Yoruba people were living in mudbrick houses; they paved their courtyards with broken pottery. A hundred years later, about 1100 AD, there was a wall around the city of Kano, in northern Nigeria, too.

fancy mudbrick building
Mosque at Djenne-Djeno (ca. 1200s AD)

The green shows where people were building by 1400 AD

The late Middle Ages kicked architecture up another notch in West Africa and Central Africa: by that time, Mansa Musa in Mali had brought home a Spanish architect to build baked brick buildings. And by the end of the 1300s, traders from West Africa were regularly buying ivory, iron pots, and raffia cloth from people along the Congo river (in modern Congo), and large-scale mudbrick architecture spread as far south as the capital of Congo, Mbanza Koongo.

Learn by doing: build a mosque in Lego or in Minecraft
More about Fatimid architecture
More about medieval African history

Bibliography and further reading about African architecture:

More about Fatimid architecture home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 30 April, 2017