The architecture of African tribes is very different. The houses made of clay and brushwood, typical of the Lake Chad area, are some interesting examples. Their origin is still not clear: was their architecture brought from the ancient Mediterranean, or vice versa? Could it be that in the 1st millennium BC they influenced Greek architecture, the best example of which is the tomb at Mycenae? In Dahomey, the earthen palaces, magnificently constructed, are surrounded by columns supporting the roof; they resemble ancient Egyptian houses. Finally, nowhere in the world there is anything similar to the Great Temple of Zimbabwe, which not quite aptly nicknamed “elliptical temple”: the length of the outer wall, surrounding all structures is 300 m, height – up to 9 m, thickness at the base – 6 m, it narrows to 3 m at the top. On the construction of the “ellipse” took almost 900,000 stone blocks, which corresponds to 22.5 million bricks, the entire “temple” weighs at least 100 thousand tons. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe are of purely African origin and belong to the Middle Ages, contrary to the opinion of the racists from science.
Architecture of Tropical Africa
The architecture of Tropical Africa created by its peoples in the Middle Ages (approximately VII-mid XVII century.) Retained its main features in the new period (mid-sixteenth – early twentieth century.) And partly even in the modern period. This architecture is a significant diversity of forms and types, defined as ethnic and stadial-cultural heterogeneity of the population of Africa. African people have developed in the framework of the slave or feudal state, the other part of them is only just moving to the class system, but along with those and others were a lot of nationalities and tribes who were still at the stage of primitive communal system. However, the architecture of Tropical Africa must be considered as a whole, because the deep connection of the architecture of African class societies with traditional folk architecture and cultural borrowings as a result of communication and exchange between the peoples of Africa give African architecture of the Middle Ages many common features. Despite the diversity of architectural forms, most of them find their rightful place in the entire sequence of development of African architecture.
According to archaeological, ethnographic and written sources, two main types of dwellings already existed in Africa in the second half of the 1st millennium A.D. – a ground frame hut with walls of wood and sticks covered with clay or braided with grass, and with a roof of leaves, grass or animal skins and a ground or semi-surface hut.
The area of distribution of frame huts was very wide, but for some areas of East Africa and all of South Africa in the 6th-10th centuries A.D. the predominance of earthen and semi-earthen dwellings was characteristic.
Earth and semi-earth dwellings in Africa may have preceded the frame dwellings. Despite the apparent simplicity of the latter, their construction required greater technical skill and more sophisticated tools for working the wooden frame, cutting grass and branches for roofing, etc. The deep antiquity of earthen and semi-subterranean dwellings is confirmed by the fact that they accompany the oldest archaeological cultures of Europe and Asia. Three different types of earthen dwellings are known in Tropical Africa.
The simplest and oldest of these were pit dwellings dug into the hillsides. The front wall of the dwelling with the door was formed by the ejection from the pit; the sloping side walls were also filled in at the expense of the ejection. A stone hearth was built near the door. The principle of construction of the next type of huts was the same, but the side walls were very roughly lined with stone, although there were attempts to streamline the masonry. A development of the previous two types was the third type, which preserved the technique of cutting into the hillside and lining the walls with stone. But it was a two-chamber dwelling, with the second room being higher than the first.
Mound-ruin of Great Zimbabwe
The Mound-ruin of Great Zimbabwe is an original variant of the palace complex formation in the epoch of the origin of the states. The self-sufficient palace economy of the Oba-King who had not yet broken away from agriculture with innumerable storerooms and granaries – an oikos-type economy which determined the shape of such a huge structure as the palace of the Cretan kings – also determines the character of the Mound-ruin complex of Great Zimbabwe. The labyrinth of courtyards at the foot of the living quarters and granaries reproduces in an original and purely African form the architectural ideas which were typical for Minoan culture of Crete and the Ancient East.
Nearly a hundred meters across, the oval “temple” building is still a mystery to art historians and archaeologists. The massive walls, 2 to 4 meters thick and up to 9 meters high, suggest its fortification nature. However a number of details, especially two deaf conical towers inside the fence, birds figures of soapstone on high pedestals, stone monoliths up to 4 m long standing on the walls, and, finally, the whole plan of the building allow to think about the ritual purpose of it. T. Bent suggested a connection between the building and an astral cult. С. Dorian and J. Schofield, based on ethnographic material, associated the “elliptical structure” with traditional Bantu cults, seeing in the images of birds totemic figures. The ritual character of the building was also indirectly confirmed by its unsuitability, despite the colossal walls, for defense. In addition, a reliable fortress is the nearby “acropolis”. It is difficult to suggest a residential complex in this structure: the archaeological finds and the layout contradict it.
The architecture of Western Sudan
The development and prosperity of the architecture and culture of the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers roughly coincide with the development and prosperity of the architecture of Western Sudan.
Here were built both quadrangular houses with gable roofs similar to the dwellings of the Congo basin and houses with four pitched roofs and impluviums and cylindrical houses with conical roofs typical for the whole zone of the East and North African savannas. It should be noted that the Fulbes erected their houses on a high clay platform in order to protect themselves from rain flows. The Sokoto huts at Niger, raised above the ground by almost 3 meters, are characteristic; they resemble a conical roof removed from the walls and mounted on four pillars. In the northern regions of the Republic of Chad, the Kanuri Kanembu built skittle-shaped houses in which the cylindrical walls gradually transformed into a pointed conical roof. This was achieved by laying strips of dry grass on a wooden frame. The huts were up to 4.5 m high. Sometimes the pointed conical roof was supported by a circular gallery of posts dug around the cylindrical wall. In Achia (present-day Republic of Chad), temples of a similar type were built; they were topped by several cones of grass, suspended one above the other. Further to the north, at the very edge of the desert, domed huts, typical of cattlemen, were widespread.
Of particular interest are the so-called “Sudanese castles” that prevailed in two localized areas of western Sudan. They are groups of circular earthen towers 4 to 6 meters in height connected by earthen walls. The number of towers varies from two to twelve, with an entrance in one of the walls covered by flanking towers. For the simplest and, apparently, the earliest types of “castle”, this entrance is essentially a manhole; in larger structures the entrance is designed as a portal with a decorative treatment appropriate to its significance, but the height of the arch is still much less than human height. The towers were topped by conical thatched roofs of an ordinary type. Sometimes the towers themselves were narrowed upwards.
It is difficult to trace the evolution of this type, but we may assume that they were not defensive in the beginning. It seems possible to connect their origin with the tower-shaped dwellings, which are still widespread among the Mofu people. Mofu dwellings had a cylindrical part of the house divided into two stories – the upper was used as dwelling space and the lower was used for livestock.
The developed form of “castles” combines the utilitarian purpose of buildings with a distinct artistic image. First of all, a decorative treatment of the portal is characteristic. In the Volta basin, the portal was decorated with several bands of geometric ornamentation. Some of the Grusi castles were equipped with a pied-à-terre, reminiscent of the labyrinthine fortresses of the European Middle Ages. A characteristic penthouse has three entrances, of which one is false. The frieze above the entrance is machined by thread-like depressions. Particularly interesting are the mud piers rising above the portal, which in our opinion, are an important element in the urban architecture of Western Sudan. Among decorative elements we should also note the towers segmentation by horizontal grooves, which give the wall a monumental character. The traditional architecture of Western Sudan, vividly embodied in Grusi castles, was further developed in the urban architecture of Western Sudan. Their architecture is known from the excavations of a number of cities, which in the early 2nd millennium A.D. were part of the ancient states of Ghana and Mali. Everywhere was found the same type of rectangular earthen houses with 0.5-1 m thick walls, tiled with slate slabs on the outside. The characteristic architectural detail of the interior of these houses is niches in the walls of rooms and corridors. The walls of the niches are decorated with geometric ornaments merging into a single decorative belt. Sometimes a regular alternation of rectangular and triangular niches was used. The facades of houses facing the street were enlivened with window apertures and doors. The latter was covered with pilasters or buttresses dividing the facade. Most of the houses had one storey.
Decorative niches are characteristic of the architecture of the cities of Western Sudan and the traditional architecture of the Volta Basin, and they are also often found in the architecture of the Maghreb in the pre-Arab conquest. It can be assumed that the basic forms of the dwelling in Western Sudan were formed even before Islamization. This is confirmed by the architecture of public buildings in the West Sudanese cities. The mosques in Kumbi Sale and Gao have a layout which has no analogy anywhere else in the Muslim world. The described type of houses evidently coexisted with the traditional frame dwellings of the aborigines of Western Sudan. In any case, Arab authors mention them quite often.
Both public and private buildings of West Sudan and Maghreb in the later period were usually built in the so-called banco construction technique. It was characterized by the widespread use of mud brick walls with slates or walls made of stones on clay mortar. The use of round columns made of slate blocks is also typical. Banco dwellings are rectangular, and sometimes have several stories. The two-layer roof is made of logs or bamboo. The facades of the houses are dissected by semicircular or rectangular portals, and the upper floors are indented terraces.
The Hausa States
Town houses in the Hausa States are deeply peculiar – earthen quadrangular buildings on a high podklet with flat roofs. A characteristic partitioning of the facade into two sometimes unequal parts, which were linked by a buried portal with powerful mud-brick pilasters. The façade silhouette was rounded by smoothly rounded merlons, which are certainly a further development of the above-mentioned clay projections in traditional architecture of Western Sudan. The facade of the town house was decorated with a carved geometric ornament that gives special unity and completeness to the appearance of the house. Houses of this type were built in the Middle Niger region until recently. Excellent examples of this kind of architecture are preserved in the city of Kano.
The penetration of Arab culture in Western Sudan in the XI-XIV centuries led to the emergence of a unique style of religious buildings, which combines traditional techniques of Arabic temple architecture with local building techniques and decor.
The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu is characteristic. It is very close to the layout of the classical medieval mosques of North Africa. It has a large hypostyle hall with three rows of columns and a mihrab in the eastern wall, adjoining the vast courtyard on the east side. The structural and artistic design of the interior does not differ much from North African mosques. However, while in most Arab countries the mihrab is typically designed in the form of a niche, in Sankor it is done in the form of a semi-conical tower playing an important role in the building’s silhouette. This type of mihrab design was evidently determined by the construction technique of Western Sudan. The thin earthen wall made it impossible to make a conventional mihrab.
The main compositional element of the Sudanese mosques are blind earthen towers, more or less smoothly tapering upwards as quadrangles. Depending on the size and place in the composition of the building, the tower is topped either by a rectangular or semi-cylindrical earthen structure. There are usually pointed earthen battlements at the corners of the upper platforms. Sometimes towers have superstructures in the form of cylindrical-conical pointed towers, repeating stone tops of West Asian minarets and at the same time genetically related to earthen projections and dentils of traditional Sudanese architecture. Particularly characteristic of Western Sudan is the treatment of tower walls with rows of wooden brackets. Though they appeared as a purely constructive detail, they originally enlivened the look of the building. Remarkable is the earthen tower of the minaret of the Sankore mosque in Timbuktu. In the massive forms of this tiered structure, it is easy to see the continuation of the traditions of the temple architecture of Western Asia, traditions, through the minarets of Samarra, going back, perhaps, to the Babylonian ziggurats. But here these traditions are reinterpreted and completely subordinated to local construction techniques and architectural canons.
Rectangular deepened portal is characteristic of civil and temple architecture in Western Sudan, and together with false portal is the main means of architectural division and decorative treatment of facades. Thus, the southern facade of the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu is divided into three real and three false portals. Their asymmetrical arrangement is subordinated to the overall composition of the building, the center of which is a mighty array of minaret slightly shifted to the east of the middle facade.
The longer western section of the wall is balanced by four carved portals and a mihrab tower in the background. The character of the segmentation is varied, the wall segments look like powerful pylons, then they get thinner and take the form of light buttresses. The walls of the mosque are surmounted by two rows of battlements which emphasize the facade’s lively look.
The economic development and the growth of the political importance of the states of Sudan in the late Middle Ages led to the emergence of huge cities with a population of up to a hundred and more thousand people, corresponding to the high level of development of fortifications. The cities of Kano, Zaria and Katsina were encircled by powerful fortress walls. Walls of Kano with height of 7-8 m reached length of 27 km, walls of Zaria -16 km. Though raw walls of the Sudanese cities cannot compete with the stone constructions of the big antique and medieval European cities, they were very monumental constructions. The main gate of Kano was a tower about 20 meters high.
In the late Middle Ages on the territory of modern Nigeria was formed a large state Benin, created by the Bini people of Edo language group. Already in the late 15th century, when Europeans were first introduced to the country, one of the most outstanding and distinctive African civilizations with a high urban culture was developing there. Cities emerged at the crossroads of the main trade routes and were commercial and cultural centers. Of particular interest is the capital of the country, Great Benin (local name Edo), undoubtedly one of the most remarkable cities of that era. The notes of travelers and archaeological excavations allow us to reconstruct the appearance of large architectural ensembles that decorated the capital of Benin. But before we talk about them, let us dwell on the civil architecture of the related Bini people of the Yoruba, acquaintance with which allows us to understand the essence of Benin architecture.
The state of Benin was located in the humid tropical forest zone, Yoruba in the wooded savannah zone. The dominant type of dwelling was rectangular houses with two- and four-slope roofs. The walls of the houses are squat and are supported by high and massive roofs covered with leaves and straw. The Yoruba houses are characterized by verandas on massive wooden pillars and impluviums – water pools in open courtyards. Multifamily houses of Yoruba were quite significant structures. A typical Yoruba homestead (according to the plan reproduced by Frobenius) is a closed earthen structure, rectangular in plan, with overall dimensions of 23 X 40 m. It is connected with the street through a single door. Most of the area is occupied by a large front yard, where the doors of nineteen rooms stretching along its perimeter face. Awnings of porches resting on posts extend along all four sides of the courtyard. The rooms along the front yard on the left side of the entrance house all the adult children and their families. On the right side live the slaves belonging to the family. The head of the family and his wives and young children occupy the main quarters of the house, opening into small back courtyards with verandas on the perimeter and impluviums in the middle. The impluviums are connected by a drainage ditch and have a common drain outside the structure.
The entire structure looks quite monumental, giving the impression of massive and solidity. Especially heavy four-slope roofs overhanging over the verandahs of courtyards seem to be based on thick pillars-columns. However, the columns have not only constructive value. Carved belts in the middle like “melon”, they even more strengthen the impression of monumentality, harmoniously combining with the volume of the building. The contours of the courtyard are emphasized by the sides made of mud bricks.
Of particular interest is the domestic sanctuary, arranged in the middle of a large front yard and enclosed with a veranda. Round in plan it is made in the forms of traditional architecture and serves as an important compositional center of the entire structure. In general the farmstead is historically developed type of multifamily dwelling imbued with constructive logic, the features of which we find in the imposing structures of Benin palace ensemble. The main information about the famous architectural monuments of the Great Benin was obtained in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from Dutch merchants who visited the Guinea coast. They were men from the great and flourishing at that time trade cities of Holland, citizens accustomed to the crowds and the scope of economic life in Europe, people who have seen the light. But even to them the capital of Benin made an irresistible impression.
The Great Benin
The Dutchman, who visited the Great Benin in 1602, speaks with sincere admiration of its wide, straight and very long streets, “the end of which is not to be seen because of their great length. He notes that, as in Holland, the streets are lined with properly arranged large houses, and the royal palace “is very large and has many large courtyards inside. Already in the first report a close resemblance between the constructions of the 16th-17th centuries and the above described constructions of civil architecture of the 19th century can be easily found. Frobenius. An account of the palace of the Benin lord is contained in the Dutch doctor Olfert Dapper’s book “Description of Africa”, compiled by him according to the data of travelers and first published in 1669.
The engraving, which depicts the Great Benin with the royal palace in the background, the authenticity of the image is confirmed not only by the description given in the text, but also by numerous finds of Benin bronze articles, some serving as architectural details. Of particular value are a bronze plate with a relief image of the palace portal and a bronze casket representing a model of the palace; the latter coincides completely with the engraving and the description in Dapper’s book, made from the words of the Dutch merchant Samuel Blomert.
Here is what Blomert says of the palace: “It is perhaps as large as the city of Harlem, and is enclosed around by a special wall (except that which protects the city on one side). The palace consists of many splendid houses and fine, long quadrangular galleries almost as large as the Stock Exchange in Amsterdam… The roof of these galleries rests on wooden pillars, padded from top to bottom with copper depicting military exploits and battles … Most of these royal houses are covered with palm leaves like quadrangular boards. Each roof is ornamented with a peaked turret, on which stands a cast copper bird with outspread wings, very skilfully reproduced. The engraving in Dapper’s book shows three rectangular houses with gable and hip roofs, and on the crests of each is a low, pyramidal tower on a low tetrotter surmounted by birds. The tower houses are adjoined by low, long buildings with gable roofs, apparently surrounding the central, tallest building. The engraving does not show the entire palace ensemble, but we can assume that it consisted of several rows of rectangular houses, and the entire area was elongated in the direction of the long axes of the building. The low wall around the palace is shown constructed of planks attached to massive pillars.
Blommert’s account and the engraving are corroborated by van Nijendaal, who visited Benin in 1701. According to him, the first gallery of the palace ensemble was supported by fifty-eight wooden posts between 11 and 12 feet high. Behind the gallery was a clay wall with three entrances, above the middle of which was a wooden tower 60 to 70 feet high, the top of which descended with the head of a snake cast in bronze. The wall encircled a large rectangular courtyard, at the end of which was a second gallery with two entrances to the next, second courtyard, which in turn ended in a third gallery. While the first two galleries were upholstered with plates with reliefs, along the third gallery stood a number of statues depicting merchants, warriors and hunters. Behind a white curtain stood on an altar eleven bronze heads of the dead kings of Benin with carved elephant’s fangs stuck in the holes in their tops. Then stretched a third courtyard and a final, fourth gallery, beyond which was finally the living quarters of the deified lord of Benin.