WHY there are seldom historical buildings and monuments in sub-Saharian Africa!
The reason is simple. Europeans have destroyed most of them. We have only left drawings and descriptions by travelers who have visited the places before the destructions. In some places, ruins are still visible. Many cities have been abandoned into ruin when Europeans brought exotic diseases (smallpox and influenza) which started spreading and killing people. The ruins of those cities are still hidden. In fact the biggest part of Africa history is still under the ground.
In this post, I’ll share pieces of informations about Africa before the arrival of Europeans, the destroyed cities and lessons we could learn as africans for the future.
The collection of facts regarding the state of african cities before their destruction is done by Robin Walker, a distinguished panafricanist and historian who has written the book ‘When We Ruled’, and by PD Lawton, another great panafricanist, who has an upcoming book titled “African Agenda”.
All quotes and excerpts below are from the books of Robin Walker and PD Lawton. I highly recommend you to buy Walker’s book ‘When We Ruled’ to get a full account of the beauty of the continent before its destruction. You can get more info about PD Lawton work by visiting her blog: AfricanAgenda.net
Robin Walter and PD Lawton have quoted quite heavily another great panafricanist Walter Rodney who wrote the book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa‘. Additional information came from YouTube channel ‘dogons2k12 : African Historical Ruins’, and Ta Neter Foundation work.
Many drawings are from the book African Cities and Towns Before the European Conquest by Richard W. Hull, published in 1976. That book alone dispels the stereotypical view of Africans living in simple, primitive, look-alike agglomerations, scattered without any appreciation for planning and design.
In fact, at the end of the 13th century, when a european traveler encountered the great Benin City in West Africa (present Nigeria, Edo State), he wrote as follows:
“The town seems to be very great. When you enter into it, you go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes street in Amsterdam…The Kings palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince`s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam. They are supported by wooden pillars encased with copper, where their victories are depicted, and which are carefully kept very clean. The town is composed of thirty main streets, very straight and 120 feet wide, apart from an infinity of small intersecting streets. The houses are close to one another, arranged in good order. These people are in no way inferior to the Dutch as regards cleanliness; they wash and scrub their houses so well that they are polished and shining like a looking glass.”[i]
Sadly, in 1897, Benin City was destroyed by British forces under Admiral Harry Rawson. The city was looted, blown up and burnt to the ground. A collection of the famous Benin Bronzes are now in the British Museum in London. Part of the 700 stolen bronzes by the British troops were sold back to Nigeria in 1972.
Here is another account of the great Benin City regarding the city walls “They extend for some 16 000 kilometres in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They cover 6500 square kilometres and were all dug by the Edo people. In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.” Source: Wikipedia, Architecture of Africa.”[ii]
Did you know that in the 14th century the city of Timbuktu in West Africa was five times bigger than the city of London, and was the richest city in the world?
Today, Timbuktu is 236 times smaller than London. It has nothing of a modern city. Its population is two times less than 5 centuries ago, impoverished with beggars and dirty street sellers. The town itself is incapable of conserving its past ruined monuments and archives.
Back to the 14 century, the 3 richest places on earth was China, Iran/Irak, and the Mali empire in West Africa. From all 3 the only one which was still independent and prosperous was the Mali Empire. China and the whole Middle East were conquered by Genghis Kan Mongol troops which ravaged, pillaged, and raped the places.
The richest man ever in the history of Humanity, Mansa Musa, was the emperor of the 14th century Mali Empire which covered modern day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea.
At the time of his death in 1331, Mansa Musa was worth the equivalent of 400 billion dollars. At that time Mali Empire was producing more than half the world’s supply of salt and gold.
Here below are some depictions of emperor Mansa Musa, the richest man in human history.
When Mansa Musa went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, he carried so much gold, and spent them so lavishly that the price of gold fell for ten years. 60 000 people accompanied him.
He founded the library of Timbuktu, and the famous manuscripts of Timbuktu which cover all areas of world knowledge were written during his reign.
Witnesses of the greatness of the Mali empire came from all part of the world. “Sergio Domian, an Italian art and architecture scholar, wrote the following about this period: ‘Thus was laid the foundation of an urban civilisation. At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated.’
The Malian city of Timbuktu had a 14th century population of 115,000 – 5 times larger than mediaeval London.
National Geographic recently described Timbuktu as the Paris of the mediaeval world, on account of its intellectual culture. According to Professor Henry Louis Gates, 25,000 university students studied there.
“Many old West African families have private library collections that go back hundreds of years. The Mauritanian cities of Chinguetti and Oudane have a total of 3,450 hand written mediaeval books. There may be another 6,000 books still surviving in the other city of Walata. Some date back to the 8th century AD. There are 11,000 books in private collections in Niger.
Finally, in Timbuktu, Mali, there are about 700,000 surviving books. They are written in Mande, Suqi, Fulani, Timbuctu, and Sudani. The contents of the manuscripts include math, medicine, poetry, law and astronomy. This work was the first encyclopedia in the 14th century before the Europeans got the idea later in the 18th century, 4 centuries later.
A collection of one thousand six hundred books was considered a small library for a West African scholar of the 16th century. Professor Ahmed Baba of Timbuktu is recorded as saying that he had the smallest library of any of his friends – he had only 1600 volumes.
Concerning these old manuscripts, Michael Palin, in his TV series Sahara, said the imam of Timbuktu “has a collection of scientific texts that clearly show the planets circling the sun. They date back hundreds of years . . . Its convincing evidence that the scholars of Timbuktu knew a lot more than their counterparts in Europe. In the fifteenth century in Timbuktu the mathematicians knew about the rotation of the planets, knew about the details of the eclipse, they knew things which we had to wait for 150 almost 200 years to know in Europe when Galileo and Copernicus came up with these same calculations and were given a very hard time for it.
The old Malian capital of Niani had a 14th century building called the Hall of Audience. It was an surmounted by a dome, adorned with arabesques of striking colours. The windows of an upper floor were plated with wood and framed in silver; those of a lower floor were plated with wood, framed in gold.
Malian sailors got to America in 1311 AD, 181 years before Columbus. An Egyptian scholar, Ibn Fadl Al-Umari, published on this sometime around 1342. In the tenth chapter of his book, there is an account of two large maritime voyages ordered by the predecessor of Mansa Musa, a king who inherited the Malian throne in 1312. This mariner king is not named by Al-Umari, but modern writers identify him as Mansa Abubakari II.”[iii]
Those event were happening at the same period when Europe as a continent was plunged into the Dark Age, ravaged by plague and famine, its people killing one another for religious and ethnic reasons.
Here below are some depiction of the city of Timbuktu in the 19th century.
[ii] Wikipédia, Architecture of Africa.” Fred Pearce the New Scientist 11/09/99.