Africa is a continent of rich history: of ancient empires and kingdoms and a colourful people. It’s a country that birthed gold and riches and stories that stretched far and wide that were met with awe across oceans in faraway lands. While some of these ancient cities still exist today, many do so in far lesser grandeur while others are reserved for the history books. To quote Palash Gosh who spoke specifically in the context of Mali: “The decline of the West African empires coincided with the inexorable rise of European states that zealously sought to extend their presence and influence across the globe.” That said, the narrative of riches to rags, or mighty to fallen, is not the prevailing one. It is interesting to see what happened to some of Africa’s ancient cities and Empires following colonisation and to trace different narratives in modern-day Africa.
Harar – Ethiopia
The walls of the ancient Ethiopian city of Harar, which envelop 368 alleys into one square kilometre, were built between the 13th and 16th centuries but the city itself was founded more than a millennium ago. For many years during the 16th century Harar served as the capital of the Harari Kingdom before it became part of Ethiopia in 1887. Between the 16th and 19th centuries Harar functioned as an important trade centre between Africa, India, and the Middle East and as a major centre for Islamic learning and the spread of Islam into the Horn of Africa.
Although you will read that Ethiopia (alongside Liberia) is one of the only two countries that was never colonised, the history of the country tells of a period of limited Italian annexation starting in 1936 and lasting until 1941 when true independence was again regained. The effect of colonisation on Harar, therefore, was minimal.
Today the city of Harar is sometimes referred to as Africa’s Mecca and is well known amongst Muslims as the fourth-holiest city in Islam. It is often called the City of Saints in Arabic and other times it is known as the City of Peace. The city houses 82 mosques – some of them built in the 10th century – and 102 shrines. Leading up to the month of Ramadan locals can be seen repainting the walls of the ancient city in bright colours. In 2006 Harar was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been described by the organisation as “a rare example of a relatively well preserved historic town that has retained its traditions, urban fabric, and rich Harari Muslim cultural heritage to the present time.”
Benin City – Nigeria
The medieval “Great City of Benin”, first known as Edo and today located in southern Nigeria, dates back to the 11th century and was part of the oldest and most developed empires in West Africa – the Benin Empire. The scale with which the city was built has often been compared to the Great Wall of China (its walls, in fact, are rumoured to have been four times as long at one point). Art works traced back to the City of Benin are rumoured for their highly skilled craftsmanship. Upon discovery by the Portuguese, Captain Lourenco Pinto was quoted as saying, “Great Benin, where the King resides, is larger than Lisbon … The houses are large, especially that of the king which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no door to their houses.”
Today there are hardly any remnants of these walls that took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct. What started with internal conflicts over increasing European intrusion and slavery trade on the Empire’s borders and dubious negotiations ended in total destruction. Benin City was burnt to the ground in all its glory and splendour by the British Forces in 1897. The palace was destroyed and looted of all its magnificent bronze and ivory artifacts.
Today Benin City as it stood in the Benin Empire is almost forgotten. While a modern-day city has been built on its foundations, the Empire has been lost. Over 1,000 bronze artifacts have been scattered all over the world. Many are housed in public and private collections. Some of the bronze artifacts can be viewed in the British Museum, while many others were sold back to Nigeria. The morality behind what has become of these artifacts is still being widely debated.
Timbuktu – Mali
Timbuktu was founded in the 5th century and was known as an economic and cultural hub and important marketplace where manuscripts, salt, gold, cattle, and grain were traded. It was a spiritual and intellectual capital, a centre of trade and learning, and played an important role in the spreading of Islam throughout Africa. It was also home to one of the world’s first universities that thrived and drew students from different parts of the world. Stories of the famed city of Timbuktu were known as far away as Arabia and the Mediterranean and today Timbuktu is still used as a metaphor to describe a faraway and mythical place and the uttermost end of the world. When one considers the city of Timbuktu today it is difficult to imagine that it was once five times bigger than the city of London and considered the richest city in the world as part of the Mali Empire. Under Emperor Mansa Musa, the Mali Empire thrived in the area which today covers Mali, Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. When Mansa Musa died, he was worth the then equivalent of 400 billion dollars and the Mali Empire produced more than half of the world’s supply of salt and gold.
The French invaded and took control of Mali in 1892. In 1894 it took the city of Timbuktu, putting an end to resistance against colonialism in the region. The French embarked on a “civilizing mission” and in doing so put the native population to work and harnessed the resources the country had to offer. Goods were produced and moved to the coast but the interior was often disregarded. Looking to boost the cotton industry for exports, the French implemented an irrigation system that ended up flooding areas and displacing villages. Mali gained independence in 1960 from the French empire that had, at its height, taken up 4,9 square miles.
Timbuktu’s great mosques – Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia – stand as testimony to the golden age of Timbuktu. Although they have undergone restoration over the years, they are threatened with desertification – a problem that has been plaguing the country for half a century. Timbuktu is listed as a cultural site on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. After a military coup in March 2012 the North of the country was taken over. Sharia law was enforced and armed rebels destroyed fourteen of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts and mausoleums that have been places of pilgrimage throughout the region. France intervened in 2013 and the UN sent in soldiers and police. Peace, however, remains a deal yet to be brokered and the picture of what Timbuktu was becomes more and more mythical as the metaphor it stands for.
Kumasi – Ghana
Kumasi was the capital of the Asante Kingdom between the 10th and 20th centuries. The Ashanti kingdom dominated much of what is today known as Ghana between the 17th and 20th centuries and was one of the most powerful kingdoms.
The city of Kumasi, like Benin City, was destroyed by the British and completely burned to the ground in 1873 during the War of the Golden Stool, the Yasantewaa War, or the Ashanti Uprising which was essentially the final conflict in a series of conflicts between the Ashante Kingdom and the British Imperial Government. The British were after the Golden Stool – the king’s throne and a symbol of the Ashanti kingdom’s sovereignty. The war ended and the Ashanti were annexed into the British Empire, although still maintaining de facto independence. In 1957 the Ashanti Kingdom was subsumed into the newly-created Ghana when the British colony of the Gold Coast became the first independent sub-Saharan African country.
Today the modern-day city of Kumasi can be found in Ghana – the 43rd most peaceful nation in the world – having risen from the ashes of the 19th century city. It is still the capital of the Ashanti culture where the palace of the Ashanti king is housed. Also known as the “Garden City”, Kumasi is still rich in tradition but thrives as a modern-day city.