The great pyramids at Giza, EgyptElephants crossing the Zambezi river in Mana Pools National Park world heritage site, ZimbabweThe great mosque in the Old Towns of Djenne world heritage site, MaliBlack and white ruffed lemur, Rainforests of the Atsinanana world heritage site, Madagascar

Ancient Sub-saharan civilisations

The places in this category are all monuments of a bye-gone era that bear testimony to particular stages in the development of some of Africa’s greatest civilisations.  Compared with other continents, Africa has a paucity of such monuments, since the rise and fall of great empires has usually passed without the sort of monumental building seen elsewhere.  And, even where major cultural centres were established, the temporary nature of the building materials and techniques used in construction has meant that little of the built environment has survived. Nevertheless, each of the relatively modest structures considered here opens a window on a rich history, providing evidence of the rise and fall of African civilisations over a period of at least 1,000 years.  

Four of the monuments are found in West Africa and bear testimony to some of the great empires of the region, and the wealth they created through trade.  All that remains at the Ruins of Loropeni in Burkina Faso are some 6m-high laterite stone walls that once surrounded a major settlement.  The settlement dates back at least 1,000 years, and provides evidence of an empire based on mining, transformation and trade in gold.  This reached its zenith between the 14th and 17th century, at around the same time as the adjacent Songhai empire controlled the trans-Saharan trade in gold and salt.  One of the Songhai Empire’s greatest emperors was entombed (at the Tomb of Askia) in the empire’s capital at Gao in 1495.  Further south and a little later, the Kingdom of Abomey was ruled by a succession of 12 kings between 1625 and 1900, who built up a powerful empire by trading prisoners of war as slaves, to be shipped to the New World by European merchants.  The remnants of their palaces (The Royal Palaces of Abomey) and the surrounding mud-brick compound wall are all that remains of this great empire of the Fon people of Dahomey.  To the west of Abomey, the neighbouring Ashante Kingdom rose to prominence at around the same time, and a handful of their traditional fetish houses and residences survived the British 19th century onslaught and have been carefully restored using traditional materials.   

As in West Africa, gold was at the core of major civilisations in southern Africa as well.  Here a series of important centres were established, one after another, trading gold and other products through Arab-controlled coastal ports at Kilwa and elsewhere.  The first of these major centres was Mapungubwe (considered in the cultural landscapes category), which flourished between 900 and 1300 AD,   before it was eclipsed by the rise to prominence of Great Zimbabwe.  This impressive city state, which is thought to have accommodated a population of some 10,000 people, remained the cultural and economic hub of the gold-rich plateau until the 15th century, and probably went into decline as a result of resource depletion due to overpopulation.  Its demise allowed Khami, situated 250 km to the west, to develop and flourish between 1450 and 1650, apparently taking control of regional trade.  

As if to prove the point about the fragility and transience of most African built structures, the Tombs of the Buganda Kings at Kasubi, in present-day Uganda, burnt down in 2009, just eight years after the site was inscribed on the world heritage list.  The extraordinary dome-shaped building had been constructed as a Palace – out of wood, thatch, reed, wattle and daub - in 1882, then converted to house the Royal tombs in 1884.  Four generations of Baganda kings were entombed here, part of a lineage that can be traced back to the 13th century, and another example of one of Africa’s great civilisations.

To read more about each of the world heritage sites featuring ancient sub-Saharan civilisations, and see a slideshow of each place, follow these links:

Bas-relief wall decoration at the Royal Palaces of Abomey (Benin), one of the seven monuments of ancient civilisations in Sub-Saharan Africa designated as a UNESCO world heritage siteThe Asante Traditional Buildings (Ghana) is one of the UNESCO world heritage sites featuring monuments of the ancient civilisations in Sub-Saharan AfricaThe ruins of Great Zimbabwe is one of the seven monuments of ancient civilisations in Sub-Saharan Africa designated as a UNESCO world heritage siteThis magnificent thatched building housing the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi (Uganda) is one of the seven monuments of ancient civilisations in Sub-Saharan Africa designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, now burned to the ground and undergoing reconstruction



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