Buildings and Architecture in Africa
The oldest part of Algiers is the Casbah, which has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's an ancient quarter built on a hillside, which originally was a citadel with quarters clustered around. The Casbah had many mosques and Ottoman palaces, but many were destroyed during the French occupation, as the Casbah was used as a hideout for the insurgence. Today, big parts of the Casbah are in disrepair and risk of collapse, but it's still wonderful to get lost in the maze of steep and narrow lanes.
Inhabited by more than 450 people, the traditional royal court of Tiébélé isn't just a palace. It's a whole little village build as a labyrinthine compound of small mud houses, some with impossible small doors to fend off the slave raiders in the past. These little houses are decorated in various natural colours and patterns – all having a particular meaning. The compound is home to the most prominent chief in the Gourounsi region and his extended family. Rather than meeting the chief, it's more likely that you will be shown around by one of the community's guides. Watch out for fake guides at the village's entrance, who will try to lure you to a fake compound.
One of the best places in Côte d’Ivoire to see the West-Sudanese style mud-and-stick mosques, that generally Mali and Burkina Faso are famous for, is in the small town of Kong. Heading this far north simply for the mosque might be to oversell it, but it's a good stop en-route to either Korhogo or Comoé National Park. West-Sudanese mosques are notable for being constructed solely of mud mixed with straw. Rather than holding the structure together, the wooden sticks are used for decorative and practical purposes, functioning as the scaffold when, after the rains, a new outer layer of mud has to be added to the building. The mosque in Kong is from the early 1900s but designed after an original mosque built on the spot in 1740.
It can be rare for any country to show two completely different identities, even rarer for smaller countries. But the Eritrean coastal town does just that. In stark contrast to the Christian influenced Italian colonial architecture all over the central highlands of the country, Massawa sports a very different Islamic flavoured Ottoman style of buildings. The very small old town, on a tiny island barely connected to the mainland by a man-made causeway, cannot be judged on its square footage alone. The labyrinth of tiny alleyways is literally littered with architectural gems, using dry corals for walls and imported wood for window shutter, all in a slow but steady process of decay. There is no Disneyfication here. Massawa is real with the grim and toil of hundreds of years hanging heavy in the air.
Ethiopia has a long history of empires coming and empires going. But during the 16th and 17th centuries, one of the mightiest empires placed their capital in Gondar. The result is the UNESCO-listed walled fortress of Fasil Ghebbi. With palaces, churches, monasteries and various other buildings all crammed into a square kilometre, the old fortress has tremendous bang for the buck. Wandering the grounds from building to building, you might think you're in some scene from Lord of the Rings. The buildings run anything from expertly restored to crumbling to the ground. Although the actual town of Gondar ain't much, Fasil Ghebbi is a major highlight, not only of the country, but of the entire region.
The Ashanti Kingdom provided some of the fiercest resistance to European colonisation anywhere in Africa. The British didn't manage to "pacify" this proud kingdom until 1902, when much of ancient Kumasi was burned to the ground and most of the Ashantis' royal family exiled on the Seychelles. And while the royal family has since returned, and still rule the most important traditional chiefdom in Ghana, not many physical traces have been left behind. The exception is a dozen or so sacred Ashanti shines dotting the greater Kumasi region. Built in white and red, with four elevated buildings around a closed courtyard it's easy to mistake the design for something influenced by European architecture. Nothing could be further from the truth, as illustrated by the first European travellers who marvelled about the designs in their journals. Today travellers can to the same.
Renowned for its Great Mosque, the largest earth-built structure in the world, Djenné offers far more. Build on a small island in the Niger Inland Delta the area has been cultivated since at least 200 BC. While the current town "only" dates back to the 14th century, it's one of the most memorable destinations in Mali. The entire town is built by mud and traditional banco mud houses, two stories high, line the narrow streets. International efforts to stop inhabitants from switching to concrete and other modern building materials have saved the town. A museum, an artisans' house and a library of ancient manuscripts are the most interesting sights beside the mosque. The mosque itself is breathtaking. Rising 18,5 metres above the plateau it's built on, everything is made of mud. Even the roof and the pillars holding it. Non-Muslims are formally forbidden to enter, but the caretaker will openly offer to ignore this rule, should a visitor make the right donation. As the ban is due to historical, rather than religious reasons, we won't judge anyone who accepts the offer.
Historically, present-day Mali has been home to countless of empires and smaller kingdoms. These kingdoms were usually centred around ethnic groups, and through the decades these developed their own unique architectural styles. For today's visitor, that means plenty of different styles and types of traditional houses – known as Banco houses – can be found all over Mali. The common factor is the building material. The houses are almost always made of mud. The exception is the houses on top of the rocky Bandiagaraa Escarpment, which are made of rocks. In Ségou, the houses are orange and one storey. In Djenné they are more greyish, with impressive front designs and in two stories. In the northern desert, it’s possible to find a range of different designs in Timbuktu. You get the idea. Any history-, architecture- or mud-buffs will have a field-day visiting Mali.
Morocco's largest mosque was commemorated for former King Hassan's 60th birthday, but delays meant that the construction first finished in 1993 – four years too late. Holding 105,000 worshipers within its grounds, Hassan II Mosque is the thirteenth largest mosque in the world, though the minaret, which rises 210 metres into the air, is the world's tallest. The architecture mixes traditional Islamic features with Moroccan designs inspired by Moorish influence. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the mosque marks the beginning of Casablanca's Corniche, which might well be the most exciting part of a city that too often is compared to the movie of the same name. Any expectations of the film's romantic wipe being present in the city will lead to a disappointing visit.
Mozambique Island is the cradle of African colonialism and so soaked in history that it's deserved a UNESCO site. First came Arabian traders, and later the Portuguese. It became one of the central ports for the slave trade and was for a long time the capital of Portuguese East Africa, leaving the island with a density of colonial buildings not matched by many other places in Africa. What makes Mozambique Island further unique today, is that people are living in and among these decayed mansions, giving the island an almost squatter feel. Most of the historical sites are at the northern end, where the once cobbled streets are now sandy and potholed and the crumbling once-grand buildings stand neglected among bushes and shady trees. The southern end of the island is a densely populated shack town with easy going people. There are also several beaches around Mozambique Island, but they are mostly used by playing children and fishermen fixing their boats, but local guys will be happy to do boat tours to nearby islands. However, Mozambique Island's charm is the old houses and laid back atmosphere.