3 minute read

Architecture

AfricaThe Roots Of Indigenous African Architecture

The most challenging task for scholars of African architecture is determining its historical sources. This task is compounded by the nuances of intellectual historiography that bifurcate the continent into two parts comprising an "uncivilized" black Africa occupying sub-Saharan regions and an Arab North Africa fairly "civilized" because of its proximity to the Western civilizations of the Mediterranean region and southern Europe. Gaining currency from the middle of the eighteenth century, the early history of Africa, which was constructed primarily by European explorers, has been an obstacle to scholars who work on the architectural history of the continent because it favors the advancement of the concept of a "primitive" architecture for sub-Saharan Africa in opposition to a mature Islamic architectural civilization for northern Africa. As such, when looking at the history of sub-Saharan African architecture, early scholars of the subject ignored its historical, geographical, and regional variations. Often, the published titles on African architectural history were classified under "primitive" architecture. This method of exploring African history has a major consequence because it denies the reality that Africans also produced monumental architecture during ancient times.

The evidence from archaeological sites in different parts of the continent contradicts the notion that Africans were unable to produce monumental architecture. So far, there are only two main texts that ground traditional African architecture in antiquity and make a strong case for exploring what the archaeological evidence reveals about the continent's architectural history: Elleh's aforementioned African Architecture and Labelle Prussin's African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place, and Gender (1995). Both books strongly argue that scholars should look at the archaeological records in the Sahara, especially from the regions of Tassili and Fezzan, in order to gain insights into how different architectural elements evolved on the continent. Prussin's contribution is particularly interesting in that it traces the origins of the tent structure and the role of women in its construction and perpetuation from prehistoric to contemporary times. Prussin's propositions help buttress Elleh's concept of the triple heritage when it comes to the relationships between ancient Egyptian architecture and traditional architecture in sub-Saharan Africa. In Art History in Africa: An Introduction to Method (1984), Jan Vansina makes the point that ancient Egyptian art and architecture cannot be fully understood without recognizing that it inherited most of its traditions from the Saharan cultures that predate it by more than three thousand years.

Usually, when people think of ancient Egyptian architecture the image that comes to mind is great pyramids and temples that were built by people whose skin color was lighter than the complexion of people who reside in sub-Saharan Africa. The implication is that, culturally speaking, these people with lighter skin color are entirely distinct from those with very dark skin, and, as such, those with very dark skin produced nothing in antiquity. On the contrary, and backed by strong archaeological evidence, Elleh argues that early Egyptian dynasties and their monumental architecture were built by ancient African kings. Thus, indigenous African architecture includes pyramids, temples, clay (adobe) structures, tent structures, huts made of grass and reeds, and a combination of multiple building materials, and the tectonics of each structure depended on its geographical location and the time in which it was conceived and produced.

For example, Elleh emphasizes that monumental architecture such as the pyramids did not just develop in ancient Egypt overnight. It evolved slowly following the desiccation of the Sahara Desert, whereupon certain building traditions from the Sahara were transferred to the newly founded kingdom of Egypt by Menes (fl. c. 2925 B.C.E.), the pharaoh whom archeologists identify as Narmer. By the third and fourth dynasties, when Djoser's Step Pyramid and the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) were built, the pharaohs were African kings, and their monumental productions were indigenous African productions. This proposition could be extended to the Middle Kingdom (2000–1786 B.C.E.) when most of the powerful pharaohs ruled Egypt. The evolution of ancient Egyptian dynastic architecture shows that long before the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, in 332 B.C.E., the Assyrians had taken over around 670 B.C.E., followed by the Persians in 525 B.C.E. This leads one to recognize that the early structures built before the invasions were all proposed and constructed by indigenous African monarchs. J. C. Moughtin's book Hausa Architecture (1985) sheds light on the relationships between certain ancient Egyptian architectural motifs and the motifs that are used by Hausa adobe builders. The relationships between Hausa building traditions and Islamic building traditions within the West African region was studied by Prussin in Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa (1986). Also important are Peter Garlake's contributions on the architecture of Great Zimbabwe, the site of ruins within Zimbabwe dating from as early as the eleventh century C.E.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Anticolonialism in Southeast Asia - Categories And Features Of Anticolonialism to Ascorbic acidArchitecture - Africa - The "triple Heritage" Architectural Concept, The Roots Of Indigenous African Architecture, Western (european Colonial) Influences On African Architecture