Housing and Furnishings
Housing and Furnishings
Houses. Most West African towns and cities were built of mud, including the important Malian trading center of Djenné. Round mud huts with thatched or straw roofs were typical architecture, especially in the kingdoms of Ghana to the west and Songhai to the east. However, houses and the ruler’s castle in the Sudanic kingdom of Zaghawa were made of gypsum, and in Ghana some houses, mosques, and schools were built from carved and joined stone. In the mid eleventh century, working from earlier sources, the Spanish Muslim geographer al-Bakri gave a detailed account of the Kingdom of Ghana, describing the houses in the capital, Kumbi Saleh (in present-day southern Mauritania). Built of stone, these houses had two stories, with the lower floor of each serving as a storeroom. They were built close together with narrow alleys between them. The city included a foreign quarter, inhabited by Muslim traders. There is also evidence of stone architecture in the middle Gambia valley, where archaeologists have found circles of dressed standing stones that are thought to belong to the period between 1300 and 1600. The nomadi Fulani lived in clusters of tents that could be collapsed and
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moved. Shaped like beehives, these dwellings were usually pole frames covered with mats, leaves, or grass.
Djenné. Archaeological investigations by Roderick and Susan McIntosh at ancient Djenné on the Bani River (in the present-day nation of Mali) and neighboring sites in 1977, 1981, and 1994 have revealed a great deal about the economic and social complexity of that society, even before the beginning of relations with North African Muslims during the seventh and the eighth centuries. The city was located on relatively high ground. Most of its houses were circular huts made of straw and encrusted with clay quarried from the floodplain. Their cemeteries were organized, with corpses interred in huge burial urns and in simple pits. The city wall was 3.7 meters wide at the foundation and stretched over a distance of 2 kilometers around the city. After the city became a major center for trade with North Africans, Muslim architectural influences resulted in the construction of rectilinear houses during the eleventh and the twelfth centuries. Constructed with sun-dried bricks and embellished with vaults and arches, buildings in Kano also show Muslim influences.
Religious Structures. Because religion played an important part in everyday life, places of worship, such as shrines and mosques, had prominent places in villages and cities. The North African traveler known in Europe as Leo Africanus visited Timbuktu in 1512 and later wrote of its great burned-brick mosque, which had been constructed by the order of Mansa Musa (ruled 1312-1337). It is believed to
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have been built by the Andalusian architect Abu Ishaq al-Sahili, who met Mansa Musa during his pilgrimage to Mecca (1324). According to historian Ahmad ibn Fartuwa, chief imam during the reign of the great ruler Idris Alooma (reigned 1571-1603) of Kanem-Bornu, Idris built brick mosques to replace mosques constructed of reeds in his capital of N’gazaragamu.
Walls and Other Barricades. Conflict and war were part of daily life in the West African kingdoms. Settlements were regularly attacked, not only by neighboring enemies but by North African Muslim forces and slave traders. The victors often exacted tribute as well as taking slaves and plundering property. For protection against such enemies and for territorial demarcation, stockaded mud walls and spiked ditches were sometimes constructed around villages or cities. Early Hausa social and political organization was always centered on the birniy, a walled or stockaded town, rather than the gari (or kauye), a village or hamlet. Muhammad Rimfa, who ruled Kano between 1463 and 1499, found it expedient to extend the walls around his capital, which had been completely ringed by walls since about 1150. Chiefly in the southern part of West Africa, villages were built close to hills and mountains to which people could flee or in bushy areas with barricaded or camouflaged access routes. The pastoral Fulani, who lived in temporary tent camps, surrounded their settlements with Thom hedges to keep their cattle corralled at night. By 1490 the Europeans had also built castles for protection and the storage of the commodities acquired from trading with the Africans. One of the earliest examples is Elmina Castle of the Gold Coast, built in 1482.
Furnishings and Decor. West African craftspeople produced household objects for aesthetic, utilitarian, and religious purposes. While men dominated crafts such as sculpting, in most West African cultures women were in charge of making pots, and both sexes engaged in weaving. Sculptures were created from clay, bronze, brass, ivory, and wood. In houses at various sites archaeologists have also uncovered cooking utensils, stools, gongs, masks, and ornaments. Basic ideals of beauty were expressed through distinct symbols stamped into cloth, molded in high relief on the facades of buildings, or shaped into fine wood or metal sculpture. Complex notions of God and the universe were expressed in the intricate designs of royal thrones, scepters, swords, and craftsmen’s tools. Glass, pottery, and stone plaques found in West African houses closely resemble those found in Muslim homes of the Maghrib (the region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean). Small glass weights, suitable for use in weighing small quantities of valuable substances such as gold, have also been recovered. Some of the peoples of Senegambia used sweet-smelling gums as incense to perfume their living spaces as well as to cover up bad odors.
Royal Decor. In Mali, Mansa Musa’s throne was a huge seat of ebony fit for a large and tall person. It was flanked by elephant tusks turned toward each other. Writing of his 1353 visit to the court of Mansa Sulaiman (ruled 1341-1360), Ibn Battuta included a vivid description of the decor: “The Mansa sits on a dais with three steps under a tree. The dais is covered with silk, cushions are put on it and over it is raised a silken dome-shaped parasol surmounted by a golden bird of the shape of a falcon.” West Africans often attached protective amulets and fetishes to chairs and stools. This practice was especially prevalent in Hausa royal households. Royal palaces were also adorned with polychrome woven, batik, or tie-dyed tapestries.
J. F. Ade. Ajayi and Ian Espie,eds., A Thousand Years of West African History: A Handbook for Teachers and Students (Ibadan, Nigeria: University of Ibadan Press / London: Nelson, 1969).
Anthony Atmore and Gillian Stacey, Black Kingdoms, Black Peoples: The West African Heritage (London: Orbis, 1979).
G. R. Crone, trans, and ed., The Voyages ofCadamosto and Other Documents on Western Africa in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century (London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1937).
Peter Garlake, The Kingdom of Africa (Oxford: Elsevier-Phaidon, 1978).