Ten Stunning Yet Little Known Ancient Treasures Across Africa
The continent of Africa contains a plethora of ancient wonders, yet very few of them are well-known internationally or attract tourists from across the world. From over a thousand stone circles concentrated in a small area to ruins of great cities, megalithic calendars that predate the pyramids by tens of thousands of years, and the remains of towns that have seen the rise and fall of countless civilizations, there is no shortage of awe-inspiring sites across the continent. Here we feature just ten incredible sites that are little known in the wider world.
It is amazing that the Senegambian Stone Circles are not more well-known considering there are more than 1,000 of them spread over an area that is 100 km wide and 350 km in length in the countries of Gambia and Senegal in West Africa. Of the 1000 stone circles, 93 of them have been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. These include the Sine Ngayène complex in Senegal, as well as the Wanar, Wassu and Kerbatch complexes in Gambia. Apart from these stone circles, the sites also contain numerous tumuli and burial mounds.
To construct these stone circles, the ancient builders were first required to identify suitable lateritic outcrops for the carving of the stones. Having found the suitable laterite, they were then cut and extracted from the quarry. This was no easy feat as the stones needed to be removed in one piece. At quarry sites, monoliths that were broken in the course of extraction were of no value and were left there. Finally, the extracted monoliths were transported and erected at various sites along the River Gambia. Imagine this process being repeated for tens of thousands of monoliths, and you get a sense of the massive scale of the Senegambian Stone Circles.
Ghadames is a large oasis town in the region of Tripolitania, which is situated in the north western part of Libya. This town sits on Libya’s border with Algeria and Tunisia, and is commonly referred to as the ‘pearl of the desert’. It has been suggested, based on archaeological evidence, that this area has been settled since the 4th millennium B.C., and is one of the oldest pre-Saharan settlements. This is little wonder, as its situation near a water source in the middle of a desert would have made it an important spot for anyone seeking to settle in the area.
Written records about Ghadames only appear much later during the Roman period. During the 1st century B.C., the Roman proconsul Lucius Cornelius Balbus was sent to invade Ghadames. During that period, Ghadames was known as Cydamus (from which its present name is derived from). A permanent Roman garrison was later established at the site during the reign of Septimius Severus. This was probably due to the need to protect Roman lands from the incursions of desert nomads to the south. The Crisis of the Third Century, however, drained the Roman economy, and the Roman garrison was forced to withdraw from Ghadames. In the following centuries, Ghadames became a Byzantine town, and subsequently conquered by the Muslim Arabs. From the latter period until the 19th century, Ghadames played an important role in the Sub-Saharan trade due to its strategic geographical position. Although none of the surviving buildings at Ghadames can be dated to its earliest phases, or even to the Roman period, it has an outstanding domestic architectural style that sets it apart from other pre-Saharan cities and settlements.
Zimbabwe is home to one of the most stunning historical monuments in Africa – the monument of the Great Zimbabwe. The name ‘Zimbabwe’ is an anglicized form of an African word meaning ‘stone houses’, for the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe are comprised of several stone walls, monuments, and buildings built mainly of granite. The internal structure contains many passageways and enclosures. It spans almost 1800 acres of the southeastern area of the country of Zimbabwe. While it may seem that the structure was named after the country, it is actually the other way around.
It is estimated that construction spanned more than 300 years, and that the complexes housed a civilization of up to 18,000 people. The Great Zimbabwe would have been used as a political seat of power, serving as a palace for the Zimbabwean monarch. Built 900 years ago, it is not known who constructed the Great Zimbabwe, but there are several groups that may have been involved, including the Bantu people of the Gokomere, ancestors of the Southern African ethnic group known as the Lemba or Venda, or a branch of the Shona-speaking people known as the Karanga.
The Great Zimbabwe was ultimately abandoned, with parts of it falling into ruin. However, many of the structures are still standing today, and the site has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Tiya stones are part of an archaeological site located in central Ethiopia, in an area known as the Gurage Zone. The 46 large, decorated Tiya megaliths have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the construction of such megaliths is an ancient tradition in Ethiopia, the Tiya stones are fairly ‘recent’, dating to sometime between the 10th and 15th centuries. Remarkably little is known about the Tiya stelae, beyond descriptions of their physical appearance.
The town of Tiya is found in central Ethiopia, located in the Soddo Region, in an area known as the Gurage Zone. Over 100 stelae can be found scattered across nine distinct megalithic pillar sites within the zone, 46 of which can be found at Tiya.
The pillar sites contain large stelae (monuments) of three types – anthropomorphic, phallic, and non-anthropomorphic/non-phallic. Most of the stelae contain elaborate decorations, including symbols that resemble plants, swords, and human figures, standing “akimbo,” with their hands on their hips and elbows turned out.
These large monuments likely had some cultural significance when erected, but their meaning remains unclear and very few efforts have been made towards understanding these magnificent monoliths.
Adam’s Calendar is controversially suggested to be the oldest man-made structure in the world. Sometimes referred to as "African Stonehenge", it predates both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza by tens of thousands of years. Located in Mpumalanga, South Africa it is a standing stone circle about 30 meters in diameter and has been estimated by some accounts to be more than 75,000 years old. Various astronomical alignments have been identified at the site and it is possibly the only example of a completely functional, mostly intact megalithic stone calendar in the world.
Scattered throughout the mountains of South Africa are thousands of stone circle ruins. The first estimates of the number of these ruins was made in 1891 by English explorer Theodore Bent. He estimated there were about 4,000 in this area of the world. By 1974 the estimate had risen to 20,000. Today, researcher and authority on the subject, Michael Tellinger, has estimated the number of ancient stone ruins to be 100,000 or possibly much higher. Some of these “stone circles” have no doors or entrances while most are connected by an expansive network of channels that are often misinterpreted as “roads” by some historians. This connected grid of circular ruins are immersed in a seemingly never-ending expanse of ancient agricultural terraces surrounding the structures. Adam’s Calendar is considered to be the most famous among these ruins.
The site is aptly named Adam’s Calendar because the stones are placed to track the movement of the sun, which casts shadows on the rock. It still works perfectly as a calendar today by following the shadow of the setting sun, which is cast by the taller central monolith onto the flat stone beside it.
Around the middle of the 15th century AD, the city of Great Zimbabwe was abandoned. The abandonment of its capital city marked the collapse of the African Kingdom of Zimbabwe. One of the results of this event was the fragmentation of the kingdom’s former territories. In the north, along the Zambezi valley, the Karangas came to power and the Kingdom of Butua took control of the south. With the rise of these new powers, new zimbabwes (the word may be translated as either ‘large houses of stone’ or ‘venerated houses’), albeit on a smaller scale, were built to serve as their capitals. One of these zimbabwes was Khami, the capital of the Kingdom of Butua.
Khami is located to the west of the Khami River, 22 km to the west of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city today. Khami was founded by the Torwa Dynasty, the first rulers of the Kingdom of Butua. It has been pointed out that the Torwa Dynasty’s new capital was built based on the architectural form of Great Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, Khami has its own peculiarities that set it apart from its predecessor. The builders of Khami took note of the surrounding environment and adapted the original form accordingly. For instance, the stone found at Khami was different than that at Great Zimbabwe. The stone at Khami was harder to quarry and produced shapeless building stone. This rendered it unsuitable for building free standing dry stone walls, a feature of Great Zimbabwe. Therefore, the builders of Khami decided to improvise, and built revetments or retaining walls instead. It is said that this is the first instance of such an architectural form in the history of the region. One of the legacies of Khami is that the design of this city was adopted by its successors, such as Danangombe and Zinjaja, similar to its adoption of the architecture of Great Zimbabwe when it was built.
Following the collapse of the Kingdom of Kush during the 4th century BC, a political vacuum was left in the region it controlled, now modern day Sudan and southern Egypt. This void was filled by the emergence of a number of smaller Nubian kingdoms. The most well-known of these successor states was the Kingdom of Dongola, or Makuria, which had its capital in the city of Old Dongola, located on the east bank of the Nile. The modern city of Dongola is situated 80 km (49.7 miles) downstream on the opposite side of the bank.
Whilst the Kingdom of Dongola may be the most widely known successor of the Kingdom of Kush, its origins are rather obscure. It has been suggested that during the 8th century AD, Makuria united with its northern neighbor, Nobatia, perhaps under King Merkurios, to form a single state. The site chosen to serve as the kingdom’s new capital was Old Dongola, which was originally a fortress built during the 5th century AD.
One of the most distinct features of the Kingdom of Dongola is that it was a Christian Kingdom. It is recorded that during the 6th century BC, Christianity was propagated in the Nile Valley from Aswan all the way south to the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile at modern day Khartoum. In 1993, a 900-year-old crypt was discovered in a monastery there. In the crypt, archaeologists discovered the naturally mummified remains of seven males. On the walls of the crypt were inscriptions written in Greek and Sahidic Coptic. These inscriptions included excerpts from the four Gospels, magical names, as well as signs and a prayer given by the Virgin Mary, which were placed there to protect the occupants of the crypt from the forces of evil.
UNESCO World Heritage sites are not only renowned for their cultural and natural importance, but are often used in the film industry. At the Ksar of Ain-Ben-Haddou, numerous films have been shot, including Oliver Stone’s 2004 film, ‘Alexander’, Stephen Sommer’s ‘The Mummy’ (1999) and John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975).
The Ksar of Ain-Ben-Haddou is a fortified city located in the Ouarzazate province along the old caravan trade route between Marrakech and the Sahara. It consists of a group of buildings built entirely of local organic material, and covered by a rich red mud plaster. These buildings, which were mostly houses, were surrounded by high walls. The defensive function of the walls was reinforced by the construction of corner towers. Apart from the domestic buildings, there were also public structures, including a mosque, a caravanserai, a sanctuary of a local saint, and a public square. Thus, the collection of buildings in the Ksar is a unique showcase of the various pre-Saharan earthen construction techniques. According to local belief, the Ksar was founded in 757 A.D. by Ben-Haddou, whose tomb is said to lie somewhere behind the city.
The Ksar and other fortified towns in the area may owe their existence to the presence of the Trans-Saharan Trade Route. This route connected the North African coast, Europe, and the Levant to sub-Saharan Africa. Trade goods, including gold, salt, and African slaves passed through these routes beginning in ancient times, and reaching a peak between the 8th century A.D. and the late 16th century A.D. With such traffic along the trade route, it would be reasonable for locals to take advantage of the situation and earn a living by providing shelter, food and drink to the travelling merchants. The presence of such valuable trade goods in their towns, however, would have attracted bandits or raiding nomads. Therefore, defensive walls were necessary to ensure the safety of both the inhabitants of the city and their wealthy customers.
Thousands of years ago, humans from the Neolithic age, decorated the walls of rock shelters with paintings of animals and humans at a site called Laas Geel in present day Somalia. Their work would last at least 5,000 years, and would one day attract the attention of the 21st century. The caves provide a glimpse into the little known history of this part of the world. Even with the history of political instability, war, natural weathering, and other factors, the paintings have survived intact, retaining their clear outlines and vibrant colors. They are thought to be among the best and oldest preserved rock paintings in Africa.
Laas Geel, meaning ‘source of water for camels’, is a complex of rock shelters and caves located 55 kilometers (34 miles) northeast of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, an autonomous region of war-torn Somalia. It is comprised of approximately 20 shelters or rock caves made of naturally occurring rock formations of varying size, the largest being ten meters long with a depth of about 5 meters. These shelters feature polychrome (multi-colored) painted panels that are considered to be the oldest known rock art in the Horn of Africa, a peninsula in Northeast Africa. It is estimated that there are 350 animal and human representations, as well as numerous tribal marks among the rock art at Laas Geel. Some of the cave paintings are stunningly well preserved as they have been sheltered from the elements by the granite overhangs.
Nabta Playa is a remarkable site composed of hundreds of prehistoric tumuli, stelae, and megalithic structures located in the Nubian Desert, approximately 100 kilometers west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. They are the result of an advanced urban community that arose approximately 11,000 years ago, and left behind a huge assembly of stones, which have been labelled by scientists as being among the oldest known astronomical alignments of megaliths in the world. Some archaeologists believe that the people of Nabta Playa were the precursor civilization for the first Nile cities that arose in Egypt thousands of years later.
Archaeological evidence appears to suggest that the first settlements of people in Nabta Playa arrived between 11,000 and 9,300 years ago. The people who occupied the region at this time were pastoral nomads, who may have set up seasonal camps, moving on again when the water dried up. Around 9,000 years ago, the settlements became larger and more sophisticated and the people built huts with fire hearths, arranged in straight rows, and started to dig deep walk-in wells, enabling them to have a year-round water supply, thus providing the conditions necessary for permanent settlement.
Around 6,000 years ago, the region saw the arrival of a substantially more complex and advanced society and it was during this period that most of the major megalithic structures were constructed. It is considered to be the height of human occupation at Nabta Playa. Over several thousand years of habitation, the people of Nabta Playa constructed numerous megalithic monuments, including stone circles, underground tombs, huge stone slabs, and rows of stelae, which extend over about 2,500 meters. The megalithic monuments are among some of the oldest in the world, pre-dating Stonehenge by thousands of years.
By: April Holloway