Important archaeological sites could inform Africa's future cities

Africa is the fastest urbanising continent, and cities like Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi, Kinshasa and Luanda are doubling in population every 15 years. More liveable cities can be created through urban planning. It is puzzling and troubling that European architecture and planning firms are taking a leading voice on Africa’s future urban form. There is a lot to learn from important archaeological sites, which could inform a new localised planning agenda.

A massive floating school for Lagos, a $10 billion bee-hive tech city for Accra, techno-towers rising from the Kenyan plains; these are some of the European architectural fantasies for Africa’s future cities. Yet, much of Sub-Saharan Africa’s urban growth will take the shape of slum urbanism, which is at once an opportunity to deliver services to large portions of the population, and a massive challenge to find solutions for.

More people now live in cities than ever before. Africa has been steadily urbanising in post-colonial times, and between 1950 and 2010, the urban population grew from 17,7% to 36%. United Nations and World Bank predict that by 2030, 50% of Africans will live in cities.

Africa’s urban era is indeed upon us. Urban planning alongside infrastructure development and delivery of essential services will be some of the most promising and important tools to bring about livable cities. And these initiatives will be supported by the emerging urban agenda for African countries. On 24 September, Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon addressed African heads of state in New York.

Urbanization, if managed well, could be a powerful engine to aid sustainable development, while a failure in urban design can lead to more poverty, insecurity and social ills
— Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General

It is surprising then that so much of the urban design inspiration, architectural visions, and urban development plans for Africa’s urban future appears to come from everywhere outside Africa, and not from the continent's proud, but under-appreciated, urban past.

Archaeologists focused on unraveling the layers of Africa’s history have long maintained that African cities are not recognised in the study of ancient cities, partly due to racism and unfounded beliefs that African climate did not permit urban agglomerations (Connah 2001).

This lack of attention creates the impression that, outside Egypt, cities in Africa are comparatively recent or developed only under the influence of external forces, including traders and colonizing populations
— Creekmore and Fisher (2014:14)

Here are some important considerations for how we approach the planning of African cities, based on the important findings of archaeological sites. I will not discuss the actual sites in much detail, because frankly I am not qualified.

1. Complex African societies existed before interactions with trading and colonising powers

When Nok was discovered in Nigeria, archaeologists found that an ancient civilization existed in the 11th century BC, and collapsed around 300 AD for unknown reasons. Popular perceptions of African societies during this period in precolonial history supposed only primitive groups migrated between temporary villages on African plains, but archaeological findings at Nok revealed a sophisticated and highly advanced culture. The people of Nok developed technology, which allowed their craftsmanship and artistry to flourish. Nok is an example of a complex urban agglomeration, and is proof that the historical roots of African cities predate trading and colonial powers.

Scholars in the past have either neglected or grossly underestimated the urban factor in African history
— Hull 1979, cited in Connah (2001:10)
British archaeologist James Kirkman mapped the Gedi city plan after his excavations. (Source:  Swahili History and Archaeology )

British archaeologist James Kirkman mapped the Gedi city plan after his excavations. (Source: Swahili History and Archaeology)

2. Urban settlement layout and planning had distinctive characteristics

In Kenya, archaeologists found that the people of the city of Gedi (now called Gedi Ruins) lived in stone houses in the same style and tradition as other large Swahili cities at the time. Evidences of international trade with Spain, Venice, India and China were also discovered. At the center, the city had an impressive palace, and a large mosque.

Based on the findings from a number of sites in West Africa, and especially Guinea, archaeologist Bassey Andah, developed a table of contextually and culturally relevant criteria of what cities consisted of. Urbanised sites in these areas contained the following elements (Andah 1999, cited in Mitchell and Lane (2013:690)):

  • One or several shrines located in the centre
  • One palace, in most cases fortified
  • A large centrally located market
  • A transportation depot or transit station
  • A military depot, also quite centrally located
  • A defence outpost, rather than a conquest outpost
  • Orderly row houses facing the “village street”, possibly to facilitate supervision

3. African cities were located on major trade routes, much like medieval European cities

Archaeologists Susan and Roderick McIntosh and local research partners made some of the most important discoveries when Djenné-Djenno was found in Mali. Settlements in the Niger delta existed from about 250 B.C. to 900 A.D. Djenné-Djenno in Mali is located between what is today Mopti and Segou, and has been a vital crossroads for trade for centuries. In 1655, the chronicler and chief secretary of the Arma administration, Abd al-Sadi wrote of Djenné in his novel Tarikh es-Sudan, "it is because of this blessed town that camel caravans come to Timbuktu from all points of the horizon." Much more can be said of Djenné-Djenno, but the main point here is that significant urban centers were located on major trade routes, much like cities in medieval Europe.

4. Some African cities were extremely wealthy with established international trade links

In the ancient Kingdom of Kush established in 800BC, the capital city of Meroë emerged and was greatly influenced by neighbouring Egyptian civilisation. The excavation site in modern day Republic of Sudan has uncovered much evidence of one of the wealthiest cities in the known world. The Kingdom's decline and collapse by the 4th century AD was largely attributed to collapse of external trade. More than 200 Kushite pyramids can be visited at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The ruins at Great Zimbabwe, once the capital city of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, is in a great condition and strikes a visitor with awe of what once was. At its peak in the 1400s, Great Zimbabwe could have housed up to 18,500 Shonas. The capital city was visited by numerous traders, nobility, and diplomats. 

Aerial view of Great Zimbabwe, Hill Complex in the foreground (Source: Janice Bell, Wikimedia Commons)

Aerial view of Great Zimbabwe, Hill Complex in the foreground (Source: Janice Bell, Wikimedia Commons)

Archaeologists have long maintained that evidence of complex urban agglomerations were common across Africa for centuries before interactions with trading and colonising powers. Archaeological sites have also proved that cities emerged where trading routes coalesced, that there were distinctive and unique characteristics of the precolonial "African City", and that some cities were very wealthy and probably significant on the global trade routes. Considering the evident urban era, why should African cities be lab rats for European architectural fantasies? When will we see a unique planning dispensation inspired by the great cities of the past? 


  • Connah, G. 2001. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press. Read on Google Books.
  • Creekmore, A and Fisher, K. 2014. Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies, Chapter 1. Cambridge University Press. Read on Google Books.
  • Mitchell, P and Lane, P. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology, Chapter 47. Oxford University Press. Read on Google Books.

For further reading on the archaeological sites, check these websites discussed:

Gedi Ruins, Kenya

Djenné-Djenno, Mali

Nok, Nigeria

Meroe, Sudan

Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

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