Ancient African Architecture: The Great African Mosques

Compiled by Isaac Samuel

The Great Mosque of Kilwa is a congregational mosque on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, in Tanzania. It was likely founded in the tenth century, but the two major stages of construction date to the eleventh or twelfth and thirteenth century, respectively. It is one of the earliest surviving mosques on the Swahili Coast.

On the Swahili Coast in southern Tanzania lie the ruins of a stone town known as Songo Mnara. The stone town was occupied from the 14th to 16th centuries.[2] Songo Mnara has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with nearby stone town Kilwa Kisiwani.[3] In total, archaeologists have found six mosques, four cemeteries, and two dozen house blocks along with three enclosed open spaces on the island.[4] Songo Mnara was constructed from rough-coral and mortar.[5] This stonetown was built as one of many trade towns on the Indian Ocean.[3]

Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara were Swahili trading cities and their prosperity was based on control of Indian Ocean trade with Arabia, India and China, particularly between the 13th and 16th centuries, when gold and ivory from the hinterland was traded for silver, carnelians, perfumes, Persian faience and Chinese porcelain. Kilwa Kisiwani minted its own currency in the 11th to 14th centuries. In the 16th century, the Portuguese established a fort on Kilwa Kisiwani and the decline of the two islands began.

The remains of Kilwa Kisiwani cover much of the island with many parts of the city still unexcavated. The substantial standing ruins, built of coral and lime mortar, include the Great Mosque constructed in the 11th century and considerably enlarged in the 13th century, and roofed entirely with domes and vaults, some decorated with embedded Chinese porcelain; the palace Husuni Kubwa built between c1310 and 1333 with its large octagonal bathing pool; Husuni Ndogo, numerous mosques, the Gereza (prison) constructed on the ruins of the Portuguese fort and an entire urban complex with houses, public squares, burial grounds, etc.

The ruins of Songo Mnara, at the northern end of the island, consist of the remains of five mosques, a palace complex, and some thirty-three domestic dwellings constructed of coral stones and wood within enclosing walls.

The islands of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara bear exceptional testimony to the expansion of Swahili coastal culture, the lslamisation of East Africa and the extraordinarily extensive and prosperous Indian Ocean trade from the medieval period up to the modern era. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/144/


The Fakr ad-Din Mosque (Arabicمسجد فخر الدين زنكي‎), also known as Masjid Fakhr al-Din, is the oldest mosque in MogadishuSomalia. It is located in Hamar Weyne (literally “Old Hamar”), the oldest part of the city. It is believed to be the 7th oldest mosque in Africa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fakr_ad-Din_Mosque


Ruins of the Great Mosque in Gedi, Kenya



Gedi lies on the coastal region of Kenya, 94 km north of Mombasa town, another historic town. Gedi was a small town built entirely from rocks and stones, which was inhabited by Swahili people of East Africa. This historic town date back from the 15th century, and through careful preservation most of the original foundations can still be seen today. In 1927, the Gedi historic town, which occupy an area of 44 hectares of land, were declared a historic monument and much excavation and preservation work carried out such that large areas of this ancient town are now revealed, including the pillar tombs, the palace and a great mosque.

The historic town of Gedi occupied a very large area and had two walls around it. The inner wall was where the rich lived. The outer wall enclosed 18 hectares which also included farm and plantation land with quite a number of mud and wattle houses for the middle class. Outside the walls is where the peasants lived. Source: https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5501/


Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela
Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela. © UNESCO
Author: Francesco Bandarin

The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century ‘New Jerusalem’ are situated in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia near a traditional village with circular-shaped dwellings. Lalibela is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilmigrage and devotion. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/18/


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