One of the most fascinating aspects of travel is to experience different cultures. Often, that manifests itself in a place’s history. Visiting archaeological sites and sites of historic interest affords us a fascinating glimpse into the past. Let’s explore vicariously as we examine the some of the most spectacular historic sites in Africa.
The Pyramids of Giza
The Pyramids of Giza are the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World, dating back more than 4500 years. For travellers to Egypt, they’re a must. The Pharoahs built them as tombs, believing this would be where they would spend the afterlife. Khufu’s is largest; it’s estimated that more than 2 million blocks of stone were used in its construction. His son, Khafre, followed suit. The Sphinx, part lion, part Pharaoh, forms part of his build. The third tomb is much smaller and is the work of Menkaure’s team. Stay in one of the Giza hotels with a view of the archaeological site or visit from Cairo. Either way, secure a ticket in advance to avoid disappointment, especially if you are keen to go inside.
Close to the town of Masvingo in Zimbabwe you’ll find what remains of a medieval settlement. In its heyday, it was the capital of a formidable kingdom with a population of around 18000 people. Today, we call it Great Zimbabwe, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The towering dry stone walls, some of which stand 11 metres high, belonged to a Royal palace. Abandoned by the 15th century and now in ruins, it is one of the country’s most important cultural heritage sites and a national monument. During excavations, soapstone sculptures of birds were discovered; a bird also features on the Zimbabwean flag.
El Djem (sometimes written as El Jem) is a well preserved ampitheatre in Tunisia. Its walls, arena and underground passages are largely intact. The Romans built it in 238 AD in what they called Thysdrus. Modelled on Rome’s Colosseum, it’s the only one of its kind in Africa. This amphitheatre is one of the largest in the world and would have had a capacity of 35000 people when it was unveiled. Those spectators would have taken their seats for a variety of events, including gladiatorial games. Later, it was used as a fortress, for grain storage and even for homes, but it’s now one of the country’s most popular visitor attractions. You can check it out on Google Street View but it is far more impressive in real life.
Lalibela is an important place of Christian pilgrimage. Located in north west Ethiopia, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is best known for its rock-hewn churches. In all there are 11 medieval monolithic cave churches in this ancient complex. King Lalibela ordered the creation of a “New Jerusalem” during his reign from the late 12th to the 13th century. And what a project it was! These were no ordinary churches. Unlike the grand cathedrals that were built, here, everything was within the ground rather than on top of it. Doors, windows, floors, roofs and columns were paintakingly chiselled out of the rock to form these remarkable places of worship. Some connect to hermit caves and catacombs.
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The Great Mosque of Djenné
There has been a mosque on this site since the 13th century, but the current Great Mosque of Djenné dates from 1907. This is surely one of the most spectacular historic sites in Africa. Set on a raised platform to prevent it flooding when the Bani River floods, it is an adobe construction, built using blocks of earth baked in the sun called ferey. This layer is coated with plaster, giving it a smooth finish and rounded edges. Sticking out are bundles of rodier palm sticks (toron) and pipes to deflect water. But it isn’tcompletely weatherproof, which means that it has to be repaired and patched up each year after the seasonal rains have passed. This forms the practical element of an annual festival with music, food and plenty of socialising.
What can be more impressive than the birthplace of mankind? Olduvai Gorge is a spectacular canyon which forms part of Africa’s Rift Valley. It is a highly significant location for the study of paleoanthropology. Wilhelm Kattwinkel, a German archaeologist, discovered hominin fossils here more than a century ago. Later. thanks to radiocarbon dating, scientists were able to estimate their age – probably they are around 17000 years old. In 1959, British-born Mary Leakey came here with her husband Louis, also an archaeologist, and discovered a skull fragment which was dated to about 1.75 million years ago. This is evidence that hominins – our ancestors – evolved in Africa.
People sometimes venture into inhospitable environments, enduring challenging climatic conditions and associated hardships in order to mine or make money in some other way. When the source of their income fades, there’s nothing to hold them to that place and they leave to try their luck elsewhere. One such place is Kolmanskop in Namibia. A diamond find turned the place into a boom town – at one time it even had a casino, ballroom, bowling alley and a theatre. But prosperity was short-lived. The diamond price fell and more accessible diamond fields were discovered further south. Kolmanskop became a ghost town. A century later, the desert is slowly but surely reclaiming the landscape, engulfing the abandoned buildings in sand.
Of course, these are just a handful of the many historic sites in Africa where you can learn about significant points in the past, both ancient and modern. The slave castles of West Africa, the places that document South Africa’s apartheid struggle and the museum devoted to recording the genocide in Rwanda are confronting but also of vital importance to understanding the continent’s history.
Though many of us will associate Africa with other kinds of holidays, such as safaris or beach breaks, perhaps incorporating a historical site would be of interest? Why not talk to one of Mundana’s advisors and discuss how you could incorporate history and culture into your next trip?