Ancient African Architecture: History & Examples

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  • 0:04 African Architecture
  • 0:57 Egyptian Architecture
  • 3:12 Sub-Saharan Architecture
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

From the pyramids of Egypt to the ruins of South Africa, African architecture has a significant place in architectural history, housing some of the oldest architecture in the world. This lesson focuses on various types of African architecture and the construction materials the builders used.

African Architecture

The earliest African dwellings were carved out of solid rock. Later dwellings were constructed of animal skins, and still later, wattle and daub, a framework of woven sticks covered with a layer of mud to seal the dwelling from the elements. Later, mudbricks, or mud compressed into bricks, sometimes combined with straw, became the building material of choice. Dating when mudbrick was first used is difficult; however, it's still used in some regions today. Mudbrick allowed builders to construct larger, more spacious buildings. However, these constructions did not withstand the elements well, so few ancient mudbrick buildings remain intact. An example of ancient mudbrick construction is the city of Kerma. Kerma was settled around 2400 BCE and is one of the largest archeological sites in Nubia, which is present-day Sudan.

Egyptian Architecture

The best-known African architecture comes from Egypt. Egypt at the time of the pyramids was the richest part of Africa because of its location along the Nile River and its close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt's location enabled trade with other countries, which encouraged the exchange of ideas and allowed Egyptian architectural styles to spread to Europe and Asia. Ultimately, foreign styles influenced African architecture.

Early Egyptian architecture was primarily from stone because this material was readily available. The oldest building, a stepped stone pyramid, dates to around 2650 BCE and is part of the necropolis, or cemetery, on the Nile shore opposite the ancient city of Memphis, the first Egyptian capital. The structure may have started out as a mastaba, a rectangular, flat-topped building with sloping sides. Mastabas were tombs or burial chambers, usually built for Egyptian pharaohs or rulers. Archaeologists believe the step pyramid was expanded upward to create the six-layered pyramid. Because these early tombs were built solid with tunnels to get to the various chambers, archaeologists estimate that builders used 11.6 million cubic feet of limestone to construct the step pyramid. As Egyptian builders became more skilled, the tombs of the pharaohs became more complex, made with blocks of stone that fit together almost seamlessly and with smoothly sloped sides. By 2500 BCE, Egyptian tombs became more polished, such as the pyramids of Giza, but they were still a solid construction laced with tunnels.

Zoser's Step Pyramid, ca 2650 BC

Pyramids of Giza

By 2000 BCE, Egyptian builders used stone columns to make their buildings more open and spacious. The use of columns also meant that buildings were less expensive to construct than the pyramids, and Egyptian pharaohs built many of them. The Egyptians used these open buildings as temples and palaces. Most had wooden roofs. The wooden roofs meant less weight for the columns to support, and therefore larger constructions were feasible. Elaborate carvings also became part of the architectural features of both tombs and religious temples. Stone statues decorate the pillars at the temples of Karnak, built in the 16th century BCE.

The Temple Complex of Karnak

Sub-Saharan Architecture

Further south, different types of architecture appeared. Building materials varied from region to region based upon the climate and the materials available. Where stone was scarce or too expensive, the people used mud bricks. Where timber was available, construction was primarily wood. Many wooden structures have not survived intact. Grass or wooden roofs have decayed, and only stone or mud brick walls are left.

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