The Architecture & Art of the Songhai Empire

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What culture ruled vast parts of West Africa in the 15th century? What kinds of structures did its people build? In this lesson, explore the architecture and art of the Songhai Empire.

What Was the Songhai Empire?

The Songhai Empire gained its name from the Songhai culture, a people who lived in parts of west Africa. Through the development of a royal dynasty and powerful military, the Songhai took over the lands of neighboring cultures and grew into the powerful Songhai Empire. It dominated the region from around the early 1400s to the 1590s.

The Songhai Empire covered a large section of West Africa along the Niger River. Its capital was the city of Gao. Another city, Timbuktu, was a center of learning and trade. At its height, the Songhai Empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the interior of West Africa, the location of present-day countries like Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

Songhai Empire rulers created a powerful trading state with an economy based on gold, salt and slaves. The gold was mined from plentiful sites along the Niger River and then traded for salt and slaves. Many leaders of the Songhai Empire followed the Muslim faith, and this connection allowed them to build extensive trade contacts with Arab cultures and Asia.

Eventually, the Songhai Empire became one of the most important trading centers and kingdoms in pre-colonial Africa. To clarify, pre-colonial Africa is a term that reflects African history before European contact around the beginning of the 16th century.

Although it was powerful, the Songhai Empire was eventually torn apart by civil war and strife. In the 1590s, repeated conflict allowed Moroccan forces to invade and take control on Songhai lands. But the Moroccans found the vast area difficult to govern. Eventually they withdrew, allowing it to fragment into many smaller nations.

Architecture of the Songhai Empire

The architecture of the Songhai Empire reflects traditional building styles of the West Africa Sahel, a semiarid region of West Africa between the Sahara Desert and more humid regions to the south. The Sahel is mostly grassland and subject to droughts, as well as periodic heavy rains.

One of the best preserved examples of Songhai architecture is the Tomb of Askia and its connected complex of mosques. Built of a combination of mud brick and wood timbers, the tomb structure resembles a step pyramid, but in a more rounded form. It was built around 1495 in Gao by Askia Mohamed, a Songhai emperor. The tomb complex, which includes the tomb, two mosques, a cemetery and an open plaza-like assembly space, is located in present-day Mali.

The tomb structure is made of mud brick with large wood timbers sticking out from the mud wall. This construction method allows people easy access to the upper areas of the structure; they can climb on the wood timbers to reinforce the walls with new mud plaster following heavy rains, which erode the walls over time.

Example of type of mud brick and timber construction used during the Songhai Empire
mud brick architecture

Near the tomb are two flat-roofed mosque structures, a large one in which men worship and a smaller one for women. These structures have flat roofs made of timber poles covered in mud, supported from below by a series of mud-brick pillars.

A wall near the mosques also includes double-niched mihrab typical of West African culture. A mirab is a prayer niche in a wall of a mosque that marks the direction people should pray so that they are facing Mecca.

Art of the Songhai Empire

Songhai art was a combination of Muslim and African influences. Plentiful clay allowed for a variety of pottery and ceramic work, including various kinds of vessels and possibly some figurines resembling people and animals.

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