Architecture of Africa
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The architecture of Africa, like other aspects of the culture of Africa, is exceptionally diverse. Many ethno-linguistic groups throughout the history of Africa have had their own architectural traditions. In some cases, broader styles can be identified, such as the Sahelian architecture of an area of West Africa. One common theme in much traditional African architecture is the use of fractal scaling: small parts of the structure tend to look similar to larger parts, such as a circular village made of circular houses.1
As with most architectural traditions elsewhere, African architecture has been subject to numerous external influences from the earliest periods for which evidence is available. Western architecture has also had an impact on coastal areas since the late 15th century, and is now an important source for many larger buildings, particularly in major cities.
African architecture uses a wide range of materials. One finds structures in thatch, stick/wood, mud, mudbrick, rammed earth, and stone, with a preference for materials by region: North Africa for stone and rammed earth, West Africa for mud/adobe, Central Africa thatch/wood and more perishable materials, East Africa varied, Southern Africa for stone and thatch/wood. A wall in North Africa might be built of stone or rammed earth, in West Africa mud/mudbrick, in Central Africa wood, Southern Africa wood or stone, and East Africa all.
Ten broad categories of vernacular hut and house structures have been identified:
- Domical (beehive)
- Cone on cylinder
- Cone on poles and mud cylinder
- Gabled roofed
- Pyramidal cone
- Rectangle with roof rounded and sloping at ends
- Dome or flat roof on clay box
- Quadrangular, surrounding an open courtyard
- Cone on ground2
- 1 Early architecture
- 2 Medieval Architecture
- 2.1 North Africa
- 2.2 Horn of Africa
- 2.3 West Africa
- 2.4 East Africa
- 2.5 Central Africa
- 2.6 Southern Africa
- 3 Modern architecture
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Probably the most famous class of structures in all Africa, the pyramids of Egypt remain one of the world's greatest early architectural achievements, if limited in practical scope and originating from a purely funerary context. Egyptian architectural traditions also saw the rise of vast temple complexes and buildings.
Little is known of ancient architecture south and west of the Sahara. Harder to date are the monoliths around the Cross River, which has geometric or human designs. The vast number of Senegambian stone circles also evidence an emerging architecture.
Egypt's achievements in architecture were varied from temples, enclosed cities, canals, and dams.
Thousands of tombs were left by Berbers that were pre-Christian in origin and whose architecture was unique to north-west Africa. The most famous was Tomb of the Christian Woman in western Algeria. This structure contains column domed and spiraling pathways that lead to a single chamber.3
Nubian Architecture is one of the most ancient in the world. The earliest style of Nubian Architecture include the speos, structures carved out of solid rock, an A-Group(3700-3250 BCE) achievement. Egyptians made extensive use of the process at Speos Artemidos and Abu Simbel.4 A-Group eventually led to C-Group. C-Group began with light, supple materials, animal skins, and wattle and daub. Later larger more structures of mudbricks became the norm. C-Group culture was related to Kerma.5 Kerma was settled around 2400 BC. It was a walled city containing religious building, large circular dwelling, a palace, and well laid out roads. On the East side of the city, funerary temple and chapel were laid out. It supported a population of 2,000. One of its most enduring structures was the Deffufa, a mudbrick temple ceremonies were performed on top. Between 1500-1085 BC, Egyptian conquest and domination of Nubia was achieved.
This conquest brought about the Napatan Phase of Nubian history, the birth of the Kingdom of Kush. Kush was immensely influenced by Egypt and eventually conquered Egypt. During this phase, we see the building of numerous pyramids and temples. Gebel Barkal in the town of Napata was a very significant site. Kushite pharaohs received legitimacy. Thirteen temples have been excavated and two palaces in Napata. Napata has yet to be fully excavated. Nubian pyramids were constructed on three major sites El Kurru, Nuri, and Meroe. Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt. Sudan contains 223 pyramids. They were smaller than Egyptian Pyramids. Nubian pyramids were for Kings and Queens. The general construction of Nubian pyramids consisted of steep walls, a chapel facing East, stairway facing East, and a chamber access via the stairway.67 The Meroe site has the most Nubian pyramids and is considered the largest archaeological site in the world. Around AD 350 the area was invaded by the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum and the kingdom collapsed.8
Aksumite Architecture flourished in the region from the 4th century BC onward, persisting even after the transition of the Aksumite dynasty to the Zagwe in the 12th century, as attested by the numerous Aksumite influences in and around the medieval churches of Lalibela. Stelae (hawilts) and later entire churches were carved out of single blocks of rock, emulated later at Lalibela and throughout Tigray. Other monumental structures include massive underground tombs often located beneath stelae. The stelae is the single largest monolithic structure ever erected (or attempted to be erected). Other well-known structures employing the use of monoliths include tombs such as the "Tomb of the False Door" and the tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Mesqel in Axum.
Most structures, however, like palaces, villas, commoner's houses, and other churches and monasteries, were built of alternating layers of stone and wood. The protruding wooden support beams in these structures have been named "monkey heads" and are a staple of Aksumite architecture and a mark of Aksumite influence in later structures. Some examples of this style had whitewashed exteriors and/or interiors, such as the medieval 12th-century monastery of Yemrehanna Krestos near Lalibela, built during the Zagwe dynasty in Aksumite style. Contemporary houses were one-room stone structures or two-storey square houses or roundhouses of sandstone with basalt foundations. Villas were generally two to four stories tall and built on sprawling rectangular plans (cf. Dungur ruins). A good example of still-standing Aksumite architecture is the monastery of Debre Damo from the 6th century.
Nok culture artifacts have been dated as far back as 790 BCE, located at the Jos Plateau in Nigeria, between the Niger and Benue river. From the excavation the of Nok settlement in Samun Dikiya, there was the tendency to build on peaks. Nok settlements have not been extensively excavated.9
Tichitt Walata is the oldest surviving archaeological settlements in West Africa and the oldest all stone base settlement south of the Sahara. It was built by the Soninke people and is thought to be the precursor of the Ghana empire. It was being settled around 4000 BCE - 2500 BCE. One finds well laid out streets and fortified compounds all made out of skilled stone masonry. In all, there were 500 settlements.1011
Somali architecture is a rich and diverse tradition of engineering and designing multiple different construction types such as stone cities, castles, citadels, fortresses, mosques, temples, aqueducts, lighthouses, towers and tombs during the ancient, medieval and early modern periods in Somalia. It also encompasses the fusion of Somalo-Islamic architecture with Western designs in contemporary times.
In ancient Somalia, pyramidical structures known in Somali as taalo were a popular burial style with hundreds of these drystone monuments scattered around the country today. Houses were built of dressed stone similar to the ones in Ancient Egypt,13 and there are examples of courtyards and large stone walls such as the Wargaade Wall enclosing settlements.
The peaceful introduction of Islam in the early medieval era of Somalia's history brought Islamic architectural influences from Arabia and Persia, which stimulated a shift in construction from drystone and other related materials to coral stone, sundried bricks, and the widespread use of limestone in Somali architecture. Many of the new architectural designs such as mosques were built on the ruins of older structures, a practice that would continue over and over again throughout the following centuries.14
Throughout the medieval period, Aksumite architecture and influences and its monolithic tradition persisted, with its influence strongest in the early medieval (Late Aksumite) and Zagwe periods (when the churches of Lalibela were carved). Throughout the medieval period, and especially during the 10th to 12th centuries, churches were hewn out of rock throughout Ethiopia, especially during the northernmost region of Tigray, which was the heart of the Aksumite Empire. However, rock-hewn churches have been found as far south as Adadi Maryam (15th century), about 100 km south of Addis Abeba. The most famous example of Ethiopian rock-hewn architecture are the 11 monolithic churches of Lalibela, carved out of the red volcanic tuff found around the town. Though later medieval hagiographies attribute all 11 structures to the eponymous king Lalibela (the town was called Roha and Adefa before his reign), new evidence indicates that they may have been built separately over a period of a few centuries, with only a few of the more recent churches having been built under his reign. Archaeologist and Ethiopisant David Phillipson postulates, for instance, that Bete Gebriel-Rufa'el was actually built in the very early medieval period, some time between 600 and 800 AD, originally as a fortress but was later turned into a church.
At Kumbi Saleh, locals lived in domed-shaped dwellings in the king's section of the city, surrounded by a great enclosure. Traders lived in stone houses in a section which possessed 12 beautiful mosques (as described by al-bakri), one centered on Friday prayer.
15 The king is said to have owned several mansions, one of which was sixty-six feet long, forty-two feet wide, contained seven rooms, was two stories high, and had a staircase; with the walls and chambers filled with sculpture and painting.16 Sahelian architecture initially grew from the two cities of Djenné and Timbuktu. The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, constructed from mud on timber, was similar in style to the Great Mosque of Djenné.
Kanem-Bornu's capital city Birni N'Gazargamu, may have had a population of 200,000. It had four mosque which could hold up to 12,000 worshippers. It was surrounded by a 25-foot (7.6 m) wall and more than 1-mile (1.6 km) in circumference. Many large streets extended from the esplanade and connected to 660 roads. The main building and structure were built with red brick. Other buildings were built with straw and adobe.17
Six important Hausa city states existed Kano, Katsina, Daura, Gobir, Zazzau, and Biram. Kano was the most important. The city was surrounded by a wall of reinforced ramparts of stone and bricks. Kano contained a citadel near which the royal class resided. Individual residence was separated by "earthen" wall. The higher the status of the resident the more elaborate the wall. The entranceway was mazelike to seclude women. Inside near the entrance were the abode of unmarried women. Further down were slave quarters.18
The rise of kingdoms in the West African coastal region produced architecture which drew on indigenous traditions, utilizing wood. The famed Benin City, destroyed by the Punitive Expedition, was a large complex of homes in coursed mud, with hipped roofs of shingles or palm leaves. The Palace had a sequence of ceremonial rooms, and was decorated with brass plaques. The Walls of Benin City are collectively the world's largest man-made structure.19 Fred Pearce wrote in New scientist:
- "They extend for some 16,000 kilometres in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They cover 6500 square kilometres and were all dug by the Edo people. In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.20
Ashanti architecture from Ghana is perhaps best known from the reconstruction at Kumasi. Its key features are courtyard-based buildings, and walls with striking reliefs in mud plaster brightly painted. An example of a shrine can be seen at Bawjiase in Ghana. Four rectangular rooms, constructed from wattle and daub, lie around a courtyard. Animal designs mark the walls, and palm leaves cut to tiered shape provide the roof.
The Yoruba surrounded their settlements with massive mud walls. Their buildings had a similar plan to the Ashanti shrines, but with verandahs around the court. The walls were of puddled mud and palm oil. The most famous of the Yoruba fortifications and the second largest wall edifice in Africa is Sungbo's Eredo, a structure that was built in honour of a traditional oloye by the name of Bilikisu Sungbo in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. It is made up of sprawling mud walls and the valleys that surrounded the town of Ijebu-Ode in Ogun state. Sungbo's Eredo is the largest pre-colonial monument in Africa, larger than the Great Pyramid or Great Zimbabwe.
Engaruka is a ruined settlement on the slopes of Mount Ngorongoro in northern Tanzania. Seven stone terraced villages along the mountainside comprised the settlement. A complex structure of stone channel irrigation was used to dike, dam, and level surrounding river waters. The stone channels run along the mountainside and base. Some of these channels were several kilometers long channelling and feeding individual plots of land. The irrigation channels fed a total area of 5,000 acres (20 km2).2122
Burundi never had a fixed capital. The closest thing was a royal hill, when the king moved, the location became the capital called the insago. The compound itself was enclosed inside a high fence. The compound had two entrance. One was for herders and herds. The other was to the royal palace. This palace was surrounded by a fence. The royal palace had three royal courtyard. Each serve a particular function one for herders, a sanctuary, kitchen and granary.23
Nyanza was a royal capital of Rwanda. The king's residence the Ibwami was built on a hill. The surrounding hills were occupied by permanent or temporary dwellings. These dwellings were round huts surrounded by big yards and high hedge to separate compounds. The Rugo the royal compound was made of circular reed fence around thatched houses. The houses were carpeted with mats and had a clay hearth in the center for the king, his wife, and entourage. The royal house was close to 200-100 yards. It looked like a huge maze of connected huts and granaries. It had one entrance that lead to a large public square called the karubanda.24
In western Uganda one finds numerous earthworks near the Katonga River. These earthworks have been affiliated with the Empire of Kitara. The most famous Bigo Bya Mugenyi is about four square miles with the Katonga River on one side. The earthwork ditch was dug out by lifting cutting through solid bedrock and earth, about 200,000 cubic metres. It was about 12 feet (3.7 m) high. It is not certain whether the function was for defense or pastoral use. Very little is known about the Ugandan earthworks.25
The capital (kibuga) of Buganda constantly changed from hill to hill, with each change of Kabaka. In the late 19th century, a permanent Kibuga of Buganda was established at Mengo Hill. The capital was divided into quarters corresponding to provinces. Each chief built a dwelling corresponding to provinces. Each chief built a dwelling for wife, slaves, dependents, and visitors. The city was a mile and half wide. Large plots of land were available for planting bananas and fruits. Roads were wide and well maintained.26
The Christianization of Nubia began in the 6th century. Its most representative architecture are churches. They are based on Byzantium Basilica's. The structures are relatively small and made of mud bricks. Vernacular architecture of the Christian period is scarce. Architecture of Soba is the only one that has been excavated. The structures are of sun dried bricks, same as present day Sudan, except for an arch. During the Fatimide phase of Islam, about the 11th century Nubia converted to Islam and became arabized. Its most import mosque was the mosque of Derr.2728
Farther south, increased trade (namely with Arab merchants) and the development of ports saw the birth of Swahili architecture. Developed from an outgrowth of indigenous Bantu settlements,29 one of the earliest examples is the Palace of Husuni Kubwa lying west of Kilwa, built about 1245. As with many other early Swahili buildings, coral was the main construction material, and even the roof was constructed by attaching coral to timbers. Contrastingly, the palace at Kilwa was a two-story tower, in a walled enclosure. Other notable structures from the period include the pillar tombs as Malindi and Mnarani in Kenya, and elsewhere, originally built from coral but later from stone. Later examples include Zanzibar's Stone Town, with its famous carved doors, and the Great Mosque of Kilwa.
Mbanza Congo was the capital of the Kingdom of Kongo with a population of 30,000 plus. It sat on a cliff with river below and forested valley. The King's dwelling was described as a mile and half enclosure with walled pathways, courtyard, gardens, decorated huts, and palisades. One early explorer described it in terms of a Cretan labyrinth.30
The capital of the Kuba Kingdom was surrounded by a 40-inch-high (1,000 mm) fence. Inside the fence were roads, a walled royal palace, urban buildings. The palace was rectangular and in the center of the city.31
The Luba tended to cluster in small villages, with rectangular houses facing a single street. Kilolo, patrilineal chieftains, headed local village government, under the protection of the king. Cultural life centered around the kitenta, the royal compound, which later came to be a permanent capital. The kitenta drew artists, poets, musicians and craftsmen, spurred by royal and court patronage
The Lunda Empire (western) established its capital 100 km from Kassai in open woodland, between two rivers 15 km apart. It was surrounded by fortified earthen ramparts. and dry moats about 30 plus km . The Mwato Yamvo's compound musumba was surrounded with large fortification of double layered live trees or wood ramparts. The musumba had multiple courtyards with designated functions, straight roads, and public squares. Its immense hygienic and cleanly value has been noted by European observers.32
The Eastern Lunda dwelling of the Kacembe(king) was described as containing fenced roads, a mile long. The enclosed walls were made of grass, 12 to 13 span in height. The enclosed roads lead to a rectangular hut opened on the west side. In the center was a wooden base with a statue on top about 3 span.33
The Maravi people built bridges called Uraro due to changing river depth. These bridges were made out of bamboo. Bamboos were placed parallel to each other and tied together by bark (maruze). One end of the bridge would be tied to an existing tree. The bridge would curve downward 80 spans when entering. A bamboo on top would serve as a balustrade.
In Southern Africa one finds ancient and widespread traditions of building in stone. Two broad categories of these tradition have been noted: 1. Zimbabwean style 2. Transvaal Free State style. North of the Zambezi one finds very little stone ruins.34 The Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, geopolitically part of Southern Africa, is culturally distinct as reflected by the Southeast Asian influences in its architectural styles brought to the island by the first seafaring migrants to settle there.
Mapungubwe is considered the most socially complex society in southern Africa. The first southern African culture to display economic differentiation. The elite was separated on a mountain settlement, made of sandstone. It was the precursor to Great Zimbabwe. Large tracks of dirt was carried to the top of the hill. At the bottom of the hill was a natural amphipheater and at the top elite graveyard. There was only two pathway to the top, one was a narrow steep cleft along the side of the hill which observers at the top had a clear view.
Great Zimbabwe is the largest medieval city in sub-Saharan Africacitation needed. Great Zimbabwe was constructed and expanded for more than 300 years in a local style that eschewed rectilinearity for flowing curves. Neither the first nor the last of some 300 similar complexes located on the Zimbabwean plateau, Great Zimbabwe is set apart by the terrific scale of its structure. Its most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, has dressed stone walls as high as 36 feet (11 m) extending approximately 820 feet (250 m),35 making it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. Houses within the enclosure were circular and constructed of wattle and daub, with conical thatched roofs.
Khami was the capital of the Torwa State and the successor of Great Zimbabwe. The techniques of Great Zimbabwe were further refined and developed. Elaborate walls were constructed by connecting carefully cut stones forming terraced hills.36
Sotho/Tswana architecture represent the other stone building tradition of southern Africa, centered in the transvaal, highveld north and south of the Vaal. Numerous large stonewalled enclosures and stoned housed foundations have been found in the region.37 The capital Molokweni of the Kwena(Tswana) was a stoned wall town as large as the Eastern Lunda capital.38
Zulu Architecture was constructed with more perishable materials. Dome shaped huts typically comes to mind when one thinks of Zulu dwellings, but later on it evolved into dome over cylinder shape walls. Zulu capitals were elliptical in shape. The exterior was lined with durable wood palisade. Domed huts in rows of 6 through 8 lined the interior of exterior palisades. In the center of the capital city was the kraal, used by the king to examine his soldiers, holding cattle, or ceremonies. It was an empty circular area at the center of the capital, lined with less durable palisades compared to the exterior palisades. The entrance of the city was opposite to the highly fortified Royal Enclosure called the Isigodlo. This was the general makeup of Zulu capitals Mgungundlovu (King Dingane's capital) and Ulundi(King Cetshwayo's capital).
The Southeast Asian origins of the first settlers of Madagascar are reflected in the island's architecture, typified by rectangular dwellings topped with a peaked roof and often built on short stilts. The more East African Coastal dwellings are generally made of plant materials, while those of the central Highlands tend to be constructed in cob or brick. The introduction of brick-making in the 19th century by European missionaries led to the emergence of a distinctly Malagasy architectural style that blends the norms of traditional wooden aristocratic homes with European details.39
||Khauxa!nas was a wall construct in southeastern Namibia built by Oorlam (Khoi). Its perimeter was 700 m and 2 metres in height. It was built with stone slabs and displays features of both the Zimbabwean and Transvaal Free State style of stone construction.3440
During the early modern period, the absorption of new diverse influences such as Baroque, Arab, Turkish and Gujarati Indian style began with the arrival of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. Portuguese soldiers had initially come in the mid-16th century as allies to aid Ethiopia in its fight against Adal, and later Jesuits came hoping to convert the country. Some Turkish influence may have entered the country during the late 16th century during its war with the Ottoman Empire (see Habesh), which resulted in an increased building of fortresses and castles. Ethiopia, naturally hard to defensible because of its numerous ambas or flat-topped mountains and rugged terrain, yielded little tactical use from the structures in contrast to their advantages in the flat terrain of Europe and other areas, and so had until this point little developed the tradition. Castles were built especially beginning with the reign of Sarsa Dengel around the Lake Tana region, and subsequent Emperors maintained the tradition, eventually resulting in the creation of the Fasil Ghebbi (royal enclosure of castles) in the newly founded capital (1635), Gondar. Emperor Susenyos (r.1606-1632) converted to Catholicism in 1622 and attempted to make it the state religion, declaring it as such from 1624 until his abdication; during this time, he employed Arab, Gujarati (brought by the Jesuits), and Jesuit masons and their styles, as well as local masons, some of whom were Beta Israel. With the reign of his son Fasilides, most of these foreigners were expelled, although some of their architectural styles were absorbed into the prevailing Ethiopian architectural style. This style of the Gondarine dynasty would persist throughout the 17th and 18th centuries especially and also influenced modern 19th-century styles and later.
Early European colonies developed around the West African coast, building large forts, as can be seen at Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle, Christiansborg, Fort Jesus and elsewhere. These were usually plain, with little ornament, but showing more internal creativity at Dixcove Fort. Other embellishments were gradually accreted, with the style inspiring later buildings such as Lamu Fort and the Stone Palace of Kumasi.
By the late 19th century, most buildings reflected the fashionable European eclecticism and pastisched Mediterranean, or even Northern European, styles. Examples of colonial towns from this era survive at Saint-Louis, Senegal, Grand-Bassam and elsewhere. A few buildings were pre-fabricated in Europe and shipped over for erection. This European tradition continued well into the 20th century with the construction of European-style manor houses, such as Shiwa Ng'andu in what is now Zambia, or the Boer homesteads in South Africa, and with many town buildings.
The revival of interest in traditional styles can be traced to Cairo in the early 19th century. This had spread to Algiers and Morocco by the early 20th century, from which time colonial buildings across the continent began to pastiche elements of traditional African architecture, the Jamia Mosque in Nairobi being a typical example. In some cases, architects attempted to mix local and European styles, such as at Bagamoyo.
The impact of modern architecture began to be felt in the 1920s and 1930s. Le Corbusier designed several unbuilt schemes for Algeria, including ones for Nemours and for the reconstruction of Algiers. Elsewhere, Steffen Ahrens was active in South Africa, and Ernst May in Nairobi and Mombasa.
The Italian futurists saw Asmara as an opportunity to build their designs. Planned villages were constructed in Libya and Italian East Africa, including the new town of Tripoli, all utilising modern designs.
After 1945, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew extended their work on British schools into Ghana, and also designed the University of Ibadan. The reconstruction of Algiers offered more opportunities, with Algiers Cathedral, and universities by Oscar Niemeyer, Kenzo Tange, Zwiefel and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. But modern architecture in this sense largely remained the preserve of European architects until the 1960s, one notable exception being Le Groupe Transvaal in South Africa, who built homes inspired by Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.
A number of new cities were built following the end of colonialism, while others were greatly expanded. Perhaps the best known example is that of Abidjan, where the majority of buildings were still designed by high-profile non-African architects. In Yamoussoukro, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro is an example of a desire for monumentality in these new cities, but Arch 22 in the old Gambian capital of Banjul displays the same bravado.
Experimental designs have also appeared, most notably the Eastgate Centre, Harare in Zimbabwe. With an advanced form of natural air-conditioning, this building was designed to respond precisely to Harare's climate and needs, rather than import less suitable designs. Neo-vernacular architecture continues, for instance with the Great Mosque of Nioro or New Gourna.
Other notable structures of recent years have been some of the world's largest dams. The Aswan High Dam and Akosombo Dam hold back the world's largest reservoirs. In recent years, there has also been renewed bridge building in many nations, while the Trans-Gabon Railway is perhaps the last of the great railways to be constructed.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina at Shatby, Egypt—a large airy spacious regional public library, built overlooking the Mediterranean—completed in 2001 and designed by Snøhetta, in association with Hamza Associates of Cairo, is a good example of a modern granite-cladding construction. A commemoration of the Library of Alexandria, once the largest library in the world but destroyed in antiquity, the new Library's architecture is ultramodern and very non-traditional.
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- Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture (20th Edition, 1996), Ed Dan Cruickshank
- African Art, Frank Willett
- African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation by Nnamdi Elleh (1st Edition,1996)
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