Why the Tomb of Askia is the greatest and best-preserved remnant of the powerful Songhai Empire

Emmanuel Kwarteng November 15, 2022
Tomb of Askia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Gio53

Studies show that before the rise of European governments, ancient empires and kingdoms ruled 90% of Africa. From the Songhai Empire to the Aksumite Empire to the Ashanti Empire of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and many more, early European invaders only took 10% of the continent.

Over 500 years ago, the people of the Songhai Empire raised the Tomb of Askia, which is still a venerated relic today. Askia Muhammad, Emperor of Songhai, constructed the Tomb of Askia in 1495. The complex also includes two flat-roofed mosque structures, the mosque cemetery, and an open-air assembly area in the city of Gao, Mali, close to the banks of the River Niger.

In 1493, Askia Muhammad, a military and political leader from West Africa, took the throne of the Songhai Empire. His huge kingdom was one of the biggest and most powerful in African history, and he was a very good leader who set up a good system for running it all. 

He set up provincial governments in Songhai, with governors in charge of each one and new departments and jobs for finance, justice, the interior, agriculture, water, and more. He set up a permanent army led by a general and picked an admiral to be in charge of his fleet of war canoes.

Askia Muhammad was a devout man who quickly made Islam the religion of the aristocracy. He gave the command to build what is now known as the Tomb of Askia after Gao was chosen as the empire’s formal capital and Islam was declared its official religion, according to reports. 

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre states that the Tomb of Askia, a stunning 17-meter pyramidal building, is evidence of the strength and wealth of the empire that prospered in the 15th and 16th centuries due to its control of the trans-Saharan trade, especially in salt and gold. It’s also a great case study of the West African Sahelian custom of constructing massive structures out of mud.

The most impressive structures in West Africa are often made of mud, either as bricks or as a more traditional building material. The savanna is the perfect place to build with mud bricks because it gets enough rain to make bricks, plaster, and rammed earth but not so much that it would wash away the finished buildings. 

Rammed-earth construction is typical in dry climates where timber is hard to come by. Different cities had different approaches to traditional mud architecture; in Djenne, for example, cylindrical mud bricks were employed, while in others, basic dried-earth lumps were the structural material of choice.

The tomb of Askia stands in front of the Great Mosque of Gao, the New World Encyclopedia says. Its design is a tribute to the ancient Saharan practice of building large tumuli or burial pyramids, on the graves of important ancestors, a practice that dates back to before the year 1000 B.C.E. This massive structure is part of an emerging architectural style for mosques in which the structure itself serves as a shrine, tower, and burial ground.

In northern Gao, on Avenue des Askia, you’ll find the Tomb of Askia. Gao is the capital of Mali’s Gao Region. It is about 200 miles southeast of Timbuktu and on the banks of the River Niger. Gao is connected to nearby towns, like Timbuktu, by a ferry service on the Niger River and by an international airport in the city.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 15, 2022


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