The African origin of fortified castles

The phrase fortified castle seems to be instinctively reminiscent of Europe and its medieval knights. Yet, it is in Africa that those constructions were born and it is from the black continent that they spread…

Fortified castles in Walt Disney’s tales in the West

Classically, a fort, fortress or fortification is defined as a high and thick stone enclosure, armed with pillars, and used to defend a community or a place of power. These constructions, especially when they demarcate a castle, have come to be associated with European identity even, to its traditional stories and other fairy tales. As we will see in this article, Africa is at the origin of these elaborate buildings.

The forts in the Pharaonic period

Experts agree that it was ancient Egypt that first built fortifications. The oldest one is said to date back to the pre-dynastic period, i.e. about 6,000 years ago. The remains of Nekhen, the former capital of the south of the country, would be the oldest evidence of this. It is in Nekhen that Pharaoh Naré Mari (Narmer), founder of the unified Egypt, was born 5,300 years ago. When Naré Mari conquered the north of Egypt and linked it to the south, he founded the capital of the north Men Nafooré (Memphis), which he militarized, providing it with fortifications to face the enemy.

Remains of a fortification in Nekhen

Throughout its history, Egypt had fortified enclosures but the one in Buhen, Sudan is considered as the most emblematic. The site development is alleged to have started 5,000 years ago. 3,900 years ago, the warrior Pharaoh, Khakawuré Sen-Useret (Sesostris III), conquered western Asia, including Arabia, Europe on the edge of the Black Sea and pushed his armies to Sudan.

Although Egyptians knew they were of Sudanese origin, the relationship between the two brotherly peoples was often tense and belligerent. Sen-Useret therefore had many fortresses built, including the one in Buhen, the most impressive one, to hold its borders and protect the country from other black warrior peoples. The Buhen fortress was used for nearly 1,300 years.

Reconstruction of the gigantic Buhen fortress in Sudan, with several ramparts and even canals filled with water diverted from the Nile, to serve as protection. The site covered an area of 13,000m2 and was 150 meters long.
It is absolutely amazing.
Image source: Wikipedia
Buhen, reconstructed rear view
The fortress built by Sen-Useret was leaning against the Nile
One of the last photographs of the remains of Buhen before it was flooded by the waters of the dam on the Nile in 1964
Buhen Walls kept at the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum.
On the picture, probably Pharaoh Hatshepsut facing Horo (Horus), her totemic equivalent
Khakawuré Sen-Useret (Sesostris III)
Reconstruction of the temple of Imana (God) in Karnak, Egypt. This temple is the most important religious building in African history. It was also fortified. A temple in general was called Hout Ntjer in African antiquity. Hout Ntjer also means Castle of the Lord. Through copying and transforming the Egyptian Vitalism (animism), the Romans took up this “house of the Lord” or “Castle of the Lord” terminology to name their places of worship when they officially founded Christianity in the 4th century.

The Phoenicians, the first black people in the Near East and the first civilizers of Europe, also made extensive use of fortifications to defend their city-states. Even their prestigious city of Carthage in present Tunisia had stone ramparts.

Reconstruction of the fortified city of Tyre in modern-day Lebanon, which was one of the main Phoenician cities

In modern-day Ethiopia – a former province of Pharaonic Sudan – there was the Kingdom of Aksum. Before the advent of Christianity in the country in the 4th century, Aksum was indeed a vitalist (animist) civilization and of Pharaonic type. Apart from its gigantic obelisks, Aksum is said to have had fortified castles, probably built 2,000 years ago. Despite its famous fortifications, China, for its part, only began to build them at the same time as Ethiopia, or a little earlier.

In Europe, the enclosures of the Roman Empire – whose history began almost 2,300 years ago – were often made of wood, earthen walls or sometimes stones. Those stone fortifications were modest compared to what was done in Africa. It was only around the 12th century that castles became a tradition in Europe, under the African influence.

The Moors, at the origin of the European tradition of fortified castles

At the end of the Pharaonic civilization around the year 300, forts were built in Zimbabwe. The one of Mhanwa, built on a hill, is the oldest structure of the Zimbabwe civilization. But the most impressive is the fortified city of Djado in Niger. Abandoned and totally unknown to Africans in general, its remains are reminiscent of an ancient developed city. If we rely on UNESCO’s data, we deduce that it was probably built between 1,500 and 2,500 years ago.

The fort in Mhanwa, Zimbabwe, built in the 5th century
The fortified city of Djado in northern Niger. It is located near an oasis, on the borders of northern Africa
The locality was certainly built by the Tubu and perhaps the Kanuri black people

In 640, the Western Roman Empire had already disappeared when the Arabs entered Africa through Egypt. A few decades later, they subdued the Black Maghreb by force. In the rise of that Muslim imperialism, the Black Berbers of Maghreb – also known as Moors or Saracens – invaded Spain in 711 as well as Portugal, Sicily and southern France. Europe fell back in a semi-barbaric state. Blacks and Arabs are the ones who re-civilized her.

It is all that African experience in the construction of forts that unfolded in Europe in the Middle Ages. The first one was built by Africans in Gibraltar from 711. The Moors covered their new territories with those sophisticated forts. In response to those invasions and Scandinavian attacks, France also built some forts two centuries later. In the 12th century, Europeans multiplied those buildings and gave them the value they had in their medieval history.

The Moorish fort of Agen in France, defended by Africans against Charlemagne’s armies in the 8th century
14th century illustration
Source: The Golden Age of the Moor, edited by Ivan van Sertima, page 63
A Moorish fortified castle with the queen at the top and the king on the flag 15th century illustration.
Attention is to be paid to the pointed roofs that are common in European castles today, and that are omnipresent in Western cartoons.
Source: Getty Museum of Los Angeles
Moorish fortified castles in Spain and Portugal. What you see was indeed built by black people, extremely black men and women even
Fortified castles built by Europeans in France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Italy

We can see the water body at the top left, which was already present in Buhen in the Pharaonic period. We add that according to the Christian tradition, the owners of fortified castles were called Lords. Therefore, if these European constructions were inspired by the technology of the Islamized black people, the words designating them stemmed from Egypt’s black vitalist people as mentioned earlier.

Just like in their European territories, Moroccan black Kings continued to build fortifications in Africa. And even when Europeans arrived in Africa in the 15th century to begin the terrorism of slavery, fortified castles were still in operation. As he relied on testimonies, 17th century’s French historian Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville said the following about Khami in Zimbabwe: “the palace is large, magnificent, flanked by towers outside with four main gates” [1]. Dutch writer Olfert Dapper adds, “We enter through four large gates where the guards of the emperor take turns as sentinels. The outside is fortified with towers”[2].

In the 18th century, Ethiopians still built fortified castles, such as the one in Gondar in the north of the country. The Tata (fort) of Sikasso in Mali was the last active fort in Africa. It disappeared under the assaults of French colonizers, thus putting an end to a black architectural tradition that lasted nearly 6,000 years.

The fortifications surrounding the city of Marrakech in Morocco. The city was founded by the black Almoravid king Yusuf Ibn Tachfin, emperor of the Maghreb and Moorish Europe
Ruins of Khami, Mwene Mutapa Empire, Zimbabwe
Remains of a fortification of the Swahili civilization in Kilwa, Tanzania. This building was probably built by Africans around the 14th century
Aerial view of the Gondar fortified castle in Ethiopia
Illustration of the Tata of Sikasso in Mali, known as Tarakoko. It had 3 concentric enclosures. The first one had a perimeter of 9 km!!!!! The exterior walls were 4 to 6 meters high, 6 meters thick at the base and 2 at the top. The second inner wall protected merchants and soldiers. And inside the third, were the king’s and his family’s homes.


By : Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)


– Military Architecture of ancient Egypt, article by Jimmy Dunn
– Wikipedia
– [1] La traite négrière européenne : vérité et mensonges ; Jean-Philippe Omotundé, page 75
– [2] Ditto, page 76

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