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Influence of religion and beliefs in architecture

Franklin Yemeli

Religion and beliefs have significantly influenced the development of societies in Africa, particularly in the construction of monuments. Four such monuments are the Osun-Oshogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria, the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, and the Aksum or Axum in Ethiopia. The Osun-Oshogbo sacred forest, located in Nigeria, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national monument, with numerous shrines, palaces, holy places, and worship places. The Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela, built in the early 13th century, are considered the largest Christian site in Africa. The Great Mosque of Djenné, built in 1838, is considered the most prestigious monument in West Africa. The city of Aksum, located near Ethiopia's northern border, was the heart of ancient Ethiopia's Aksumite Empire and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. However, some monuments are threatened with extinction due to human factors such as conflicts or uncontrolled urbanization.

Africa, the cradle of humankind! People often speak of it as a rich and fascinating continent, a land of natural and cultural diversity. And this is not just talking, because if you look closely, you will soon realize that this place is unique. From its breathtaking landscapes to the cultural practices and lifestyles of its people, this continent has much to seduce and inspire. However, one essential thing that is not talked about enough is the African monuments. They stand out because of their originality and, especially, the place they hold in the hearts of the local populations. Here, religion and beliefs have particularly influenced the development of societies and this is reflected in their buildings. Let’s discover together four of these monuments built by the local populations themselves and which still make the whole world dream.

“Osun-Oshogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria…”

About 250 kilometers from Lagos, in the south of Nigeria, lies the town of Oshogbo, the capital of Osun State. On the outskirts of this town is one of the last surviving areas of the primary forest despite deforestation, the Osun Sacred Forest. It is crossed by the Osun River, which is very important to the local community. The state, the forest, and the river are named after the goddess Osun, a deity of the Yoruba pantheon who is believed to reside in the river. Throughout the year, tourists and pilgrims visit the river to pay homage to the goddess.

The three “heads” of the Ogboni Shrine

In the Osun-Oshogbo sacred forest, there are about 400 species of plants, more than half of which have medicinal properties. Amid this dense vegetation, numerous shrines, two palaces, five holy places, and nine places of worship have been laid out along the banks. Over the past four decades, numerous sculptures and works of art have been erected in honor of the goddess Osun.

From the 1950s onwards, the forest’s history was marked by Suzanne Wenger, an Austrian adventurer and artist. After falling ill and being treated by a local herbalist, she married a Yoruba priest, adopted the local culture and devoted her time to restoring the shrines, defending the forest and the culture of the Yoruba, until she died in 2009. Together with local and foreign artists, Suzanne Wenger created the «New Sacred Art» movement in the early 1960s.

Today, the modern sculptures they created stand side by side with the old traditional ones. These are intended to underline the sacredness of the place and to celebrate the deities. This restoration has given the place a new lease of life, making it a symbol of Yoruba identity beyond the country’s borders.

Because of its sacred character, this forest is an important place for the community and its relationship with its deities. Indeed, regular worship services are held here, and every year festive processions are held to renew the mystical ties between the goddess and the people of Oshogbo, ensuring the preservation of the living cultural traditions of the Yoruba. The forest has been under the administrative control of the Osun State Government since 1990. Several measures have been put in place to prevent hunting, fishing, smuggling, logging and farming.

After being declared a national monument in 1965 and upgraded in status in the 1990s, the forest was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

“The Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia…”

Some 645 kilometres from the capital Addis Ababa, in what is now the Amhara region, lies the magnificent Lalibela. Perched on a mountainside, this monastic city is considered the largest Christian site in Africa. Its charm stems from the eleven rock-hewn churches built in the early 13th century by the order of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. Indeed, with the expansion of Islam, pilgrimages to the holy city were becoming increasingly difficult. King Lalibela, therefore, wanted to allow the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to have their own Jerusalem on their land. Hence the names «Black Jerusalem» or «Ethiopian Jerusalem» are often attributed to this city.

Its monolithic churches dug below ground level, several tens of metres deep, are not only an essential cultural asset for the community, but they have also helped to shape the landscape as it is today. They form two groups in addition to an isolated church.

Bete Giyorgis ©Sailko

To the northwest: Bete Debre Sina, Bete Mikael, Bete Gologota-Selassié, Bete Maryam, Bete Meskel and Bete Medhane Alem. To the southeast, about 300m from the first group: Bete Gebriel-Rufael, Bete Merqorewos, Bete Abba Libanos and Bete Amanuel. To the southwest: the solitary cross-shaped Bete Giyorgis.

A network of tunnels and gorges carved into the rock connect all the churches. Other elements referring to the Bible have been included in the planning of the site over the years to reflect the authentic Jerusalem as much as possible. These include the Jordan River and Mount Sinai.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, the site has been attracting more and more people from different horizons either on pilgrimage or to dis-cover the place. Like all other heritage sites, these churches are threatened over time by natural constraints, some more than others. After the creation of shelters scaffolded and covered with corrugated iron sheets to protect them, UNESCO launched a competition in 2001 to design more aesthetic protection.

In 2004, construction of the shelters designed by Italian architects Claudio Baldis-serri, Lorenzo Sarti and Aldo Aymonino began. However, these sloping roofs supported by gigantic metal pillars are not unanimously accepted, and for some people represent more of a danger than protection.

“The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali…”

In the heart of the beautiful city of Djenné, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, lies a jewel considered by many as the most prestigious monument in West Africa: The Great Mosque of Djenné. In addition to being the largest mud building in the world, it is considered to be the supreme representation of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style. This particular style is characteristic of this region and makes the mosques in the Sahel very recognizable. But unlike the other mosques, the Great Mosque of Djenné was built in a place that had not previously hosted a religious building. It was built in 1238 by Sultan Koi Komboro on the site of his palace.

After his conversion to Islam, he decided to demolish his palace and build a mosque in its place. The next sultan built the towers and the one after that, the surrounding wall. In 1819, the city was taken by Sékou Amadou, following a holy war. He decided to destroy the mosque built by Koi Komboro because it did not reflect the simple and uncluttered Islam he preached. He, therefore, built a more modest mosque and prevented access to the great mosque which, without maintenance, rapidly deteriorated under the action of the elements.

When the French arrived years later, the mosque was in ruins. It is under this french occupation that the present building was built. It was built between 1906 and 1907 under the supervision of Ismaïla Traoré.

The building was built on a platform of 85 m in length and 75 m in width with non-parallel sides. The platform is elevated 3 m above the natural ground level and is accessible thanks to six staircases that symbolize the passage from the profane to the sacred. The building has a maximum capacity of about 1000 people.

Despite the apparent symmetry of the building, the facades are all different. Several elements contribute to making them sublime and authentic; in particular, the texture of the earthen material, the openings, the pilasters surmounted by cones, and above all the bundles of Rodier palm sticks which also serve as scaffolding during the plastering work. The eastern façade, facing Mecca, is the most ornate and monumental with its three imposing minarets.

Inside the Great Mosque ©Juan Manuel Garcia

The building has a roofed section supported by 90 huge pillars connected by ogival arches. The roof, which is 8 m above the lower floor, has 104 holes for lighting and ventilation of the interior spaces. An uncovered area at the rear is bordered on three sides by galleries. Every year, maintenance work is organized for this colossal and fragile jewel, to protect it before the arrival of the rains.

The whole community takes part in the plastering work under the direction of the Djenné masons’ guild. The material used is a clever mixture of earth and water, with rice bran, shea butter, and baobab powder, made by the inhabitants themselves. This activity is accompanied by great festivities that are very important for the community.

“Aksum or Axum in Ethiopia…”

Located in a mountainous region near the northern border of Ethiopia, the city of Aksum was between the Ist and VIth centuries the heart of ancient Ethiopia, the Aksumite Empire. This Empire at the crossroads of three continents, Africa, Arabia, and the Greco-Roman world was more powerful than the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia.

Axoum (Éthiopie) ©UNESCO_Francesco Bandarin

Today, the old city of Aksum, a symbol of this former glory, is characterized by massive ruins dating from the Ist to the XIIIth century. These include monolithic obelisks, giant stelae, royal tombs, and ancient castles. The city, with its many archaeological sites, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Among the most important sites in the city is a large stelae park with tens of monolithic obelisks. These are among the largest man-made monoliths. The largest one still standing is over 23 meters high and has a beautiful engraved decoration.

However, there was a 33 meters high one that is said to have collapsed during its installation. The broken pieces are still on the site. The inscriptions made in the stone were certainly not only of decorative value. They have proved to be of great importance to ancient historians. Some of them contain texts in three languages, Greek, Sabean and Geza, inscribed by King Ezana in the 4th century after Christ. In 1937, after the occupation of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s armies, one of the Aksum obelisks was removed from the site and taken to Italy as a war trophy. It was erected in Rome, in front of the building that housed the Italian Ministry of Africa until 1945 and which became the headquarters of the FAO in 1951.

After committing to return it in 1947, Italy finally did so in 2005. This was followed by the reinstallation of the obelisk on its original site in 2008. Obelisks were used as tombs for the kings of old. Over time, many tombs have been excavated, some looted, others spared. Their contents are now preserved in the archaeological museums of Aksum and Addis Ababa. Another major site in the city is the Church of St. Mary of Zion, located near the large stelae park. It is one of the churches built after the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century after Christ and is supposed to house the Ark of the Covenant.

It is a bit sad that such masterpieces are often ignored and it is even more worrying to learn that some of them are threatened with extinction. Indeed, alongside the list of Unesco World Heritage sites, there is the list of World Heritage in Danger. Several of these extraordinary sites around the world are already listed, threatened with extinction mainly by human factors such as conflicts or uncontrolled urbanization. The ancient city of Djenné has been on this list since 2016, as the insecurity in the region prevents the maintenance and protection of this jewel.

On the other hand, climate change would also be a threat, as it would have a significant impact on the availability of quality mud for construction and maintenance work such as the Great Mosque. None of the other heritages mentioned above is included in this list, but the committee has discussed in the past the possibility of including Lalibela. Several of its monolithic churches are indeed in a state of severe deterioration.

The good news is that these monuments are increasingly being considered, and steps are being taken to ensure that for a very long time to come they can continue to maintain the harmony of local societies, provide information on historical facts and ways of life, and above all inspire us with their majestic and lasting character.

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