By Sarah Kingdom
Africa is beautiful and fascinating. Its sweeping landscapes offer adventurous travellers incredible and diverse safari expeditions and breath-taking natural encounters, but the continent is also slowly being recognised for its impressive historical sites. With 145 World Heritage Sites and numerous places to visit, from ancient ruins to memorials of more recent historical events, there is an array of famous landmarks that deserve your consideration.
To help you narrow down your selection to some of the more accessible of these sites, I have compiled a list of some of the historical places I would highly recommend adding to your next African itinerary. I guarantee they will leave a lasting impression. Ready to get started? Let’s start from the oldest, and work our way forward.
Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
Often referred to as the Cradle of Mankind, Olduvai Gorge is the oldest of the historical sites on our list. Olduvai is without a doubt one of the world’s most fascinating and most important archaeological and paleoanthropological sites in the world.
Made famous by paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, who conducted numerous digs here in the mid-20th century, Olduvai Gorge is renowned for the early hominine fossils discovered here and holds the earliest evidence of the existence of our human ancestors.
The gorge’s remains cover a time span from about 2,1 million to 15 000 years ago and include the fossil remains of more than 60 hominines (human ancestors). Olduvai Gorge provides the most continuous known record of human evolution over the last two million years. It has also produced the longest known archaeological record of the development of stone tools.
Set between the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park, Olduvai Gorge is a good stop-off if you are travelling between the two. A visit to Olduvai Gorge usually focuses on the museum, which overlooks the gorge. Here you have a chance to listen to a short presentation by a resident guide.
Pro tip: For a small tip (around US$10) you can drive down into the gorge itself. This is around a 10-minute drive and you would typically spend no more than 20 minutes here. You will go with a member of the staff, not a guide, but there is an information board at the site.
The Pyramids, Egypt
No list of historic sites to visit in Africa would be complete without the pyramids. The most famous of Egypt’s pyramids are those at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo. For thousands of years these three incongruous, overpowering and overwhelming triangles of stone have aroused curiosity, thanks to their perfect geometry, fascinating shape and impressive size.
The pyramids are one of the greatest mysteries and wonders of all time. Scientists still are not entirely sure how people, thousands of years ago, were able to amass such huge rocks and create the pyramids and they are definitely one of the most remarkable structures ever built.
The Giza complex contains three pyramids, all of them tombs for the pharaohs constructed by thousands of workers. Today they stand as a tribute to the power and organisation of Ancient Egypt.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the main Giza complex. Built from 2.3 million blocks of stone and weighing six million tonnes, Khufu’s pyramid truly is great. The second pyramid was built for Pharaoh Khafre, all its treasures have long since been looted, but the pharaoh’s sarcophagus still remains in the burial chamber.
Downhill is the Sphinx, ancient guardian of the pyramids, a feline enigma sitting, paws outstretched, its muscular leonine body carved from stone, with a face upon which so many have gazed and wondered. Stripped of their polished limestone, scratched with graffiti and damaged by earthquakes, the pyramid complex at Giza is still magnificent.
After visiting the pyramids, set aside at least half a day to explore downtown Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. This vast repository is home to more than 120 000 artefacts from Ancient Egypt, including the treasures and gold burial mask of Tutankhamun. Most objects are still on display, although some are in the process of being moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum, Giza, scheduled to open later this year.
Pro tip: Visit the pyramids in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. Follow the road past the pyramids, to reach a plateau for the best panoramic view of the site. Hire a camel or horse-drawn cart to see the pyramids from the desert, but agree on a price before you set off! Beware, the touts and trinket peddlers are mercenary here!
Great Zimbabwe Ruins
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Great Zimbabwe is one of the continent’s hidden gems. These extensive granite remains of an ancient, Iron Age city, are found in the south-eastern hills of Zimbabwe.
Built between the 11th and 14th centuries, the sprawling ruins at Great Zimbabwe are the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. The ruined city’s gigantic walls, towers and edifices display some incredible architecture, and during its heyday, it is believed to have been the economic, political and religious heart of a great kingdom, although which kingdom is not certain.
Great Zimbabwe is a place of mystery. So much about the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara is still unknown. What is certain, though, is that the level of skill and ingenuity required to construct this mortarless stonework is awe-inspiring. Some of the walls are six metres thick and 11m high, and the place reverberates with the memories of a lost empire. It’s believed that as many as 20 000 people lived there at one time.
As you walk through its narrow passages and enclosures, you really appreciate the phenomenal craftsmanship. Though as you ponder just how important this place once was, you will be left wondering about its puzzling end.
Why was a thriving centre of power, a kingdom rich from trade in gold and ivory with Asia and the Arab world, abandoned four centuries later? Theories range from drought and overgrazing in the valley rendering the area uninhabitable to the city moving to strengthen links with its trading partners.
The mystery remains and you are bound to have a few theories of your own once you have visited this incredible site.
Pro tip: There are eight carved soapstone birds (probably representing the Bateleur Eagle or the African Fish Eagle) found in the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, and today these are the national emblem of Zimbabwe. If you take a look at the national flag or coat of arms, you will see it depicted there. — Travel Awaits.
- To be continued next week.
- Kingdom was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, before moving to Africa at the age of 21. She is a mountain climber and guide, traveller, yoga teacher, trail runner and mother of two.