Building Africa: Of Pyramids and Walls, The Historic City of Kano

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Egypt and Sudan built pyramids of stone and bricks; Kano built groundnut pyramids. The groundnut pyramids were a symbol of the thriving agrarian economy of Kano State in the early 1900s. Throughout its history, Kano has always been a successful commercial center⁠— dating back to the 7th century when the city was founded by hunter-gatherer communities of the Nok culture.

Kano was led by many different chiefs in its history, and in the 10th century it was chosen as the official capital of the Hausa state under the rulership of King Gajemasu (Gijimasu), who began the construction of the historic walls. The Ancient Kano City Walls, a tentative UN Heritage Site, were originally constructed between 1095 and 1134 during the time Kano became the Hausa capital. The walls were about 12 miles long, 40 feet wide at the base, and 30 to 50 feet high.

Walls and pyramids showcase the highly industrious and independent nature of the historic Kano people and provide a great foundation to understand the growth of the ancient city. The evolution of Kano is defined by different battles and alternating tenures of independence and subjugation. However, regardless of the time, the city retained its economic and commercial strength. 

The commercial success and vibrant trading economy of Kano has always made it a vital component of African development. The city has always had vast commercial success through large scale agriculture, leather works, and livestock husbandry. Even today, it is home to one of the largest markets in West Africa, Kurmi Market. Exporting large quantities of agro-produce­, leather, and livestock has generated immense wealth for the city over the centuries.

Kano has always maintained monarchical rulership since its first King in 999. After the popular Fulani conquest of 1805, the city became a capital region under the Sokoto Caliphate. Despite losing its independence, the city was still allowed to retain its monarch, with the Emir being the principal authority, making Kano a city-state. Its economic importance and influence over the entire empire meant that Kano provided a model for other cities within the Sokoto Caliphate. It also held huge significance among other Hausa states and still unofficially retains its status as the capital of the Hausa states.

Both Sokoto and Kano were eventually conquered by the British in 1903. The city had earlier withstood three British invasions because of the sophistication of the City Walls, as well as its significant military forces built up with resources from years of strong economic trade. But in the famous Battle of Kano, the city’s defenses were broken and it was officially claimed as a British protectorate.

The modern-day Kano state was created in 1967 as a part of Northern Nigeria, with Kano city being its capital. It is currently the most populous state in Nigeria, according to the 2006 Census, and Kano city still retains its economic relevance even at a sub-national level. The city’s economy is boosted by several industries, including agriculture, tourism, processing, tanning and much more. Leather from Kano is believed to be of premium quality and is exported to major global markets.

By all standards, Kano is a top city and an excellent representation of the strength and economic growth of pre-colonial African cities. The groundnut pyramids have disappeared, and the walls are dilapidated, but the wealth of Kano remains. And so does its power to serve as an inspiration for new city developments within and outside Africa.

The original cover image is available here.