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date: 19 April 2019

African Urban History and Historiography

Summary and Keywords

The urban history of Africa is as ancient, varied, and complex as that of other continents, and the study of this history shares many of the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of urban history generally. Knowledge of Africa’s historic cities is based on archaeological investigation, analysis of historic documents, linguistics, and ethnographic field methods. The historiography of cities in Africa has debated what constitutes a city, how urbanization can be apprehended in the archaeological record and in documentary sources, why cities emerged, and how historic cities have related to states. The great impact colonization had on African urbanization is a major topic of research, including in the study of postcolonial cities. The “informality” of much contemporary urbanization, both in terms of economic activities and architecture, has been a major topic of research since the 1970s.

With few exceptions, prior to the 20th century cities were relatively small, with no more than 20,000–30,000 inhabitants. Religion, trade, and the concentration of power were major factors in the rise of cities across the continent. The largest and most well-studied cities were often the capitals of important states. At times networks of city-states flourished, as in Hausaland, Yorubaland, and along the Swahili coast. The cities of northern Africa shared many morphological characteristics with other cities of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, being characterized by a high density of population, masonry architecture, and encircling city walls. South of the Sahara, cities tended to be multinucleated, with low densities of population and built-over surfaces, and they tended to merge with surrounding agricultural landscapes in an urban–rural continuum. Perishable construction materials such as earth, wattle, and thatch were widely used for both domestic and public architecture.

Keywords: architecture, capitals, cities, city-states, colonization, construction, history, historiography, population, postcolonial, urbanization

The History of Cities in Africa

The urban history of Africa is as ancient, varied, and as complex as that of other continents, and the study of this history shares many of the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of urban history generally. Our knowledge of Africa’s historic cities is based on archaeological investigation, analysis of historic documents, linguistics, and ethnographic field methods. The historiography of cities in Africa has debated what constitutes a city, how urbanization can be apprehended in the archaeological record and in documentary sources, why cities emerged, and how historic cities have related to states. Religion, trade, and the concentration of power were major factors in the rise of cities across the continent. The largest and most well-studied cities were often the capitals of important states. The great impact colonization had on African urbanization is a major topic of research, including in the study of postcolonial cities.

Ancient Cities

The first region of Africa to experience urbanization, in the fourth millennium bce, was the Nile Valley. In the first millennium bce, cities were thriving across North Africa and the Ethiopian Plateau. Cities arose in West and East Africa early in the first millennium CE.

The Nile Valley

Prior to the development of a unified state in Egypt around 3200 bce, the Nile Valley was home to local and regional agrarian polities organized as city-states.1 The most important institutions in these settlements were temples, the foundations of which have been found beneath the floors of the much larger temples of later periods. The largest cities of the predynastic period were Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), Nubt (Nagada), This, and Abydos, all located in Upper Egypt.

Temples remained the most important urban institutions throughout all the subsequent periods of Pharaonic history. They managed the storage and distribution of food and provided the state with much of its bureaucracy. They were also responsible for the great mortuary complexes (pyramids and tombs) of the ruling dynasties. Temple and tomb complexes often contained enclosed neighborhoods housing priests and workers. Typically, purpose-built towns, such as the worker’s town of Kahun, next to the pyramid of Senusret II (r. 1897–1878 bce) at Al-Lahun, and the Middle Kingdom (2140–1782 bce) garrison towns of the Lower Nubian frontier, consisted of courtyard houses aligned along an orthogonal street plan.2

Until the New Kingdom (1570–1069 bce) cities, even the capitals were small, probably not exceeding 20,000 inhabitants.3 The New Kingdom capitals, namely, Menufer (Memphis), Waset (Thebes), and, briefly, Akhetaten (also called Amarna, 1346–1332 bce), were substantially larger, possibly 30,000 to 100,000 inhabitants.4 The capitals were dominated by gigantic temple complexes with attached palaces. While temple complexes had monumental perimeter walls—more symbolic than defensive—Egyptian cities were not enclosed by defensive walls and tended to form a continuum with the surrounding villages of the densely populated agricultural zones around them. During all periods of ancient Egyptian history, most construction, including of palaces, was of sun-baked brick (adobe), which has left little trace in the archaeological record. Only temples and funerary complexes, and the largely ceremonial palaces attached to them, were of stone masonry.

Urbanization in the Kingdom of Kush (Upper Nubia) shared many characteristics with that of the lower Nile Valley. Cities, particularly the capital cities, were dominated by temple and mortuary complexes. The first capital, Napata (capital 806–295 bce), included three separate pyramid fields similar to but much smaller than those of Memphis, as well as several large temples distributed along both banks of a 15-km stretch of the Nile.5 This is an indication of a discontinuous multinucleated city. No palace compound has been identified at Napata, but a walled “Royal City” and temple complex dominated the center of Meroë, the second capital (295 bce–320 ce).6 Meroë may also have been a manufacturing center. Large mounds of iron slag and the vestiges of smelting furnaces are found in its suburbs.

North Africa

The earliest cities in North Africa were associated with Phoenician trade, starting early in the first millennium bce. By the 8th century bce, when Phoenician commerce was fully developed, a string of Phoenician ports extended from Leptis Magna (Libya) to Salé on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.7 For the most part, these coastal towns did not develop beyond the needs of maritime commerce (a market by a port) and were not part of any colonization movement on the part of the Phoenicians. Their populations were mostly Amazigh (Berber). Inland, Amazigh cities such as Volubilis also developed at this time.8 Of the early Phoenician ports, Utica and Carthage in Tunisia developed into large cities.

Carthage became a major city and seat of an empire in the 6th century bce following the fall of Phoenicia to the Persians. Carthage was famous for its double harbor (an outer harbor for commercial ships and an inner harbor for the navy) and its great Temple of Baal-Hammon.9 Both the city and the harbor were protected by massive defensive walls. The other ancient Phoenician ports of the central and western Mediterranean basin, though part of the Carthaginian Empire, did not develop a similar urban infrastructure. In the 3rd century bce, Carthage was one of the largest cities in the world. It probably had several hundred thousand inhabitants, making it far larger than Rome at the time. Rome captured Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War (146 bce) and destroyed it. The Romans established a new city on the site in 49 bce and settled it with retired Roman soldiers. Roman Carthage grew to be a very large city in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.

Ancient Greeks also established cities in North Africa. The first Greek colony there was Cyrene (631 bce). Other coastal colonies were established in Cyrenaica in subsequent centuries. Alexander the Great brought Cyrenaica and Egypt under Greek rule. While the Cyrenaican cities conformed to Greek urban norms and civic life, apart from Alexandria and a few cities in the Delta, Egyptian cities continued to develop according to traditional Egyptian modes. For example, Ptolemaic temple architecture conformed to the classical New Kingdom style and Egyptian cities did not acquire agoras. The Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, founded in 332 bce, was the exception. It came to epitomize Hellenistic civilization. It had a grid plan, several ports, and a famous library. Alexandria was one of the largest cities in the world in the 2nd and 1st centuries bce. It was a famed center of learning.

City-building was a feature of Roman rule in North Africa. Old Punic–Amazigh cities were Romanized through the addition of monuments such as forums, temples, and places of public entertainment (theaters, circuses), and they eventually obtained citizenship. The Romans also founded two new types of city: military garrison towns and “colonies” for retired soldiers.10 The city of Timgad, established c. 100 ce in inland Algeria, combined both functions, that of actively protecting the frontier and of housing retired veterans. It is one of the best-preserved Roman cities anywhere, featuring a four-quarter cardo and decumanus grid plan and the full range of civic monuments: temples, a forum, basilicas, markets, baths, a library, and a theater.11 There are many other well-preserved Roman-era archaeological sites across North Africa, many of which contain important early Christian monuments. Roman rule left far fewer traces in Egypt, outside of Alexandria. As during the Hellenistic era, official architecture adhered to classical Pharaonic norms. Only a few new cities were built, the most well-known of which was Antinoopolis, established by Emperor Hadrian c. 130 ce.


The emergence of cities in Ethiopia dates from the middle of the first millennium bce. As in the Nile Valley, it appears to have been linked to the development of temples. The best preserved of these temples is at Yeha. Other temples of the pre-Christian period have been overlaid with churches and monasteries, which precludes archaeological investigation.

Thanks to both archaeology and contemporary documents and inscriptions, more is known of the cities of the Axumite era (c. 300 bce–960 ce). The city of Axum (also spelled Aksum) was the capital of an empire. It contained great monolithic monuments (stelae and “thrones”), stone masonry “palaces,” rock-cut mausolea, a large cathedral precinct, and important monasteries.12 It is likely that most of the city’s population lived outside this monumental political and religious center.13 Beyond the capital, important Axumite cities included the port of Adulis, on the Red Sea, and Matara. After the collapse of the Axumite Empire, the city of Axum with its churches continued as the center of Ethiopian Christianity, but cities elsewhere on the Ethiopian Plateau were abandoned in favor of rural types of settlements: monasteries and peripatetic royal encampments.

Cities of the Medieval Era

The integration of northern and eastern parts of Africa into the Islamic realm beginning in the 7th century stimulated trade across the continent. Networks of cities developed in both West and East Africa.

Egypt and North Africa

The Arab conquest of northern Africa was accompanied by the creation of two important garrison towns: Al-Fustat (precursor of Cairo) in Egypt (641) and Qayrawan in Tunisia (670). These served both as permanent military encampments for ongoing wars of conquest and as administrative centers for the newly conquered provinces of the Umayyad Empire (671–744). The dynasties that replaced Umayyad rule in Africa continued the practice of erecting new cities: Sijilmassa (757), Fez (808), Mahdia (921), Cairo (969), and Marrakech (1062).

Numerous contemporary geographers, chroniclers, and travelers wrote detailed descriptions of the cities of North Africa in Arabic and, since the beginning of the 20th century, an entire branch of Islamic and Middle East Studies has been devoted to the study of the “Islamic city.”14 Beyond the needs of state administration, these cities were also major centers of commerce and manufacturing. They had specialized markets. Among other high-value items, they produced leather goods, textiles, jewelry, weapons, and books. They were also centers of learning. Great mosques such as Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Tunis’ Zaytuna Mosque, and the Qarawiyyin in Fez functioned as universities hosting advanced studies in such sciences as mathematics and astronomy, and attracting students and scholars from Christian Europe as well as from West Africa and the Middle East. They were among the largest cities of the medieval world. In the mid-13th century, Fez may have had up to 250,000 inhabitants while, before it was afflicted by the plague of 1348, Cairo’s population probably stood at about 500,000.

Cities of the Sahel–Sudanic Belt

In contrast to the northern part of the continent, which has been comprehensively investigated by archaeologists and which has a wealth of documentary sources, understanding of the early history of urbanization south of the Sahara is still tentative.

The first cities in West Africa emerged in the Sahel–Sudanic Belt south of the desert. It was long assumed that these cities emerged in response to trans-Saharan trade but the archaeological research of Susan and Roger McIntosh at Jenne-Jeno has demonstrated that, at least in the inland delta of the Niger River, urbanization began as early as the 3rd century bce in a place and at a time unrelated to long-distance trade.15 Archaeological studies have been conducted at several other important Sahelian sites: at Tegdaoust (which may or may not be the Awdaghust of literary sources), Kumbi Saleh (probably the capital of Ghana described in historic documents), and Gao, capital of the Songhay Empire.16 For the most part, however, in the absence of comprehensive archaeological data on the Sahel’s early cities, historians have relied extensively on contemporary Arab authors, many of whom had not visited the cities they were describing. While stone masonry was a feature of the central districts of Tegdaoust and Kumbi Saleh, most urban architecture in the Sahel–Sudanic belt was of adobe (sun-dried brick). This building tradition still thrives in the early part of the 21st century, most famously in the towering adobe mosques of Jenne, Timbuktu, Gao, and Agadez.

The cities of the Sahel were in close contact with those of North Africa and Egypt through trade, diplomacy, and scholarship. The most well-known of these were Jenne, Walata, Gao, Timbuktu, and “Mali,” the capital of the empire of that name (c. 1230–1500), whose location has not been conclusively identified. Timbuktu achieved international renown as an intellectual center in the 16th century, when its Sankore mosque university was attracting scholars from the Qarawiyyin in Fez and Al-Azhar in Cairo. Leo Africanus (c. 1494–1554) described Timbuktu as a prosperous commercial and intellectual center with a major book market.17

Further east, in modern-day Nigeria, Hausa and Yoruba city-states emerged in the medieval period. Of the emerging Hausa cities, the best chronicled history is that of Kano.18 Like their counterparts on the Niger Bend, the Hausa cities were mostly inhabited by Muslims and were integrated to Sudanic and Saharan trade networks. South of the Niger, the Yoruba too had developed a number of city-states by the end of the first millennium ce.19 Of these, Ile-Ife was preeminent. In Yoruba tradition, Ile-Ife has always been a sacred city, the first city, the place where the world was created.20 The Yoruba cities, and neighboring Benin City, were very distant from the long-distance Saharan trade routes, and they emerged centuries before the development of long-distance Atlantic trade. In contrast to the Malian cities (Jenne, Timbuktu, Gao), the Yoruba and Hausa cities were fortified.

Urbanization in the Horn of Africa was largely attributable to Muslim trading networks, which gave rise to port cities such as Suakin and Zeila. On the Ethiopian Plateau, cities disappeared as a settlement form after the decline of Axum. Densely populated rural areas were dotted with monasteries rather than cities. The holy city of Roha (renamed Lalibela) was built by the saintly emperor Lalibala Gebre Meskel (r. 1181–1221). It consisted of eleven monolithic rock-hewn churches and replicated the sacred topography of Jerusalem. While Lalibela became a major center of pilgrimage, it did not remain a capital after the death of its founder.21

East Africa

Long-distance trade has been considered a major factor in the development of the coastal cities that stretched from Mogadishu (Somalia) to Chibuene (Mozambique). This coast, and the cities that grew up on it, are identified by the ethnonym Swahili.22 A diversity of Swahili archaeological sites have been excavated, including the cities of Dondo, Manda, Shanga, Imezi, Ungwana, Gedi, Kilepwa, Tumbatu Island, Songo Mnara, and Kilwa.23

The port cities of the Swahili Coast were predominantly Muslim, as attested to by the textual sources, oral histories, and numerous mosques and ornate tombs that have been excavated. Stone quarried from coastal reefs was often used for the prestige architecture in Swahili cities but most ordinary buildings were of earth and thatch. Cities on the mainland were usually fortified while those on islands sometimes were not. The sites contain prestige trade goods in glass, gold, and ceramic.24 Kilwa was the most important of the Swahili city-states. Kilwa’s ruler used the title of sultan and the city produced its own legitimating chronicle.25 Kilwa was established by 800 ce at the latest and by the late 12th century had come to monopolize maritime trade to the south. South of Kilwa, the ports of Chibuene and Sofala were the gateways to the commodities of southern Africa. Chibuene developed earlier, trading with the Limpopo Valley between 700 and 1200, whereas Sofala grew in importance in the later medieval period through trade with the Zimbabwe Plateau.26

Urbanization in the interior of southern Africa has been attributed to its mineral wealth and was characterized by drystone construction.27 The oldest known stone city is Mapungubwe, which thrived from the 11th through 13th centuries and which may have been a religious ceremonial center as much as a political capital. The elite status of this city is manifest in the high-value trade goods (glass beads, gold items, and Chinese and Middle Eastern ceramics) which have been found there. Mapungubwe was succeeded historically by Great Zimbabwe, which epitomizes the hilltop stone masonry settlements of the 13th through 16th centuries.28

Cities of the Early Modern Era

The circumnavigation of the continent by the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century and the integration of tropical Africa into global European trade networks marked another threshold in the development of its cities. This era corresponds to the height of the slave trade worldwide, trade in enslaved Africans dominating trans-Atlantic, trans-Saharan, and Indian Ocean commercial networks. Cities developed along the Atlantic coast and the southern extremity of the continent for the first time. Sources for the study of this era include the travel accounts of numerous European visitors, the logs and accounts of merchant ships and chartered companies, and published maps and illustrations. Historians of this era also use oral traditions, and there are an increasing number of archaeological investigations of urban sites, and particularly of towns involved in the Atlantic slave trade.29

Coastal Cities

During the mercantilist era, European traders (the Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, and others) engaged with states along Africa’s coasts. Various chartered companies maintained forts and “factories” (commercial warehouses) in coastal cities under African sovereignty. If no African town had previously existed on the site, one would soon grow up next to a European fort. While European companies ran the forts, this did not imply colonial rule; these companies traded with and paid taxes to African states. Many coastal cities under African sovereignty, such as Accra, Anomabu, Lagos, and Ouidah (Whydah), authorized trade with several rival European companies.30 The largest cluster of European forts was on the “Gold” and “Slave” coasts and included Elmina (est. 1482), Axim (1515), and Cape Coast (1653). Europeans also erected forts on the Swahili Coast (Sofala, Kilwa, Moçambique, Mombasa’s Fort Jesus, 1593) and in Madagascar (Fort Dauphin, 1643). European forts changed hands frequently as the various mercantilist powers waged war with each other.

In a few cases, European powers or companies directly ruled entire towns. The Portuguese ruled Luanda (which they founded in 1576) and Benguela (1617) on the Angolan coast, and Moçambique and Mombasa on the Swahili coast.31 The Dutch founded Gorée in 1621 (occupied by the French in 1678) and Cape Town in 1652, while the French established Saint Louis in Senegal in 1659.32 Most of these towns were on small easily defended islands; only Luanda, Benguela, and Cape Town were on the mainland.

Not all coastal urbanism during the mercantilist era can be attributed to European trade networks. One of the most successful port cities of the era was Zanzibar. Zanzibar came under the rule of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698 and it helped eject the Portuguese from all other ports north of Mozambique. During the 18th century, Zanzibar controlled most of these cities and the Sultan of Oman relocated his court there in 1832.33

In North Africa, Ottoman rule had little impact on the morphology and distribution of coastal cities. The three main Ottoman ports, Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, were important naval bases during the Habsburg wars, and they prospered through privateering (the Barbary corsairs). Salé on Morocco’s Atlantic coast was also an important privateering port, constituting an independent city-state (the “Bouregreg Republic”) from 1624 to 1668, at a time when every other port in the country was occupied by Portugal.34 When central government control was reestablished over the Atlantic coast, the Moroccan sultan Muhammad b. Abdallah (r. 1759–1790) closed its ports to European commerce, directing all trade to the new port city of Essaouira (also called Mogador) he had expressly built for this purpose in 1762.35

The progressive suppression of the maritime slave trade, and then of slavery itself, led to a new kind of coastal city, built to house freed captives. The first in the genre, Freetown, was established by the British Sierra Leone Company in 1792 in order to settle African American slaves (called “Nova Scotians”) who gained freedom by siding with the British during the American War of Independence. Monrovia was established in 1822 by the American Colonization Society to “repatriate” freed slaves from the United States and the Caribbean. The French, for their part, established Libreville in 1849 to house African captives freed from ships headed for Brazil.

Cities of the Interior

Inland from the ports, the largest and most successful cities tended to be capitals. After many centuries during which the Ethiopian court had temporarily encamped in various locations, Emperor Fasiladas (r. 1625–1660) selected Gondar to be a permanent capital in 1629. Over the next century and a half, there ensued a period of sustained construction of stone masonry palaces and churches partly built with the help of Portuguese clergymen. Beyond the central royal compound, the houses of ordinary inhabitants continued to be built of earth and thatch.36

Another inland capital influenced by Portuguese clerics was Mbanza Kongo. Mbanza Kongo was already a large city and the capital of a powerful kingdom when the Portuguese first visited the place in 1491. The royal city, which contained a large ceremonial square as well as important shrines and graves, stood on a hilltop while most of the population lived on the plateau below. All its buildings were of wood and thatch. In the early 16th century, the Portuguese, who christened the city “São Salvador,” helped transform the official part of the city into a city of stone, erecting a masonry palace, a cathedral, and a number of churches and Jesuit colleges. At its height in the mid-17th century, Mbanza Kongo had about 50,000 inhabitants. Even after its decline as a capital city, it retained its sacred status for the Kongo people.37

Antananarivo, the hilltop capital of Madagascar, was established in the early 17th century to serve a united Imerina kingdom. The city was centered on a fortified royal compound, called the rova, at the summit of a hill. Its multistoried buildings were built of wood. A ceremonial square stood outside the palace gate. Ambohimanga, a hilltop town 25 km north of Antananarivo, which was already sacred to the Merina, developed as a secondary capital during the 18th century.

One of the most impressive of the inland cities was Benin. One late 17th-century visitor, Laurenço Pinto, described it as being well-ordered, wealthy, and larger than Lisbon.38 It had straight wide streets. Archaeological surface surveys have traced the remains of multiple earthworks, some of which date to the 13th century, totaling 16,000 km in length and enclosing an area of over 6500 km2 surrounding the city.39

The neighboring Yoruba cities thrived in early modern times. There were dozens of cities located within 30 km of each other. Each had its own oba (king) whose palace, the afin, lay at the center of the city. The residences of the other court grandees were located at varying distance from the afin.40 Politically, Oyo Ile (Old Oyo) was the most important Yoruba city from the early 17th through the early 19th centuries.41 Other important Forest Belt capitals included the Abomey-Cana conurbation and Kumasi. Abomey and Cana, only 15 km apart, were the twin capitals of the Kingdom of Dahomey (in modern Benin). Every Dahomeyan king maintained two palaces, one in each city.42 Kumasi, capital of the Asante Confederacy from 1701 to 1874, was dominated by the royal palace at its center.43 In the 18th century, the population of the city was about 15,000–20,000, but the densely populated suburbs of villages and plantations which surrounded it may have had up to 100,000 inhabitants, with the same extended families living in both zones.44

The configuration of Hausa cities, in the central Sudan, resembled that of Yoruba cities. They were walled, with evidence of successive expansions of the enclosed area, which also included agricultural fields. Each was ruled by its own sarki (king), whose palace was at the center of the city facing a central square.45 Hausa cities were market towns as well as manufacturing centers, producing pottery, basketware, items of iron, wood, and leather, as well as woven and dyed textiles.46 Kano, Katsina, and Zaria were probably the largest Hausa cities during the 17th century. Other important commercial cities of the Western Sudan included Begho, Salaga (both in modern Ghana), and Kong (Côte d’Ivoire). Yet other trading cities like Shinqit, Wadan, and Walata rose to prominence in the western Sahara (modern Mauritania). They were famous as centers of Islamic scholarship and, like Timbuktu, harbored large libraries.

In Northern Africa, Cairo was the main administrative center of the Ottoman domains, controlling not only the tax revenue of Egypt but the lucrative Red Sea trade with the Indian Ocean and the pilgrimage routes to the Hijaz. In Morocco, the only North African state not under Ottoman rule, a new capital city was built by Sultan Ismail (r. 1672–1727). His gigantic palace complex in Meknes was ten times larger than the preexisting city.47 It was abandoned as the capital following the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the royal court residing alternately in Marrakech and Fez thereafter.

Colonial Era Cities

European colonial rule over Africa, established in the second half of the 19th century and continuing until after World War II, greatly impacted urbanization. The distribution and growth of cities reflected the systems for the extraction of resources put in place by the various colonial powers. Colonial urban policies in Africa were informed by the urban planning profession then emerging in Europe. Colonial modes and regimes of urbanization included various degrees of racial and social segregation, forced evictions, and underinvestment in urban amenities. These conditions continued to affect the growth of cities after independence and characterized the urban policies of South Africa under apartheid.48

Administrative Capitals

The largest and most important colonial cities were administrative capitals, most of which were also the main ports and railheads of a given colony. In most cases, these sites were already occupied by African towns when the colonial powers took control of them. More rarely, the colonial powers created entirely new administrative centers. Nairobi started as a rail depot (1899) before the British selected the site to be the capital of Kenya in 1905. It grew in a haphazard fashion over subsequent decades, the main guiding principle of this growth being attempts to keep Nairobi a “white city” by limiting the possibility of Africans to settle or own land in it.49 Like Nairobi, Lusaka too started as a rail depot, in 1905. In 1935 the British selected it to be the new administrative capital of the colony of Northern Rhodesia. In contrast to Nairobi, Lusaka was a planned capital, designed as a garden city.50 In a few cases, a colony was considered too poor to warrant the expense of building an administrative capital. This was the case of Mauritania, which the French administered from the city of Saint Louis across the border in Senegal, and of Bechuanaland (Botswana), which the British administered from Mafeking (Mahikeng) across the border in South Africa.

Colonial administration was also a major driver in the establishment and growth of second-order towns, the seats of regional and local administrative units. These also served as local market towns for agricultural commodities. In most cases, the capital city and second-order administrative seats established by the colonial regimes were maintained by newly independent states following decolonization.

Mining Towns

Mining towns were a feature of colonial urbanism in Southern Africa and the Copperbelt. These settlements began as mining camps under the distant authority of mining companies. Only once they had grown and become permanent did colonial authorities integrate them into colonial administration.51 The most famous mining town was Johannesburg. It originated as a boomtown amidst gold mines in 1886, and by 1900 had over 100,000 inhabitants. In the Copperbelt, Nkana was established by the Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa in the mid-1900s. In 1936, the rail-town of Kitwe was established next to it and the two cities were then merged. Across the border, the Belgians set up the towns of Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi, 1909) and Kolwezi (1937) next to copper mines being exploited by their mining company, the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga.

Colonial Urban Policies

Most of the resources allocated to urban development by colonial administrations were destined for their administrative capitals and for the exclusive neighborhoods in them, which were occupied by Europeans. Maintenance of proper “hygiene,” meaning separating European areas from those inhabited by Africans, was an overriding planning principle. Though this took many different forms, it led to a number of similar coercive measures in colonies across the continent: the forced eviction of Africans from old neighborhoods, the demolition of structures deemed to be a public health or fire hazard, the enforcement of wide cordons sanitaires (non-aedificandi zones) separating European neighborhoods from African ones, the demolition of neighborhoods designated as “shantytowns,” and attempts to control rural–urban migration.52 Such policies were particularly acute in the settler colonies (French North Africa, South Africa, Rhodesia, and Kenya).

Despite the coercive power (judiciary, police) that backed them up, colonial urban policies did not go unchallenged. African individuals and communities developed ways of resisting evictions, demolitions, and segregation. The ownership and tenancy rights of the first inhabitants of urban land were fought for in courts and defended in local councils, and the development of a real-estate market allowed local African elites to assert some power over municipal administrations. Moreover, strict racial categorization was often complicated by the existence of intermediary ethnic groups, such as the Métis in Saint Louis, Afro-Brazilians in Accra (the Tabom) and Lagos, “Coloureds” and “Indians” in South African cities, Lebanese in French West Africa, and Asians in British East Africa. The class of “poor whites” (petits blancs) that emerged in the cities of settler colonies also complicated the idealized white European–black African dichotomy.

In an effort to forestall the growth of independence movements following World War II, the British and French authorities made some effort to improve the housing and social conditions of middle-class Africans and government employees. “Modern” housing estates consisting of minimalist houses “adapted” to African conditions, such as the SICAP neighborhoods in Dakar and the 8 m × 8 m allotments in Casablanca, were built.53 The practices of town planning in the colonies tended to be more modern and technocratic—with comprehensive master plans and zoning—than those being used in the metropole at the time. These technocratic practices and schemes were then introduced to European countries by colonial officials after decolonization. This was particularly the case of the planners who returned from Algeria and Morocco to design large housing projects in French cities in the 1960s.54

Postcolonial Urbanization

The most important features in the history of cities since independence have been the perpetuation and exacerbation of unequal colonial-era conditions and the acceleration of urbanization, mostly fueled by high flows of rural–urban migration. In 1960, less than 15 percent of Africans lived in cities, making it the least urbanized region of the world. Though Africa is still the least urbanized region of the world today (40 percent urban in 2018), it is rapidly reaching the global norm. At about 3.5 percent per year, its urban population is currently growing more rapidly than anywhere else. In absolute terms, between 1960 and 2018, the number of Africans living in cities rose tenfold, from 53 million to over 500 million. In 2018, it hosted three megacities of over 10 million inhabitants: Lagos, Cairo, and Kinshasa-Brazzaville. This number is on par with South America (five megacities), Europe (four), and North America (three). By comparison, Asia had twenty-three megacities.55

Newly independent African countries inherited the cities of the colonial era. These served first to anchor territorial administration through a hierarchy of regional and local administrative seats, and second, to insure the extraction and transportation of locally produced agricultural and mineral commodities. Following independence, the capitals of the new states, already by far their largest city in most cases, experienced accelerated growth. This created primate cities, capitals that attract nearly all of a country’s economic and social development and host a disproportionate share of its rural migrants. In a few cases, independent African states chose to move the capital to a new, usually more central location. Dodoma was selected to become Tanzania’s capital in 1973; the capital of Malawi was moved from Blantyre to Lilogwe in 1975; and the capital of Côte d’Ivoire moved from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro in 1983. Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria established in 1976, constitutes the most successful African case of transfer of administrative capital.56 Neither Yamoussoukro nor Dodoma have yet fully replaced the former colonial capitals.

Seven decades after decolonization, African cities continue to exhibit a high degree of social segregation, spatial fragmentation, deficient infrastructure, and highly unequal access to urban amenities that had characterized colonial cities. This is evident in every major sector: housing, water and sanitation, transportation, health and education, and employment.

Discussion of the Literature

Those who study cities in African history have to address many of the same problems as other urban historians generally. There is an emerging consensus that the field of study should be designated as “cities in Africa” rather than “African cities,” with the implication that these places are first of all cities comparable to cities elsewhere, their African-ness being secondary to their city-ness.57 This is an important point because Africa, and Africa south of the Sahara in particular, is largely absent from the discipline of urban history. Urban history and urban studies more generally are still strongly Eurocentric disciplines. While Chinese, South Asian, Islamic, and pre-Columbian America cities might be included at the margins of canonical works in the field, the historic or contemporary cities of Africa are not.58

Geographical and Meta-historical Divisions

As with the other disciplines within African Studies, the study of Africa’s cities has been encumbered by major epistemological blockages related to meta-geography and meta-history. The oldest and most enduring of these has been the division between the northern and northeastern regions of the continent, on the one hand, and those south of the Sahara, on the other. North Africa, the Nile Valley, and, to some extent, Ethiopia have long been considered part of the Classical and Mediterranean worlds. Their ancient and medieval cities have been studied along with those of the Ancient Near East, Classical Greece and Rome, and the Islamic Middle East, which have a scholarly pedigree going back to the 19th century. By contrast, the study of the cities of sub-Saharan Africa only got underway in the 1950s, and most early monographs were concerned with colonial cities.59 While the Saharan division is still a feature of general urban studies of Africa, scholars acknowledge the arbitrariness implicit in this division.

Colonial languages have created another important meta-geographical division in the study of Africa’s cities. For practical reasons of access to source documents, the study of the cities of Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone countries has been pursued largely separately from each other. Studies in the French language, led by anthropologists and geographers, has focused on the former French colonies of West and North Africa, while studies in English have concentrated on eastern and southern Africa as well as on Nigeria and the Nile valley. Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been a concerted effort to bridge this linguistic and geographical divide, notably by using comparative approaches.60

The geography of scholarship on Africa’s cities reveals another division, that between foreign Africanists and African researchers. The research agenda is driven by the relatively well-funded universities and research institutes of the global North (essentially Western Europe and North America). Academic publication too is dominated by these and affiliated institutions. Despite the advantage of home turf, African scholars based in Africa are disadvantaged in the research and publication world. Fluency in academic prose in either English or French can be a hurdle to getting research published. A more serious hurdle is the requirement of research to be topical and up to date. This often requires familiarity with, if not actual use of the latest concepts, imposing the academic equivalent of fashion slavery on researchers who often lack institutional access to the most recent (and expensive) “high-impact” publications.

Meta-historical categorization of Africa’s cities has mostly conformed to the tripartite “precolonial,” “colonial,” and “postcolonial” scheme. Imposition of colonial rule marked the single most significant rupture in urbanization processes. It inaugurated new economic and legal systems, and it introduced new types of primary sources such as archives, actuarial records, maps, and media reports. The transition to independence, in contrast, produced no comparable rupture either in the trajectories of urban development or in the types of sources available to historians. The historiography of the precolonial period has aimed to answer questions about the emergence of cities and their cultural, social, political, and economic functions. Studies of colonial and postcolonial urbanization has tended to focus on dysfunctions, racial and social segregation, and marginalization. While acknowledging the validity of Africa’s tripartite meta-history, since the 1980s research on its cities has aimed to explore the continuities of urban practices across these divides. These continuities relate to the agency of social actors, building materials and techniques, and vernacular architectural forms and practices of inhabitation.

Another epistemological divide, less explicit than the others, characterizes urban studies generally and relates to the two scales of urbanization as a phenomenon. On the one hand, cities are entities in the landscape. Their physical manifestation as localities require they be studied at the local scale. Urban studies are driven by city monographies, that is, studies of some aspect of the development of an individual city or neighborhood over a particular period. Such studies aim to explain how cities are configured, who builds what, where, and how. On the other hand, cities always exist in urban networks of various kinds (commercial networks, production systems, administrative systems) which operate at national, continental, and global scales. This leads to a different corpus of urban studies research, studies that aim to explain how cities help shape larger social, economic and political orders, as well as how they are shaped by them.61 Both the local and network scales of analysis understand urbanization as the product of cultural, social, economic, and political forces, but the concepts and theories they use tend to be quite different from each other.

Problems with Precolonial Cities

What Is a City?

The first issue encountered in the historiography of urban Africa is how to define a city. What constitutes a city? Whether analyzing textual sources or archaeological sites, how can a historian distinguish between cities and other settlement types? While this question is perennial to urban studies, it weighs heavily on the historiography of cities in Africa.62

A number of characteristics can distinguish towns and cities from other types of places: size of settlement, size and density of population, permanence of settlement, resource base, socioeconomic function, and even aesthetic appearance. Prior to the institutionalization of censuses in the modern era, getting valid data on the size of urban populations is difficult. The first textual sources to give figures for the population of cities in Africa are those of early European visitors. While they can tell what impression a city made on the visitor, such estimates, which generally range from 10,000 to 100,000 inhabitants, are unreliable as statistics. Census data of the colonial era are more reliable, but not without their problems too. Various colonial regimes tried to limit the number of Africans who lived in cities and sometimes used census classifications to reduce their statistical importance while favoring the enumeration of the white inhabitants. Imposition of taxation and the politicization of ethnicity also affected the reliability of colonial censuses. Since independence, the reliability of national censuses has generally improved but many countries have postponed or canceled censuses, leaving gaps in the data.

Beyond the issue of population size is the issue of density of settlement. Historically, African cities tended to be low-rise buildings rarely exceeding a ground floor. The household compounds which constituted them often contained far more unbuilt courtyard space than built-over areas, generating low settlement densities. Moreover, the larger cities tended to be multinucleated, with several neighborhoods distinctly separated from each other by agricultural land. Large capital cities in Africa often consisted of a central “royal” town, exclusively reserved for the elite, surrounded at some distance by a ring of neighborhoods for “commoners,” which in turn could be surrounded by numerous large villages engaged in intensive agriculture. Such was the configuration of ancient Axum, Mbanza Kongo, Gondar, and Kumasi, for instance.63 Functionally, agriculture was always important to the livelihoods of African city dwellers. As a settlement, no city can survive solely on local resources; food and energy must be imported from other localities in order to support its population. To the extent possible, urban populations would attempt to reduce their dependency on such imports by engaging in peri-urban agriculture. Thus, cities tended to generate intensive agricultural hinterlands in their immediate vicinities. In many cases, most households of a town or city might engage in farming or animal husbandry in addition to any nonagricultural urban activity. This practice has been termed the rural–urban continuum.64

For the most part, in tropical Africa before the 20th century, buildings, even the most important buildings like royal palaces, places of worship, and city walls, were built of rather perishable materials such as rammed earth (pisé), sunbaked brick (adobe), wattle, thatch, and wood. This material contrasts with the “hard” stone and fired brick masonry construction of historic cities in North Africa, which were compact and had a high density of occupation. The “softer” construction materials and “looser” configurations of settlements in tropical Africa makes it more difficult to distinguish cities in the archaeological record.

To the particular material conditions of city-building in Africa (low density, dispersed, perishable, and rather agricultural) must be added the prejudices of the first European scholarly studies. In the minds of the late 19th- and early 20th-century colonizers, Africa was a rural, even “wild” continent where cities were unknown. The “introduction” of urban life south of the Sahara was attributed to foreign influence, first to medieval Islam and then to European colonization. Beyond a few exceptional areas (the Niger Bend, the Hausa, Yoruba, and Swahili cities), Africa was deemed to have always been rural. Whatever their function or historic role, its settlements appeared to be “villages” in the eyes of European administrators and surveyors, and that is how they were designated in the documents they produced.

Linguistics has been enlisted in the effort to answer the question of what constitutes a city. The study of African vocabulary, used in oral narratives and contained in historic documents, has explored the complexities of the concepts of city and urban.65 Key African terms that have been studied include the Hausa term birni, ilu in Yoruba, kuro/krom and akuraa/akuraase in Akan, and mbanza in Kikongo. The range of vernacular terms for “city and town,” “urban,” and “village,” for instance, used by city dwellers across the continent today can also be a useful lens through which to approach urbanity as a historic phenomenon.66

The growing consensus among urban historians is that, with few exceptions, prior to the 20th century, cities were small and accounted for a small fraction of the total population of a country. From antiquity through the 19th century, most cities in Africa probably had 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants.67 In Africa, as elsewhere, this maximum population size was imposed upon settlements by the necessity of obtaining daily food and energy supplies for inhabitants, and by the inability of controlling infectious diseases in urban environments.68

Why Did Cities Emerge?

Another persistent question posed by historians of Africa’s cities has been: why did cities emerge? What caused cities to be established and to thrive? Several answers recur. One of the identifiable causes for the establishment of cities is that they first started as sacred religious or ceremonial centers.69 This explanation has been proposed for a diverse range of historic cities, including the earliest cities in predynastic Egypt, ancient Axum, Ile-Ife, Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Mbanza Kongo, and Ambohimanga. It is the sacred status of these sites that led to their development as cities.

The concentration of political power has also been proposed as a cause of urbanization. In Africa, as on other continents, the capital has often been the largest city of a given state. This is as true of historic capitals as it is of the primate cities of today. However, capital cities account for only a fraction of all cities, and their success as cities teaches us little about the emergence of cities generally. A locality’s status as capital might even be detrimental to its development into a city. In some kingdoms, no new king would live in the palace of his predecessor, leading to a perpetual shifting of the capital. Moreover, a capital might be wherever the court happened to be. This was particularly the case of the mobile royal encampments of medieval Ethiopia and the kingdoms around the Great Lakes.70

A third common answer to the question of origin has been that cities arose due to expanding trade networks, particularly long-distance trade in luxury goods. This explanation was the first given for the rise of cities in the Sahel and on the Swahili coast. It was assumed that the development of commercial networks across the Sahara and the Indian Ocean in medieval times stimulated the emergence of commercial cities at the sub-Saharan ends of the routes. Archaeological studies have refuted this hypothesis, as cities emerged in both the Sahel and the Swahili Coast prior to the development of long-distance trade. Similarly, long-distance trade does not seem to explain the emergence of the Forest Belt cities (Benin, Yoruba, and Akan cities). Given the necessity of importing foodstuffs and energy for its population, local trade with surrounding agricultural areas and neighboring towns is essential to the existence of any city. Long-distance trade is not. While this latter type of trade, mostly in relatively light high-value goods, stimulated the growth and development of some of Africa’s most famous historic cities (Alexandria, Timbuktu, and Kilwa), it was not the “cause” of their emergence.

City-State Relations

The debates about the emergence of cities (the role of the sacred, of concentration of power, and of long-distance trade) resemble those about the emergence of states. There are also debates about how cities have related to states historically. While it has long been held that the Hausa, Yoruba, and Swahili cities were city-states, since the early 2000s the concept of city-state has been applied to other regions of the continent: the Akan cities, cities of the Inland Niger Delta, the Saman settlements of Mali, and the polities of the Senegal River Valley.71 The city-state conception of local politics offers a useful alternative to the segmentary lineage model of local politics proposed by Edward Evans Pritchard in the 1940s, and it allows for comparisons between city development in Africa and other world regions.72

Problems with Colonial and Postcolonial Cities

The historiography of colonial-era and postcolonial urbanization has been characterized by debates over a few key concepts and conceptual dichotomies. One of the most important dichotomies distinguishes between “tradition–traditional” and “modernity–modern.” Colonial rule introduced the modern urban processes and structures which characterized industrial Europe. These included the capitalist system of wage labor and industrial relations, monetary rent, the private-sector real-estate market and construction industry, modes of transportation, and legal and administrative regimes. Preexisting African urban processes and structures, everything from cosmology and family structure to construction materials, have been characterized as “traditional” when compared to these “modern” ones. Consequently, whereas there is some conceptual coherence to what constitutes the modern, there is far less coherence to traditional. Also, postmodern concepts of “hybridity,” “crisscrossing,” and “entanglement” have replaced the traditional versus modern dichotomy with more complex formulations. For example, discussion of contemporary urban livelihood strategies emphasizes the back-and-forth flow of labor between urban occupations (petty trades and commerce) and urban and peri-urban agriculture, while discussions of adaptation to environmental degradation and climate change emphasize the necessity of combining traditional local materials and know-how with modern high-tech systems.

Another dichotomous conceptual frame is that of the “informal” sector versus the “formal” economy. The term “informal sector” was first proposed by Keith Hart in 1973 to describe the working population of Accra.73 The informal economy has produced housing and neighborhoods often designated as “irregular” (outside urban planning and building regulations), “illegal” (outside the legal real-estate regime), “underequipped” (lacking standard urban amenities), spatially or socially “marginalized,” “self-built” (referring to mode of construction), and “precarious” (referring to the fragility of construction materials). In most early 21st-century sub-Saharan African cities, the informal economy (microscale manufacturing, petty trades, and services) employs the majority of workers, and in many of them most people may be living in informal housing.74 UN-Habitat estimated that 61.7 percent of sub-Saharan urbanites, about 200 million people, lived in “slums” in 2010.75 While some slums are older central neighborhoods suffering from lack of maintenance, the vast majority are newly built peripheral neighborhoods, often referred to as shantytowns, that have not been properly equipped for city life. Scholars generally acknowledge that the vastly informal nature of Africa’s contemporary urban economies and housing developments are rooted in colonial-era policies and practices. As a concept, the informal sector has many implications for gender issues, as women account for much informal urban employment and have initiated innovative practices in sectors such as microfinance and urban agriculture. Such is the size of the informal economy, including in housing, that the term “real economy” to describe it has grown in currency since the late 1990s.76 Yet, as with other dichotomous frameworks, the distinction between formal and informal is not always revealed by the data. Informal building practices, from land tenancy to labor relations, undergird much of the formal construction sector, and illegal housing development is no longer just about the growth of impoverished shantytowns. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it is of growing importance to middle-class housing as well.

The issue of the lack of an industrial basis for Africa’s colonial and postcolonial urbanization is often raised in research. The assumption about the mass urbanization that characterizes the world today, where over half the population live in cities, is that it is an outcome of the ongoing Industrial Revolution, that mass industrial production has fueled urbanization through the location of manufacturing jobs in cities, which “pulls in” rural migrants. That Africa can experience mass urbanization without mass industrialization thus becomes a problem, a “dysfunction,” yet another of the continent’s urban “pathologies.” If not industry, then what has fueled the continent’s rapid urbanization?

A variety of other drivers of urbanization has been proposed. First, Africa’s modern-day urban growth is led by the service sector rather than by manufacturing. In a process initiated through colonial policies, cities have grown to accommodate the needs of territorial civil administration, market distribution, and transportation networks. Just as it has when it comes to communications technologies (mobile cell-phone systems dispensing with the need to set up extensive land lines), Africa may be leapfrogging over industrialization, heading toward postindustrial conditions characterized by tertiary sector employment and connections to global networks.77

Sources for the Study of Cities in Africa


Exploitation of archaeological data on Africa’s cities is very uneven. Archaeology is an expensive science, requiring teamwork, institutional commitment, and sustained multiyear funding. The record in Egypt and North Africa is generally very good. Extensive archaeological investigations got underway in the 19th century and have proceeded steadily since. Ancient and medieval sites are well-known to archaeologists and their data have been published. The situation south of the Sahara is far patchier. Little archaeology was undertaken during the colonial period, and much of that was tainted by the biases and prejudices of that era. Since independence, archaeological studies have varied greatly from one country to another depending on institutions, financing, and level of political stability. Landmark paradigm-shifting archaeological work was conducted on Great Zimbabwe by Peter Garlake in the 1960s, and on Jenne-Jeno by Roger and Susan McIntosh in the 1970s.78 Numismatics (such as the coins minted by Swahili cities) and in-situ inscriptions (such as the tombstones of Gao) provide researchers with valuable data wherever such artifacts exist.79 As elsewhere since 1990, the practice of archaeology in Africa has been revolutionized to some extent by remote sensing techniques such as multispectral satellite imagery, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), magnetometry, and GIS (Geographic Information Systems).80

Primary Documentary Sources

The availability of textual sources on Africa’s cities reflects the continent’s meta-geographical and meta-historical subdivisions. As with archaeological sites, the northern and northeastern regions are the best served, with well-known and published documents, often in English or French translation, for all historical periods. These include religious texts, legal texts, and travel accounts as well as chronicles, biographies, and geographies in Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Latin, Ge’ez, and Arabic. South of the Sahara the literary record is thinner. Greek sources for the Indian Ocean coast date to the 1st century ce.81 Because they were part of the medieval Muslim world, there are Arabic and Ajami (African languages written in Arabic script) texts for the Sahara, the Sahel–Sudanic Belt, and the Swahili Coast from the 9th to the 19th centuries.82 Texts in modern European languages become available beginning in the 15th century but, until the mid-19th century, these relate mostly to coastal regions.83 These publications also provide the earliest maps and visual depictions of cities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Colonization produced a range of modern documentary sources, including reports of military expeditions and religious missions, official documents, legal documents, and actuarial records relating to real-estate and infrastructure, newspaper reports, published memoirs, works of literature, and a range of visual records: photographs, films, and topographical maps. This range of sources is largely the same available for the postcolonial period. The availability of these types of sources enables researchers to undertake the study of social history, especially monographs on individual cities.84

Oral Histories

It is during the colonial period that the work of recording, translating, and publishing oral traditions began, a research activity that continues today. National historic narrative and the chronicles of historic cities in particular were given priority.85 Considered to be unreliable by colonial-era historians, the use of oral history as a legitimate source of data was promoted by Jan Vansina in the 1960s.86 Debate about the validity of oral histories is still ongoing. Like documentary sources and archaeological evidence, oral sources are used critically. They are particularly valuable for urban historians because the local scale of the narratives fit well with the construction of local history.

Archival Sources

Historians of African cities face specific challenges when doing archival research. First, decolonization often led to the splitting of archives. Many types of legal documents, planning documents, correspondences, and internal reports were “repatriated” to the metropole. Thus, the French colonial archives (Archives Nationales d’Outre-mer) are located in Aix-en-Provence, while those of the British are divided between the British Library and the National Archives in London. The more local types of records produced by colonial administrations are usually the ones that were passed to the national archives of newly independent countries. Conditions of access to documents held in national archives vary greatly from one country to another. Due to a lack of infrastructure, financing, or political stability, the archival record may be sporadic, with documents not being received, not being classified and stored, or being lost or damaged in storage.

Official Documents and Actuarial Records

Like the archives, the scientific validity of official documents and records varies greatly from country to country. Where it is accessible, data from state data collection practices such as national censuses, tax records, and land registries can be inaccurate and even falsified. Planning documents may have been lost or may be classified as confidential.

Cultural Products and Artifacts

With the development of postmodern and social constructivist theories in the 1980s, the understanding of what constitutes an archive has been expanded. This development reflects the cultural turn in social sciences generally, and the growing interest in social history in particular. In addition to official documents, actuarial records and media reports, historians are using documents and artifacts produced by pop culture.87 Among the cultural products being analyzed are song lyrics, dance choreography, studio photographs, night life, street art, furniture, fashion, and children’s games. As these types of documents and artifacts are rarely assembled in repositories or institutions, researchers must employ field methods to access them.

Ethnographic Methods

Ethnographic field methods can often supplement the dearth of textual data. Recourse to oral histories and personal testimonials continues to yield results for urban studies, particularly for recent history. Given that much of the urban economy is informal and that much of the urban fabric is self-built, modern states have monitored very little of it. Thus, interviewing those directly involved in these activities is a viable way of getting valid data. A wide range of social actors, including merchants and tradespeople, activists, artists, construction workers, school teachers, medical staff, journalist, as well as ordinary residents can contribute data. Moreover, many useful documentary sources (correspondences, reports, plans, legalized and notarized documents, and receipts) are in private hands. Private archives are held by engineering firms, construction firms, architectural practices, and consultants. Even active and retired civil servants and politicians (or their heirs) may be in possession of plans, directives, news clippings, and letters related to their professional activities.

Further Reading

Ajayi, J. F. Ade, and Michael Crowder. Historical Atlas of Africa. London: Longman, 1985.Find this resource:

Anderson, David M., and Richard Rathbone, eds. Africa’s Urban Past. Oxford: James Currey, 2000.Find this resource:

Connah, Graham. African Civilizations. Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization. Translated by Mary Baker. Princeton, NJ: Marcus Wiener, 2005.Find this resource:

Davidson, Basil. The Lost Cities of Africa. Boston: Little Brown, 1959.Find this resource:

Eckert, Andreas. “Urbanisation in Colonial and Postcolonial West Africa.” In Themes in West Africa’s History. Edited by Emmanuel Kwaku. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Fouchard, Laurent. “Between World History and State Formation: New Perspectives on Africa’s Cities.” Journal of African History 52, no. 2 (2011): 223–248.Find this resource:

Fox, Sean. “Urbanization as a Global Historical Process: Theory and Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa.” Population and Development Review 38, no. 2 (2012): 285–310.Find this resource:

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. The New Atlas of African History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.Find this resource:

Freund, Bill. The African City: A History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Hull, Ricard W. African Cities and Towns Before the European Conquest. New York: Norton, 1976.Find this resource:

Insoll, Timothy. “The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Review.” Journal of World Prehistory 10, no. 4 (1996): 439–504.Find this resource:

Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam. New York: Blackwell, 1998.Find this resource:

Mabogunje, A. L. Yoruba Towns. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1962.Find this resource:

Mabogunje, A. L. Urbanisation in Nigeria. London: University of London Press, 1968.Find this resource:

McIntosh, Susan, and Roger McIntosh. “The Early City in West Africa: Towards an Understanding.” African Archaeological Review 2 (1984): 73–98.Find this resource:

Myers, Garth Andrew. Verandas of Power: Colonialism and Space in Urban Africa. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Myers, Garth Andrew. African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Ogundiran, Akinwumi, and Toyin Falola, eds. Archaeology of Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Salm, Steven J., and Toyin Falola. African Urban Spaces in Historical Perspective. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Simone, AbdouMaliq. For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Tranberg, Karen, and Mariken Vaa, eds. Reconsidering Informality: Perspectives from Urban Africa. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (New York: Routledge, 1989), 31–46.

(2.) Kemp, Ancient Egypt, 149–157, 166–180.

(3.) B. G. Trigger, B. J. Kemp, D. O’Connor, and A. B. Lloyd, Ancient Egypt: A Social History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 23, 96–104.

(4.) Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter, Egypt and the Egyptians, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 60–68; and Eric P. Uphill, Egyptian Towns and Cities (Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire, 2001).

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(12.) Francis Anfray, Les anciens Ethiopiens (Paris: Armand Colin, 1990), 94–109; and David W. Phillipson, “Aksumite Urbanism,” in Africa’s Urban Past, ed. David M. Anderson and Richard Rathbone (Oxford: James Currey, 2000), 52–65.

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(16.) Graham Connah, African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: An Archaeological Perspective (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 103–106. John Hunwick, “Gao and the Almoravids Revisited: Ethnicity, Political Change and the Limits of Interpretation,” Journal of African History 35 (1994): 251–273; and Timothy Insoll, “Iron Age Gao: An Archaeological Contribution,” Journal of African History 38 (1997): 1–30.

(17.) Leo Africanus, Description de l’Afrique, trans. A. Epaulard (Paris: Librairie Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1956).

(18.) John O. Hunwick, “Not Yet the Kano Chronicle: King Lists with and without Narrative Elaboration from Nineteenth-Century Kano,” Sudanic Affairs 4 (1993): 95–130.

(19.) A. L. Mabogunje, Yoruba Towns (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1962); and Robin Horton, “Ancient Ife: A Reassessment,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 9 (1979): 69–149.

(20.) Robert S. Smith, Kingdoms of the Yoruba, 3rd ed. (London: James Currey, 1988), 13.

(21.) Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians: A History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 48–53.

(22.) Chapurukha M. Kusimba, The Rise and Fall of Swahili States (Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 1999).

(23.) Mark Horton and John Middleton, The Swahili (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 115–131; Connah, African Civilizations, 159–170; Jeffrey Fleisher, “Performance, Monumentality, and the ‘Built Exterior’ on the Eastern African Swahili Coast,” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48 (2013): 263–281; “The Complexity of Public Space at the Swahili Town of Songo Mnara, Tanzania,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 35 (2014): 1–22; and Jeffrey Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, “Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices,” African Archaeological Review 29 (2012): 171–207.

(24.) Felix Chami, Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast from c. 30,000 Years Ago (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: E & D Vision, 2009).

(25.) Jeffrey Fleisher, Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Charlene Steele, and Kate Welham, “Geophysical Survey at Kilwa Kisiwani,” Journal of African Archaeology 10 (2012): 207–220; Terry H. Elkiss, “Kilwa Kisiwani: The Rise and Fall of an East African City-State,” African Studies Review 16 (1973): 119–130; and Arthur Strong, “The History of Kilwa, edited from an Arabic MS,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1895): 385–431.

(26.) Paul Sinclair, “Chibuene: An Early Trading Site in Southern Mozambique,” Paideuma (1982).

(27.) Nam C. Kim and Chapurukha M. Kusimba, “Pathway’s to Social Complexity and State Formation in the Southern Zambezian Region,” African Archaeological Review 25 (2008): 131–152.

(28.) Peter S. Garlake, Great Zimbabwe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973); and Thomas N. Huffman, “Debating Great Zimbabwe,” South African Archaeological Bulletin 66 (2011): 27–40.

(30.) Randy J. Sparks, Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Kristin Mann, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760–1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); Alain Sinou, Le comptoir de Ouidah: Une ville africaine singulière (Paris: Karthala, 1995); and Robin Law, Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slave Port (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

(31.) Mariana Candido, An African Slaving Port and the Atlantic World: Benguela and Its Hinterland (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Malyn Newitt, “Mozambique Island: The Rise and Decline of an East African Coastal City, 1500–1700,” Portuguese Studies 20 (2004): 21–37.

(32.) Nigel Worden, Elizabeth van Heyningen, and Vivian Bickford-Smith, Cape Town: The Making of a City (Claremont, South Africa: David Philip, 1998); and Alain Sinou, Comptoirs et villes coloniales du Sénégal: Saint-Louis, Gorée, Dakar (Paris: Karthala, 1993).

(33.) Michael N. Pearson, Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

(34.) Robert Chastel, Rabat-Salé: Vingt siècles de l’Oued Bou Regreg (Rabat: Editions La Porte, 1994); Roger Coindreau, Les Corsaires de Salé (Rabat, Morocco: La Croisée des Chemins, 1998); and Peter Lamborn Wilson, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsaires and European Renegades (New York: Autonomedia, 2003).

(35.) Daniel J. Schroeter, Merchants of Essaouira: Urban Society and Imperialism in Southwestern Morocco, 1844–1886 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

(36.) Solomon Getahun, History of the City of Gondar (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2006), 4–7.

(37.) John K. Thornton, “Mbanza Kongo/São Salvador: Kongo’s Holy City,” in Africa’s Urban Past, ed. David M. Anderson and Richard Rathbone (Oxford: James Currey, 2000), 67–84.

(38.) Coquery-Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization (Princeton, NJ: Marcus Wiener, 2005), 168; and Andrew Godwin Onokerhoraye, “Urbanism as an Organ of Traditional African Civilisation: The Example of Benin,” Civilisations 25 (1975): 204–205.

(39.) Connah, African Civilizations, 136–137.

(40.) G. J. A. Ojo, Yoruba Palaces (London: University of London Press, 1966).

(41.) Smith, Kingdoms of the Yoruba; and Paul Wheatley, “The Significance of Traditional Yoruba Urbanism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 12 (1970): 393–423.

(42.) J. Cameron Monroe, “Dahomey and the Atlantic Slave Trade: Archaeology and Political Order on the Bight of Benin,” in Archaeology of Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Akinwumi Ogundiran and Toyin Falola (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 100–121.

(43.) Tarikhu Farrar, Building Technology and Settlement Planning in a West African Civilization: Precolonial Akan Cities and Towns (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), 68.

(45.) J. C. Moughtin, Hausa Architecture (London: Ethnographica, 1985).

(46.) D. Laya, “The Hausa States,” in General History of Africa, abr. ed., vol. 7, ed. B. A. Ogot (Oxford: James Currey, 1999), 241–247; and Ahmed Beitallah Yusuf, “A Reconsideration of Urban Conceptions: Hausa Urbanization and the Hausa Rural-Urban Continuum,” Urban Anthropology 3 (1974): 200–221.

(47.) Marianne Barrucand, Urbanisme princier en islam: Meknès et les villes royales islamiques post-médiévales (Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1985).

(48.) Vivian Bickford-Smith, “South African Urban History, Racial Segregation and the Unique Case of Cape Town,” Journal of Southern African Studies 21 (1995): 63–78.

(50.) Myers, Verandas of Power, 55–75.

(51.) Brian Siegel, “Bomas, Missions, and Mines: The Making of Centers on the Zambian Copperbelt,” African Studies Review 31 (1988): 61–84.

(52.) Odile Goerg, “From Hill Station (Freetown) to Downtown Conakry (First Ward): Comparing French and British Approaches to Segregation in Colonial Cities at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 32 (1998): 1–31; Ambe Njoh, “The Segregated City in British and French Colonial Africa,” Race & Class 49 (2008): 87–95; and Liora Bigon, “Bubonic Plague, Colonial Ideologies, and Urban Planning Policies: Dakar, Lagos, and Kumasi,” Planning Perspectives (2015): 22 pp.

(53.) Luce Beeckmans, “The ‘Development Syndrome’: Building and Contesting the SICAP Housing Schemes in French Dakar (1951–1960),” Canadian Journal of African Studies (2018): 30 pp.; and Jean-Louis Cohen and Monique Eleb, Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures (New York: Monacelli Press, 2003).

(54.) Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali, and Marion von Osten, eds., Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions for the Future (London: Black Dog, 2010).

(55.) Demographia, World Urban Areas, 14th ed., 2018.

(56.) Jonathan Moore, “The Political History of Nigeria’s New Capital,” Journal of Modern African Studies 22, no. 1 (1984): 167–175.

(57.) Connah, African Civilizations; and Coquery-Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities South of the Sahara.

(58.) Canonical works of the urban history of the world which exclude Africa include Louis Mumford, The City in History (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1961); Spiro Kostof, The City Shaped (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991); Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History (New York: Random House, 2005); and Paul Knox, Atlas of Cities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

(60.) Goerg, “From Hill Station”; Bigon, “Bubonic Plague.”

(61.) Peter J. Taylor, World City Network: A Global Urban Analysis (London: Routledge, 2004); and Richard Grant, Globalizing City: The Urban and Economic Transformation of Accra, Ghana (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009).

(62.) Connah, African Civilizations.

(63.) Freund, The African City, 9, 18; Thornton, “Mbanza Kongo/São Salvador”; and Getahun, History of the City of Gondar, 4–7.

(64.) Freund, The African City, 17.

(65.) Coquery-Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities South of the Sahara, 13–16.

(66.) Joseph Pierce and Mary Lawhon, “Everyday Meanings of ‘the Urban’ in South Africa: Observations and Implications for Research,” Die Erde 147, no. 4 (2016): 284–289.

(67.) Freund, The African City, 18.

(69.) Hull, African Cities and Towns Before the European Conquest, 2.

(70.) Bertrand Hirsch and François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar, “Cités oubliées: Réflexions sur l’histoire urbaine de l’Éthiopie médiévale (XIe-XVIe siècles),” Journal des africanistes 74, no. 1–2 (2004); and Jean-Pierre Chrétien, “Les capitales royales de l’Afrique des Grands Lacs peuvent-elles être considérées comme des villes,” Journal des africanistes 74, no. 1–2 (2004): 277–298.

(71.) Gilles Holder and Anne-Marie Peatrik, “Cité, centre, capitale: pour une anthropologie du statut politique de la ville,” Journal des Africanistes 74 (2004): 9–34; Farrar, Building Technology, 11; Gilles Holder, “De la “cité-État” en Afrique noire: L’espace et le politique chez les Saman du pays dogon,” Cahiers d’Études Africaines 42 (2002): 257–283; and Jean Schmitz, “Cités incomparables: polis, médina, cités-Etats africains,” in Islam et villes en Afrique au sud du Sahara: Entre soufisme et fondamentalisme, ed. Adriana Piga (Paris: Karthala, 2003), 149–173.

(72.) Edward Evan Evans Pritchard, The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940).

(73.) Keith Hart, “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana,” Journal of Modern African Studies 11, no. 1 (1973): 61–89.

(77.) Victor Udemezue Onyebueke, “Place and Function of African Cities in the Global Urban Network: Exploring the Matters Arising,” Urban Forum 22 (2011): 1–21.

(78.) Garlake, Great Zimbabwe; McIntosh and McIntosh, “The Inland Niger Delta”; and McIntosh and McIntosh, “The Early City in West Africa.”

(79.) John Perkins, “The Indian Ocean and Swahili Coast Coins, International Networks and Local Developments,Afriques 6 (2015); and P. F. de Moraes Farias, Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles and Songhay-Tuareg History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(80.) Karim Sadr and Xavier Rodier, “Google Earth, GIS and Stone-Walled Structures in Southern Gauteng, South Africa,” Journal of Archaeological Science 39, no. 4 (2012): 1034–1042; and K. Welham, J. Fleisher, P. Cheetham, H. Manley, C. Steele, and S. Wynne-Jones, “Geophysical Survey in Sub-Saharan Africa: Magnetic and Electromagnetic Investigation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Songo Mnara, Tanzania,” Archaeological Prospection 21 (2014): 255–262.

(81.) The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, trans. William H. Schoff (New York: Longmans, Green, 1912); and J. Lennart Berggren and Alexander Jones, Ptolemy’s Geography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

(82.) Translated Arabic sources for sub-Saharan Africa during the medieval and early modern eras include Abu Yaqubi’s Les Pays (Kitâb al-Buldân), trans. Gaston Wiet (Cairo, Egypt: Institut d’archéologie orientale, 1937); Al-Masudi’s Les Prairies d’or et les mines de diamants (Kitâb Marûj al-Dhahab wa M‘âdin al-Juhûr), trans. C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille (Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1861); Al Muqaddasi’s La Meilleure répartition pour la connaissance des provinces (Ahsan al-Taqâsîm fî Ma‘rifa al-Aqâlîm), trans. André Miquel (Damascus, Syria: Institut français de Damas, 1963); Ibn Hawqal’s Configuration de la Terre (Kitâb Sûrat al-Ard), trans. J. H. Kramers and Gaston Wiet (Paris: Editions G.-P. Maisonneuve & Larose, 1964); Al-Bakri’s Description de l’Afrique Septentrionale (Kitâb al-Mughrib fî Dhikr Bilâd Ifrîqîya wa al-Maghrib), trans. Mac Gukin de Slane (Paris: Librairie Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1911–1913); Al-Idrisi, Idrîsî: la première géographie de l’Occident, trans. Henri Bresc and Annliese Nef (Paris: Flammarion, 1999); Al-‘Umari’s Méthodes pour comprendre le gouvernement des métropoles (Masâlik al-Absâr fî Mamâlik al-Amsâr), trans. Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes (Paris: Librairie orientalist Paul Geuthner, 1927); Ibn Battuta, “Voyages et périples” (Tuhfat al-Nuzzâr fî Gharâ‘ib al-Amâr wa ‘Ajâ‘ib al-Asfâr), trans. Paule Charles-Dominique in Voyageurs arabes (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), 369–1205; Ibn Khaldun’s Peuples et nations du monde (Kitâb al-‘Ibâr), 2 vols., trans. Abdessalam Cheddadi (Paris: Sindbad, 1986); Ibn Majid’s Kitab al-Fawa’id fi usul al-bahr wa’l-qawa’id (Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese), trans. G. R. Tibbetts (London: The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1971); Leo Africanus, Description de l’Afrique, trans. A. Epaulard (Paris: Librairie Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1956); Al-Sa‘di’s Tarikh es-Soudan (Târîkh al-Sûdân), trans. O. Houdas (Paris: Librairie Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1964); and Al-Kati’s Tarikh el-Fettach (Târîkh al-Fattâsh), trans. O. Houdas and Maurice Delafosse (Paris: Librairie Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1964). There is also an important Chinese source for this period, namely, a novelized account of Admiral Zheng He’s travels; see Eunuch Sanbao to the Western Ocean. See Barbara Witt, “Sanbao taijian Xiyang ji tongsu yanyi: An Annotated Bibliography,” Crossroads 12 (2015).

(83.) Early modern European accounts that describe cities in tropical Africa include Gaspar Correia, Lendas da Índia (1561); Filippo Pigafetta, Relatione del reame del Congo (1591); Olfert Dapper, Naukeurige beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche Eylanden (1668); and Abbé Liévin-Bonaventure Proyart, Histoire de Loango, Kakongo et des autres royaumes d’Afrique (1770).

(84.) Jonathan Glassman, Feasts and Riot: Revelry, Rebellion, & Popular Consciousness on the Swahili Coast, 1856–1888 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995); Jonathan Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011); and Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(85.) For Kano, see John O. Hunwick, “Not Yet the Kano Chronicle: King-lists with and without Narrative Elaboration from Nineteenth-Century Kano,” Sudanic Affairs 4 (1993): 95–130. For Kilwa, see Arthur Strong, “The History of Kilwa, edited from an Arabic MS,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1895): 385–431.

(86.) Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition. A Study in Historical Methodology, trans. H. M. Wright (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).

(87.) Shiera S. el-Malik and Isaac A. Kamola, eds., Politics of African Anticolonial Archive (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2017).