Africa’s castles have a unique history, beauty, and personality worth seeing for yourself
Few people ever say “I want to go to Africa to see some castles.” But they should. Africa’s castles may not be as “traditional” as those in Europe but they’ve got history, beauty and unique personality in spades. From the Citadel of Qaitbay in Alexandria, Egypt, a castle built in the 15th century over top of the ruins one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, to the Ksar of Aït Benhaddou, Morocco, which stands guard over a former caravan route between the Sahara Desert and Marrakech, these royal and military complexes are some of the world’s most fascinating.
WHERE: Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe
When archaeologists first visited Great Zimbabwe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they refused to even consider the possibility that this monumental stone fortress was constructed by indigenous Africans. But what was early on attributed to the likes of the ancient Egyptians or the Queen of Sheba was indigenous—a spectacular series of three architectural groups with features like conical towers, balconies, and monolithic sculptures. Today, the consensus among scholars and Zimbabweans, alike, is that construction began at Zimbabwe’s castle complex as early as the 11th century by ancestors of the modern Shona ethnic group. A center of trade for at least 300 years, this royal city now in ruins, once had a population of 18,000 people.
INSIDER TIPThe massive soapstone bird carvings found at Great Zimbabwe were included on Zimbabwe’s flag when the nation gained independence in 1980.
Fort Santa Cruz
WHERE: Oran, Algeria
The castle at the heart of Fort Santa Cruz is protected by 2.5 kilometers of walls built by the Spanish in the 16th century to replace an Ottoman fort they destroyed in the same location. Built 1300 feet above the sea at the top of Mount Murdjadjo, over the years Fort Santa Cruz has been repeatedly damaged by invading armies and earthquakes. In 1847, believers hoping to put an end to a cholera epidemic that struck down half of the region’s population carried a massive statue of the Virgin Mary to the foot of the fort. Taking pity on her disciples, the Virgin brought purifying rain and put an end to the epidemic. In her honor, a whitewashed chapel named the Santa Cruz Church still stands to this day.
INSIDER TIPFort Santa Cruz is one of three forts at Oran, all connected by underground tunnels.
WHERE: Monastir, Tunisia
The defensive fortress Ribat Monastir was founded in 796 by Harthama ibn A’yan, governor of Ifriqiya and leader of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Tunisian ribat is the oldest of a number of fortifications built by Arab invaders in North Africa. Along with the doctrine of Islam, Monastir’s newcomers brought with them a style of Islamic art and architecture that they incorporated into the walls of the ribat. Throughout the medieval period, the castle-like fortification expanded to include two inner courtyards, two mosques, a spiral staircase and multiple watchtowers with a view of the Gulf of Hammamet.
Ksar of Aït Benhaddou
WHERE: Ouarzazate Province, Morocco
At first glance, this overgrown sand castle could be mistaken for a shimmering mirage on the historic caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara Desert. But the Ksar of Aït Benhaddou, a fortified village containing half a dozen kasbahs (citadels), has been very real for a very long time. Built into the foothills of Atlas Mountains beginning in the 17th century, the Ksar at Aït Benhaddou is one of the best remaining examples of southern Moroccan earthen architecture. Within its defensive walls, houses crowded tightly together with high angle towers and clay brick motifs resemble a series of small urban castles erupting from an unforgiving landscape.
INSIDER TIPThe Ksar has appeared in several Hollywood films including 1975’s The Man Who Would Be King, 1999’s The Mummy, 2000’s Gladiator and, most recently, has appeared in scenes from Game of Thrones.
Citadel of Qaitbay
WHERE: Alexandria, Egypt
The front edifice of the Citadel of Qaitbay stands at royal attention on the eastern point of Pharos Island in the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt. The Citadel was built on the same spot as the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world destroyed after a series of earthquakes between the 11th and 14th centuries, to protect the city from invading Turks in the 1480s. Its founder, a Circassian Sultan by the name of Qaitbay, was an architecture aficionado who ultimately went on to build or renovate the edifices of 70 monumental structures in Egypt and others in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Heavily damaged by the British in 1882, the Egyptian King Farouk restored the upper floors in 1904 for use as a royal vacation home. Today, the Citadel houses Alexandria’s Maritime Museum.
WHERE: Gondar, Ethiopia
The most medieval of all of Africa’s castles, Fasil Ghebbi in Gondar, Ethiopia was a prophecy fulfilled. After centuries of royal wanderings, Emperor Fasilidas heeded the stories of his ancestors and began construction of a royal enclosure in a place whose name began with the letter “G” in 1636 CE. Fasilidas was a lover of architecture and his castle, which incorporates Ethiopian Orthodox temples, libraries, gardens, and 12 gated towers, was the first two-story structure in Ethiopia. The royal family remained at Gondar for 250 years and, even after the seat of the empire was moved to the current capital Addis Ababa, they continued to visit. Rastafarian prophet and Ethiopian ruler from 1916-1974, Haile Selassie, even kept his lions there. The castle complex suffered serious damage during World War II and subsequent scuffles with Sudan and Somalia but thanks to restoration efforts in the 1990s, Fasil Ghebbi has been open to visitors since 2005.
INSIDER TIPNearby Fasil Ghebbi, Emperor Failidas built a two-story bathing palace that is filled every year during Timkat, an Ethiopian Orthodox religious festival commemorating the baptism of Christ, for believers to take a dip and renew their vows.
Cape Coast Castle
WHERE: Cape Coast, Ghana
The Cape Coast Castle on Ghana’s west coast is a far cry from the stone parapets and drawbridges associated with medieval royalty. First built by Swedish traders in timber and gold in the 17th century, the Cape Coast Castle went on to serve as a center of commerce for a much more valuable commodity: slaves. To accommodate the thousands of men, women, and children who passed through this “gate of no return” before crossing the Atlantic to the Americas, underground dungeons large enough to hold up to 1000 people at a time were added to the castle. Cape Coast Castle was only one of a handful of “slave castles” built on the Ghanaian coast that served as a marketplace, holding cell and home for traders from a number of European countries over a period of 200 years.
WHERE: Cairo, Egypt
The Saladin Citadel on Mokattam hill near the center of Cairo was at the heart of Islamic Cairo when it became the center of the new Islamic world in the 14th century. The Citadel, the seat of Cairo’s government, was first fortified by the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din to protect himself and his supporters from oncoming Christian Crusaders between 1176 and 1183 CE. Within its walls, the Saladin Citadel contains three mosques, aqueducts to supply the fort with water, residential areas and a “house of justice.” Among its palaces is the Bijou, commissioned in 1814 CE and designed and outfitted by representatives of a number of countries including Greece, France, and Bulgaria.
INSIDER TIPSalah al-Din built a 280-foot deep well known as the Well of the Spiral because it contains 300 steps in a spiral staircase wound around its interior.
WHERE: Mombasa, Kenya
Fort Jesus is a holdover from the Portuguese rule of the Swahili Coast in the 16th century—the first successful attempt by an outside power to establish influence over trade across the Indian Ocean. Built on Kenya’s Mombasa Island in the Renaissance style and inspired by Italian architect Pietro Cataneo, from above the complex is laid out in the shape of a man on his back with walls 18-feet tall and with four bulwarks at its corners. Strategically, Fort Jesus was enormously important. Between 1631 and 1895 CE, it was captured at least nine separate times. By the early 20th century, the British had gained control of the fort and used it as a prison until the late 1950s when the Kenyan government assumed control and turned Fort Jesus into a historical monument.
WHERE: Taleh, Somalia
Once the seat of the Dervish State, a religious Somali-Muslim kingdom established by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan at the turn of the 20th century, Taleh Castle is a collection of structures built around several tombs, including that of Hassan’s mother Carro Seed Magan. The compound of Taleh is one of four fortresses making up the historic town (also called Taleh) which was bombarded by the British Royal Air Force in 1920, effectively wiping out the burgeoning Dervish State. In early 2008, Somaliland forces captured the town of Taleh and set up a large military base near the historic Castle.
WHERE: Namib Region, Namibia
There’s a reason this castle in the semi-arid hills of southern Namibia looks so European: it was constructed by German army captain Hans Heinrich von Wolf. After serving in the German-Nama war, Wolf returned to Namibia in peacetime with his new bride, purchased eight farms, and enlisted the famous German architect Wilhelm Sander to build him a castle. Work on Duwisib began in 1908 and, upon its completion, the lavish home contained 22 rooms built from imported German stone by the hands of European stonemasons. Wolf died fighting in World War I in 1916 and his wife never again returned to Namibia, abandoning the castle her husband had loved. Legend has it, the thoroughbred horses she left behind are the progenitors of the Namib Desert Horses that roam the countryside wild and free today.
INSIDER TIPDuwisib Castle is managed today by Namibia Wildlife Resorts and visitors can not only tour the property but can stay overnight in a refurbished castle bedroom.
Fortress of Sao Miguel
WHERE: Luanda, Angola
Elaborately wrought ceramic tiles within the Fortress of São Miguel illustrate the history of Angola, beginning with its years as a Portuguese colony. First built in 1576 CE, within 50 years the Fortress of São Miguel had become the colony’s administrative center and the center of its slave trade to the American colony of Brazil. Despite a brief occupation by the Dutch in 1641 CE, the fort has suffered little damage over the years and still contains its original walled fortifications, counterforts, and a polygonal, rubble edifice. Today, the Fortress of São Miguel holds Angola’s Museum of the Armed Forces.
WHERE: Ile de Gorée, Senegal
The island of Gorée and its castle, located four kilometers from the Senegalese capital Dakar, has a dark history. Goree was a valuable outpost in the West African slave trade, though scholars disagree on the exact number of enslaved individuals that passed through the island between the 15th and 19th centuries. Possibly as many as 15 million people were forced through the “Door of No Return” in the House of Slaves located at sea level on the island’s east side. The last they would have seen of the island was the Castle, a fortified, easily defensible garrison on a rocky plateau on the island’s south side. The castle, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to a museum.