The dramatic 17-m pyramidal structure of the Tomb of Askia was built by Askia Mohamed, the Emperor of Songhai, in 1495 in his capital Gao. It bears testimony to the power and riches of the empire that flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries through its control of the trans-Saharan trade, notably in salt and gold. It is also a fine example of the monumental mud-building traditions of the West African Sahel. The complex, including the pyramidal tomb, two flat-roofed mosque buildings, the mosque cemetery and the open-air assembly ground, was built when Gao became the capital of the Songhai Empire and after Askia Mohamed had returned from Mecca and made Islam the official religion of the empire.
Outstanding Universal Value
The Tomb of Askia is located in the town of Gao. The site comprises the following elements: the pyramidal tower, the two flat-roofed mosques, the necropolis and the white stone square. The spectacular pyramidal structure was built by Askia Mohamed, Emperor of the Songhai Empire in 1495. The Tomb of Askia was built when Gao became the capital of the Empire and Islam was adopted as the official religion.
The Tomb of Askia is a magnificent example of how the local traditions have adapted to the exigences of Islam in creating an architectural structure unique across the West African Sahel. The Tomb is the most important and best conserved vestige of the powerful and rich Songhai Empire that extended through West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its value is also invested in its architectural tomb/minaret shape, its prayer rooms, its cemetery and its assembly space that have survived and are still in use. From the architectural perspective, the Tomb of Askia is an eminent example of Sudano-Sahelian style, characterized by rounded forms resulting in the regular renewal of the layer of plaster eroded each winter by the rare but violent rains. The pyramidal form of the tomb, its function as central minaret as well as the length and shape of the pieces of wood comprising the permanent scaffolding, give the Tomb of Askia its distinctive and unique architectural characteristics.
Criterion (ii) : The Tomb of Askia reflects the way the local building traditions, in response to Islamic needs, absorbed influences from North Africa to create a unique architectural style across the West African Sahel.
Criterion (iii): The Tomb of Askia is an important vestige of the Songhai Empire, which once dominated the Sahel lands of West Africa and controlled the lucrative trans-Saharan trade.
Criterion (iv): The Tomb of Askia reflects the distinctive architectural tradition of the West African Sahel and in particular the way buildings evolve over centuries through regular, traditional maintenance practices.
The integrity of the site is fully intact with regard to all its components which remain visually, socially and culturally associated, first in the town of Gao where its elements are integrated into the architectural traditions and in the associated sites (Saneye, Gounzourey, Koima, Kankou Moussa Mosque), important elements for its interpretation.
The monument reflects the constructive culture of the local populations as regards earthen architecture, even if the necessary repairs regularly carried out have engendered some minor alterations. Reversible, these alterations (tin water spouts, cement stairways, other wooden scaffolding than the hasu – Maerua crassifolia) do not however detract from the authenticity of the site.
Protection and management requirements
The site belongs to the State. It was inscribed in 2003 on the National Heritage List of Mali and the buffer zone is officially recognized by municipal decree. The management of the site is the responsibility of an association created by the Prefect of Gao in 2002 and comprises representatives of all the principal stakeholders.
The Conservation and Management Plan of 2002-2007 was prepared in the framework of the Africa 2009 Programme, in cooperation with two experts from CRAterre-ENSAG (International Centre for Earthen Construction, Grenoble, France). Its implementation has enabled the improvement of the state of conservation and authenticity of the site, and the maintenance of its harmony with the urban fabric of Gao.
The long-term specific objectives for the conservation of the Tomb of Askia are the following: redevelop the surrounding wall to include the entire prayer area and assure a better visibility of the site from the Askia Avenue and the prayer area; gradually improve the state of conservation and authenticity of the site while continuing traditional maintenance practices; assure the promotion of the site and its improved use as an educative and tourism resource.
The Tomb of Askia reflects the way that local building traditions, in response to Islamic needs, absorbed influences from North Africa to create a unique architectural style across the West African Sahel. The site reflects the distinctive architectural tradition of the region and in particular exemplifies the way that buildings evolve over centuries through regular, traditional maintenance practices. It is the central commanding feature of the Great Mosque of Gao, which dominates the northern end of the town of Gao, next to the River Niger.
The site consists of the tomb and mosque surrounded by a wall, which covers the area to the west between the tomb and the river and part of the area to the north. The town surrounding the site still consists largely of traditional mud-walled, flat-roofed houses within courtyards laid out in a regular, rectilinear plan. The mosque and the surrounding old town of Gao are together one of the great sites in central Mali, and appear as a seemingly tiny oasis at the southern end of the Sahara.
The pyramidal tomb is constructed of mud bricks faced with mud plaster. Gnarled scaffolding timbers project out from the face of the tomb and allow easy access for replastering. On the east side is a winding external stair leading to the summit. The forest of scaffolding timbers and the sculpted lines of the building, which have developed over centuries of replastering, combine to create a unique architectural piece.
Two flat-roofed mosque buildings. On the east side of the tomb is a large flat-roofed prayer hall for men. The roof, of timber poles covered with mud, is supported by 69 stout, square, closely spaced, plastered mud-brick pillars arranged in four rows. The middle of the easternmost wall of the sanctuary is punctured by a double-niched mihrab . The mosque cemetery, outside the inner wall, surrounds the tomb and mosque and dates from the time of Askia, with many inscribed stone stelae. It continued in use until the end of the 1980s.
The open-air assembly ground. The east side of the larger enclosure, about 1 ha, is an open space used for collective prayers at the festival of Tabaski. It has been regularly used since the 15th century for other cultural purposes, such as local marriages where Islamic ceremonies were intertwined with 'animist' traditions.
Gao, probably founded at the end of the 7th century, appears in Arab chronicles as Kaw Kaw. The construction of the tomb is attributed, in the 11th century, to Mohamed Aboubacar Sylla (Askia Mohamed), who inaugurated the Askia dynasty. The prosperity of the empire was based on control of the trans-Saharan routes to the north, of routes from the forest in the south, and of the gold and salt trade that used them. It is said that Askia Mohamed, on passing through Egypt on his way to Mecca, was impressed by the pyramids and decided to construct a pyramidal tomb. However, it could also be said to be part of a long Saharan tradition of prominent ancestral tumuli or tomb mounds from as early as the 1st millennium BC. This style could also have been influenced by square, three-stepped stairway minarets of the Ibadite zawiyas (holy shrines), of the Mzab region of southern Algeria
During the reign of Askia Mohamed, the Songhai Empire became, with Timbuktu, the intellectual and religious centre of West Africa, developing strong cultural and commercial links with North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Internal strife and the growing importance of sea routes to West Africa in the 16th century led to the gradual decline of the empire. By the mid-19th century it had become a village of 300-400 houses with only one remaining monument, the Tomb of Askia.
The tomb seems always to have been used as part of the mosque: it is said that its name Askia Djira, literally the Mosque of Askia, was one by which it was known until the colonial era. In the 1960s the men's prayer hall was judged to be too small and was enlarged using traditional techniques and materials.The largest change to the site is the construction in 1999 of a large concrete boundary wall. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC
Gao is one of the ancient towns of Africa south of the Sahara. Probably founded at the end of the 7th century, by the 11th century it appears in Arab chronicles as Kaw Kaw. In 1137 it became the capital of the Songhai Empire.
The construction of the tomb is attributed to Mohamed Aboubacar Sylla, nephew of Sonni Ali Ber who reigned from 1464 to 1492 and extended the limits of the Songhai Empire through numerous battles against nomadic Tuaregs, Peuls and Mossi who were harassing the edges of the Empire. On the death of Sonni Ali Ber, his nephew Mohamed Aboubacar Sylla, known as Askia Mohamed, inaugurated the Askia dynasty.
Askia Mohamed continued the expansionist policies of his uncle and extended the Empire to the Atlantic coast in the west, to Air in the north (now in Niger) and south to the limits of the forest. The prosperity of the Empire was based on control of the trans-Saharan routes to the north, of routes from the forest in the south, and of the gold and salt trade that plied them. The Empire was a successor to the earlier empires of Ghana and Mali, which similarly prospered through control of the valuable trade routes.
It is said that Askia Mohamed on passing through Egypt on his pilgrimage to Mecca was much impressed by the Pyramids and decided on his return to construct a pyramidal tomb. However the tomb could also be said to be part of a very long Saharan tradition of prominent ancestral tumuli or tomb mounds erected over graves from as early as the first millennium BC. This style could also have been influenced by square, three-stepped stairway minarets of the Ibadite zawiyas, or holy shrines, of the Mzab region of southern Algeria, a link perhaps strengthened by numerous Ibadi scholars hosted by Askia Mohamed.
During the reign of Askia Mohamed, the Songhai Empire became, with Tombouctou, the intellectual and religious centre of West Africa, developing strong cultural and commercial links with North Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Internal strife and the growing importance of sea routes to West Africa in the 16th century led to the gradual decline of the Empire. By the mid 19th century it had become a village of three to four hundred houses with only one remaining monument: the Tomb of Askia.
There is debate over whether Askia Mohamed was interred in the tomb when he died in 1529. The general belief in Gao is that his body is not there and he was buried away from the site altogether.
The tomb seems always to have been used as part of the mosque - it is said that its name Askia Djira, literally the Mosque of Askia, was one by which it was known until the colonial era.
In the 1960s the men's prayer hall was judged to be too small and was enlarged. Two new rows of columns were constructed alongside the four original rows. In 1975 the building was further enlarged to absorb the mihrab, originally isolated in the courtyard. All this work was done using traditional techniques and materials and blends well with the original.
The largest change to the site is the construction in 1999 of a large cement boundary wall. This was apparently necessary to keep control of uses within the site. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation