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Mbanza Kongo, Vestiges of the Capital of the former Kingdom of Kongo

Mbanza Kongo, Vestiges of the Capital of the former Kingdom of Kongo

The town of Mbanza Kongo, located on a plateau at an altitude of 570 m, was the political and spiritual capital of the Kingdom of Kongo, one of the largest constituted states in Southern Africa from the 14th to 19th centuries. The historical area grew around the royal residence, the customary court and the holy tree, as well as the royal funeral places. When the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century they added stone buildings constructed in accordance with European methods to the existing urban conurbation built in local materials. Mbanza Kongo illustrates, more than anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the profound changes caused by the introduction of Christianity and the arrival of the Portuguese into Central Africa.

Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

Mbanza Kongo, vestiges de la capitale de l’ancien Royaume du Kongo

La cité de Mbanza Kongo, située sur un plateau à 570 m d’altitude, était la capitale politique et spirituelle du Royaume du Kongo, l’un des plus grands États constitués d’Afrique australe du XIVe au XIXe siècle. La zone historique s’est développée autour de la résidence royale, du tribunal coutumier et de l’arbre sacré, ainsi que des lieux funéraires royaux. Arrivés au XVe siècle, les Portugais ont ajouté des bâtiments en pierre, érigés selon les normes européennes, à l’agglomération urbaine existante, construite en matériaux locaux. Mbanza Kongo illustre, comme nulle part ailleurs en Afrique subsaharienne, les profonds changements qui découlèrent de l’introduction du christianisme et de l’arrivée des Portugais en Afrique centrale.

Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

Vestigios de Mbanza Kongo, capital del antiguo Reino del Kongo
Situada en una meseta a 570 metros de altura sobre el nivel del mar, la ciudad de Mbanza Kongo fue la capital política y espiritual del Reino del Kongo, uno de los mayores Estados estructurados del África Austral entre los siglos XIV y XIX de nuestra era. El centro histórico de Mbanza Kongo se fue extendiendo en torno al palacio real, la residencia del soberano, el tribunal consuetudinario, los recintos funerarios de la realeza y el árbol sagrado. A su llegada en el siglo XV, los portugueses añadieron a la ciudad indígena, construida con materiales autóctonos, edificios de albañilería edificados al estilo europeo. El sitio de Mbanza Kongo es el lugar de todo el África Subsahariana que mejor ilustra los profundos cambios ocasionados por la implantación de los portugueses y del cristianismo en la parte central del continente africano.

source: UNESCO/ERI
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

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View from the right angle of the Cathedral © INPC
Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis

The town of Mbanza Kongo was the political and spiritual capital of the Kingdom of Kongo, one of the largest constituted states of Southern Africa, which was active from the 14th to the 19th century. Located on a plateau at an altitude of 570 metres, it was prosperous when the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century. To the large existing urban conurbation built in local materials, the Portuguese added and substituted stone buildings constructed in accordance with European construction methods, including several churches. The town then experienced the expansion of Christianity with the Westernisation of the local elites, without however renouncing its culture. In its built structure and archaeological vestiges, the town retains the traces of its customary, colonial and religious past, of which it is an eminent place of remembrance. The Kingdom of Kongo was at the centre of the most important route for the trade in enslaved persons, who were deported to the Americas and the Caribbean. No material vestige attesting to the slave trade has been found up to now.

Criterion (iii): The contribution of the Kingdom of Kongo to the history of the African continent is attested and undeniable, thanks to the documentation available covering five centuries (from 1483 to the present day) and to the archaeological findings. Its capital has retained the ritual and symbolic powers embodied in the brotherhood of the Leopard Ngo. After the arrival of the Portuguese, the Kingdom adopted Christianity, while however retaining elements of pre-existing Kongo customs. The vestiges of Mbanza Kongo thus evoke the political and symbolic importance of the Kingdom in its territory and its role as a gateway enabling the Christian world to enter the African continent.

Criterion (iv): The political and religious centre of Mbanza Kongo is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble that illustrates, as nowhere else can in sub-Saharan Africa, the profound changes that emanated from the introduction of Christianity and the arrival of the Portuguese into Central Africa in the 15th century, events that influenced, not only religion but also trade, learning and contact between Central Africa and Europe, particularly Italy and Portugal. The Cathedral was standing when in 1608, the Pope accredited in Rome the first ambassador of a sub-Saharan African state to the Vatican. The Jesuit College reflects the status given to Mbanza Kongo as a seat of learning and is the place where in 1624 the first catechism was written in the Kikongo language to be used to spread Christianity across the Kingdom. The city was at the heart of the vast Kongo Kingdom that in turn was linked to a vast intercontinental network.

Integrity

All the attributes that express the property’s Outstanding Universal Value are included inside the property boundaries. The property illustrates the political and religious functions as they were exercised in the heart of the former Kingdom of Kongo. The property includes a set of vestiges that evoke pre-colonial society, and the survival of the Kingdom over several centuries, and the many churches and the military and civil buildings left by the Portuguese. The state of these vestiges is generally satisfactory, but there are problems, some of which are serious, such as the insalubrity of the springs. Several excavations have begun to exploit the archaeological potential of a rich subsurface.

The conditions of visual integrity of the property are fragile, particularly because of the presence of telecommunications antennae (currently being dismantled) and the airstrip, located in the buffer zone, built by the Portuguese in the interwar years. The demolition of the airstrip, which is hardly used nowadays, has been confirmed by the State Party, and a new airport site has been chosen outside the town.

Authenticity

The authenticity of the property stems from the fact that since its foundation it has continuously maintained its sacred and symbolic function. The guardians of the tradition transmit the prestige on which the earlier kings relied: the customary court, which manages conflicts, has been reinstated after four decades of war, as a cultural and political link with a living tradition. The occupation of the urban space has been known since the 16th century, as reflected in the accounts written by Portuguese travellers. A certain degree of continuity has been maintained in this historic urban fabric, despite the orthogonal street pattern introduced by the Europeans, although the main street has retained its ancient trace. The many churches and convents contributed to stability, and it is quite remarkable that the passing of centuries has not led to any encroachment on the royal space, which is still clearly identifiable as the spiritual centre of the community.

Protection and management requirements

Since the Angolan constitution was established in 2010, the heritage of Mbanza Kongo has been preserved by a set of legal texts that delineate the boundaries of the property and its buffer zone (executive decree of July 2014), and lists the protected places (decree of January 2015).

A participative management committee was set up by presidential decree in September 2015. The committee coordinates the action of the entities in charge of managing the site (Ministry of Culture, Governorate of Zaire province, Municipality, Customary authorities). The participation of the customary authorities is a convincing indicator of local involvement. Two urban infrastructure development plans (water, energy, etc.) are scheduled to end in 2017; they must be extended. The Management Plan 2016-2020 has defined tools to ensure the property's security and enhance its appearance. Conservation and restoration measures, particularly for the former cathedral (Kulumbimbi), have been scheduled over the next five years. The National Cultural Heritage institute provides a frame of reference for these works, for their technical coordination and for funding. Documentary, archaeological and historic research about the property must however be continued and extended. A tourism management strategy will have to be developed. The civil protection services ensure the surveillance of the property. An urban regulation plan for the historic centre of Mbanza Kongo is also in preparation, while a provincial decree of August 2013 makes a prior building permit compulsory for any intervention inside the property boundaries and in the buffer zone.