Kano, Nigeria & Zinder, Niger
Located on the fringe where the Sahara Desert meets the more hospitable regions of the Sahel, Nigeria and Niger were home to some of the last major Muslim kingdoms to be founded in Africa. These small kingdoms, which often amounted to little more than city-states, were largely established by Hausa tribesmen as early as the 14th century. They are generally considered to be the most traditionally African of all Muslim cities; and the most prominent among them, even to the present day, are the Sultanate of Zinder in Niger and the Emirate of Kano in Nigeria. The mosques of these cities are among the most important in Sub-Saharan Africa and are excellent architectural representatives of the region.
The Hausa of north-central Africa are the only traditional Muslim people and culture in the Sahara that did not originate from the Berber Tribes of the Maghreb. Instead they migrated from Sudan and Ethiopia in the east during the Islamic period. From the 7th through the 13th centuries the Hausa tribelands of the Sahel had little contact with the Berber Muslim kingdoms of the Maghreb, the great Arab caliphates of the Middle East, or anyone else for that matter. As a result the Hausa people developed religious practices and architecture unlike anything else found in the Muslim world.
By the 13th century the Hausa had established many towns and small city-states and were the dominant albeit decentralized civilization of the Sahel. While Hausa settlements could be found stretching across central Africa from present day Burkina Faso to Ethiopia, the center of life and the largest towns were to found in what is now Northern Nigeria and Southern Niger. During the late Middle Ages a number of larger kingdoms coalesced around the major city-states in these regions, notably Kano and Zinder.
Thanks to the area’s geographical isolation far from Africa’s vulnerable coasts, the Hausa kingdoms remained relatively unscathed during the European colonial period. The only major threat to the region came from the Fulani, a rival local tribe that moved in to the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the Fulani were largely absorbed into the existing population and the two cultures merged. This made the peoples of the Sahel much stronger and more able to resist European encroachments a century later.
No other part of Africa so successfully resisted western cultural influences during the colonial period than the Sahel. Because of this the local cities are among the world’s best preserved indigenous Muslim populations. Kano in particular has a very long history as a major Muslim city, with a pre-colonial mosque and a dynasty of emirs which dates back to the 1400s. While Zinder is somewhat younger, it boasts an even larger mosque and is home to a full-on sultanate. Together these cities represent the heart of Islam in the Sahel.
The Masjid Kano in northern Nigeria is a relatively recent mosque constructed in the 1960s on the site of an earlier structure. Built of brilliant white brick, it is very distinctive looking, especially when viewed from head-on. The archictecure is fairly unique, and it bears little resemblence to other mosques in Africa. The centerpiece of the mosque is a striking blue dome, but this is overshadowed by the pair of impressive, thickly-built minarets which flank it. One of the more unusual exterior flourishes is the line of trees that surround the wall of the compound, which when they reach maturity will form a beautiful natural enclosure to the site.
The Masjid Zinder in southern Niger is larger and more traditionally structured if somewhat plainer version of its sibling in Kano. Also built in the latter half of the 20th century, the white brick Masjid Kano features has strangely bland design elements, with even stranger blue cast-iron decorative flourishes. The more classically shaped central dome is surrounded by a full compliment of four minarets. Like Kano, a small forest of young trees surrounds the wall/fence enclosure.
The Masjid Kano is located near the Emir’s Palace in the southwestern corner of the city of Kano, approximately 515 miles northeast of Lagos. The Masjid Zinder is located near the Sultan’s Palace on the extreme southern fringe of the city of Zinder, approximately 470 miles east of Niamey. Both mosques are open to Muslims (non-Muslim visitors may be permitted to look around with restrictions). There is no cost of admission. Web: No website available
In addition to their mosques, both of these cities boast interesting old Muslim palaces, including the Sultan’s Palace of Zinder and the Emir’s Palace of Kano. The largest mosque in this part of Africa is the Abuja National Mosque in Central Nigeria.