by Jasmin Pannier
Mali may be best known for the city of Timbuktu, but the Tomb of Askia is an excellent example of the syncretism between the local populace and Islam in the Songhai Empire.
Located on the banks of the Niger River in the town of Gao, the Tomb of Askia is an example of Songhai architecture. The site is composed of two roofed mosques, a necropolis, a white stone square, and a dramatic seventeen-meter high pyramid. Askia Muhammad, or Askia the Great, the then Emperor of the Songhai Empire, constructed the site in 1495, when Gao became the capital of the empire and Islam its official religion. Askia the Great was an effective ruler of the Songhai Empire, providing stability with alliances, creating schools, constructing public architecture, and emphasizing astronomy and observatories in the capital. At its peak the Songhai Empire was the largest Empire in Africa.
Looking up at the pyramidal structure, the protruding wood scaffolding not only creates a unique shadow, but also sets its architects apart from traditional pyramidal constructions such as those in Egypt and in Mesoamerica. Built in the traditional Sudanese architectural style, the Tomb of Askia was constructed with wet plaster and mud, which is then reapplied every year after the rainy season. The tomb reflects the ability of local traditions to adapt to the exigencies of Islam in the construction of an architectural structure unique across West Africa and throughout time. The tomb is regularly used today as a mosque and exhibits the evolution of the use of space through traditional practices across centuries of maintenance. It is also the best-conserved site of the remnants of the Songhai Empire that extended through the 15th and 16th century in West Africa. It should come as no surprise then, that the Tomb of Askia was nominated as an endangered World Heritage site in 2012.
Today, the Tomb of Askia continues to be used by its local population and although it remains fully intact in regards to the state of its original structure it faces annual modern alterations due to environmental factors that have endangered the integrity of the site. Since its creation in 1495, the original structure has had various face-lifts to make it more suitable for the modern day individual. Electricity, tin water spouts, cement stairways, and newer wooden scaffolding have made the site more inviting, but they are reversible and do not detract from the tombs integrity.
The site however faces long-term consequences if left uncared for. While rain is mostly uncommon throughout the year in Mali, in June the rainy season begins. These rainstorms are destructive and could potentially destroy the Tomb of Askia beyond repair. Another threat to the tomb comes from Islamic jihadists who took over Gao in 2011. Normally the local residents would care for the tomb by adding a new layer of plaster every year. However, these activities have ceased due to the residents focusing on their basic survival in the presence of the unstable insurgency. As a result, the Tomb of Askia is in a precarious condition. The internal columns supporting the prayer room in the tomb are badly degraded and the entire structure needs to be made waterproof before the next rainy season.
The protection of the Tomb of Askia is, however, actively being fought for. In 2004, the Tomb of Askia was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The management of the site was officially given by the government of Mali to the Prefect of Gao in 2002 and is comprised of representatives who are principal stakeholders. The Tomb of Askia was also included in the 2009 African Program and in the 2002-2007 Conservation and Management Plan. These policies have improved the state conservation efforts, the authenticity of the site, as well as maintained the relationship with the urban residents of Gao. Yet conservationists have a long way to go if the Tomb of Askia should continue to exist. The state of Gao needs to redevelop the surrounding wall to include the prayer room, improve the state of conservation and authenticity, maintain and respect the traditional maintenance practices, assure the promotion of the site, and increase the use of the site as an educative and tourist resource. The Tomb of Askia is fascinating. It is a monumental piece of architecture, yet made from simple materials. In today’s precarious world it is often easy to forget the ability of different cultures to peacefully coexist and function. The Tomb of Askia is proof of a mutual respect towards and absorption of a foreign culture.
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