The UNESCO World Heritage sites in Africa are particularly interesting as they weave through a myriad of colors, religions, and typologies. While some are unique buildings and structures preserved almost intact, others are fossilized remains one has to scrounge for. From surreal landscapes that stretch across the skyline to majestic creatures found only in Africa, there are countless experiences to seek out. One can only leave feeling mesmerized, and wanting to come back once more. Let’s have a glimpse at ten of these places, each telling a different story, each transporting us to a different time.
1: Stone Town of Zanzibar
The Stone Town in Zanzibar is famous for its well-maintained houses from an era long past. However, far from being a ghost town, it is still a town bustling with colors and sounds.
It was once a Swahili trading town where people from various traditions: African, Arabian, Indian, and European, mingled. These influenced building traditions and town planning. The Arab influences can be seen in the labyrinthine alleys, while the contact with Indians probably influenced the design of street bazaars around the courtyard-like junctions called duka.
The tall and narrow limestone houses reflect European sensibilities, while the famous Zanzibari doors are an artistic expression of Swahili ornamentation. The doorways have intricate carvings on hardwood and are riveted with brass.
The town is so well-preserved that one can visualize the chaos and bustle of a busy port on the silk route, the trade of silks, spices, ivory, and slaves. Some important places to visit are the old Arab fort, ruins of the Mtoni Palace ruins, the Palace of the Sultan at Beit al-Sahel, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and the site which marks the end of slave trading.
2: Historic Cairo
Historic Cairo is a well-preserved part of the bustling city of Cairo, Egypt. When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the seventh century, they established Al-Fustat as the new capital and built the first mosque in Africa. The Fatimid dynasty moved the capital city to a more strategic location calling it Al-Mu’izziyya al-Qaahirah. The name was shortened to Al-Qahira and is now known as Cairo.
The Mamluks captured the city in the 12th century and were committed to their Islamic duty of constructing mosques and madrasas. These mosques have intricate stone carvings and tall minarets. Cairo is also known as the City of Minarets.
The As-Sayyidah Nafisah Necropolis on the southern end of the citadel contains impressive mausoleums built by the Sultans. The Al-Imam AshShaf’I Necropolis and the Qaitbay Necropolis, are mesmerizing examples of intricate stonework.
If you stand high enough, you can look at lands far away. If you stand high enough within the citadel of Historic Cairo, you can look into the centuries-long past.
3: Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania
Kilimanjaro National Park covers the slopes of this magnificent mountain. It is a stratovolcano made of rock, lava, and ash. It has three cones, two of which are extinct, while the third is dormant. This region has the unique distinction of having multiple ecosystems: cultivated land, desert, rainforest, grassland, moors, alpine, and arctic.
Climate change, tourism and increasing cultivation on the slopes, are a threat to this region. Erosion of animal trails, littering, poaching, and accidental and intentional forest fires are leading to deforestation and melting of the summit ice cap at an alarming rate. The native tribes of this region believed Kilimanjaro to be the abode of the Gods, to be left undisturbed so that nature continued to share her blessings with us.
4: Victoria Falls – Zambia/Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls, at the boundary of Zambia and Zimbabwe, are the largest waterfalls in the world-an awe-inspiring, majestic view that can be seen from 20-50 miles away (depending on which side you approach it from).
The local name ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ or the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ evokes a better description of this natural wonder. The almost placid Zambezi river zigzags through eight gorges falling from a height of 108m across a width of 1708m.
We can judge the power of these falls by the fact that due to the mist from Victoria falls, the Rainforest of the region is the only place in the world where it rains 24 hours a day, all 365 days of the year. It is one of the few places we can see a rainbow at night!
Local legends attribute these, and frequent tremors, to the rage of the river God Nyami Nyami. They believe that the river God got trapped at one end of the river because of the Kariba dam and is not threatening the entire ecosystem. The explanation may be fanciful, but the lesson is not. We should coexist in harmony with nature to ensure these unique places continue to enthrall and sustain future generations.
5: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Serengeti National Park in Tanzania is a vast plain punctuated by rocky outcrops and tall savanna grasslands sustained by the majestic Mara river and Lake Victoria. It contains a population of around 2 million wildebeest, 900,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 300,000 zebras, 70,000 giraffes, buffaloes, hippopotamuses, warthogs, rhinoceros, elephants, antelopes, and a dozen species of primates. Every year this region witnesses one of the magnificent wonders of the living world: the thumping, asynchronous beat of the march of a million wildebeest along with thousands of other land animals starting on their 1000km long circular migration across the crocodile-infested rivers into the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya, and back.
The water shortage because of increased population growth along the Mara basin, near extinction of the wild dogs because of disease spread by increasing interactions with domestic dogs, poaching of animals for meat, ivory, horns, and sport. The hope lies in controlling these dangers and letting nature renew itself as it follows its uninterrupted rhythm of animals and birds marching in harmony with the seasons.
6: Robben Island
Robben Island, off the coast of Africa, is a harsh place. The land is arid and baked by the scorching sun. The howling winds whip up giant waves that pound the jagged coastline relentlessly and a lone lighthouse warns ships to stay away. Its location, close to the mainland and yet separated by stormy seas, made it a good shelter for early Dutch explorers.
By the end of the 17th century, the rulers realized the strategic potential of this island as a prison with no possible escape. It was perhaps the total isolation and extreme desperation that made the dreams of freedom even more intense. The island’s most famous inmate was South Africa’s President and Noble Prize winner Nelson Mandela who spent 18 years earning and planning for the end of the apartheid regime.
One of Cape Town’s first Imams, Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, was a prisoner here. There were hundreds of other prisoners, held captive for their faith and belief in basic human rights and a right to live with dignity.
Robben Island is a living museum now with Former inmates as guides, narrating their stories of a time when freedom was just a dream and rights depended on the color of your skin. A distant beacon of hope guided their sustained struggle for this day. This place is a reminder not to take freedom for granted but to cherish and safeguard it.
7. Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa
Most of us are curious about where we came from. Historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and scientists across the world have been trying to piece this jigsaw together for a long time. In the early 1900s, routine limestone quarrying led to the discovery of a labyrinth of dolomite caves in South Africa that offered a glimpse of how those pieces could fit together. A curious question to archaeologist Robert Broom in 1936 led to a peephole offering a glimpse into 3.3 billion years of evolution!
The “Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa” is an area of approximately 47000 hectares near Johannesburg, South Africa. One of the most famous sites within this area is the ‘Cradle of Humanity’ at Maropeng. This center houses an accessible archaeological site and an exhibition center that offers visitors an immersive and educational journey about the history of evolution.
This region has the richest collection of fossilized hominid remains, such as specimens of ancestors of the Homo species Paranthropus, Australopithecus africanus, and Australopithecus robustus, along with evidence of the earliest tools used by humankind and the use of fire 1.8-1.0 million years ago. It also has a rich collection of insect and plant fossils and remains of other animals enabling scientists to piece together a good picture of our evolutionary history.
Some of the critical specimens found in this region are the first primate fossil to be discovered (Bolt’s farm), Taung Child, the skull of an Australopithecus africanus found in 1924 by in Taung province, and Little Foot: a nearly complete Australopithecus found between 1994–1998 estimated to be nearly 3.7 million years old.
These discoveries challenged many previous theories of evolution and clearly established Africa as the cradle of human evolution.
8: Amphitheater of El Jem
Empires, no matter how powerful, come to an end. Their stories, particularly those written in stone, remain for centuries testimony to the grandeur and power and even the brutality of that mighty rule.
The amphitheater of El Jem at El Diem (ancient city of Thysdrus), Tunisia, is one of the largest remaining colosseums of the Roman empire. Constructed in the 3rd century, it could comfortably seat 35000 spectators and still tower over the entire landscape. Some visitors will feel that chill, thinking about the slaves and animals who waited here, hearing the screams of the thousands baying for their blood. They were hoisted into the arena through lifts, by soldiers who could move around the underground galleries concealed by the removable floor.
After the retreat of the Romans, the solid walls of the amphitheater served the city as a Citadel. According to a popular tale, the amphitheater even had a secret tunnel to the coast. During a 7th century siege by Arabs, the trapped Berber Princess, Al Kahini, walked to the highest arcades and waved her fish at the besiegers!
In the 17th century, one section of the wall was blown away by cannon fire, and over time, locals used parts of the structure as a quarry. Most of the southern section still stands tall in silent testimony to all that has gone before.
9: Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela
When we stand beside tall monuments, massive structures, we gaze up in awe. We feel humbled by the soaring heights.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are a cluster of 11, 12-century Churches around 645km from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. They’re carved painstakingly from giant monoliths, plunging 40-50m with their cruciform tops level with the surrounding basalt plateau.
Descending to the depths of the earth, walking through the interconnecting tunnels and tombs, peeping into hermit caves and catacombs, and then soaring back into the light, we understand why the faithful believe-this is a place built by angels.
10: Aldabra Atoll
Have you wondered what the garden of Eden could have looked like?
A self-sustaining bio-bubble where thousands of species of unique flora and fauna co-existed, rimmed by a ring of coral. Emerald-green waters gently lap against the shores, safeguarding this warm tropical haven. This is the Aldabra Atoll. It is the world’s second-largest coral atoll, situated off the coast of Seychelles.
It is perhaps the lack of surface water that saved it from inhabitation. Colonial explorations and attempts at creating settlements did lead to the introduction of species like dogs, cats, and goats (and of course, human beings) who could have led to the breakdown of this fragile ecosystem. The most famous inhabitants of this atoll, giant tortoises, were hunted to near extinction by the late 1800s.
Currently, Aldabra is home to one of the largest populations of nesting green turtles in the Indian Ocean. It also houses the hawksbill sea turtle, the coconut crab, white-throated rail, geckos, lizards, drongos, around a hundred species of birds, and a thousand species of insects! It’s testimony to the power of nature, left alone by human intervention.
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