Tomb of Askia
Tomb Of Askia
Cultural Mali Africa City, Circle And Region Of Gao

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.