Africa: Lalibela, Kongo, Kuba, and Great Zimbabwe


Biet Gyiorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, late 12th-early 13th century (photo By Katie Hunt from St Albans, UK – Bet GiyorgisUploaded by Fæ, CC BY 2.0,

Ethiopia is home to a number of ancient cities, and the civilization was heavily influenced by Egypt and Nubia, as well as the cultures across the Red Sea. The cultures of Ethiopia also maintained connections to Judaism, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have been founded over 2000 years ago.


Biet Gyiorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, late 12th-early 13th century and interior, Biet Emanuel, Lalibela, Ethiopia, late 12th-early 13th century (photo By Katie Hunt from St Albans, UK – Bet GiyorgisUploaded by Fæ, CC BY 2.0, and By Chuck Moravec – Lalibela Bet Emanuel 6, CC BY 2.0,


St. George Slaying the Dragon from the Church of Debre Sina, Lalibela, Ethiopia, 13th century (photo By A. Davey from Where I Live Now: Pacific Northwest – St. George Slaying the Dragon, Church of Debre Sina, Lalibela, EthiopiaUploaded by Elitre, CC BY 2.0,


Map, Ethiopia

One of the most important Christian sites in Ethiopia is Lalibela, which may have begun as a royal compound. It was likely built in 4-5 phases of construction between the 7th and 13th centuries. According to Ethiopian traditions, the complex was built by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (r. ca. 1181–1221), either in 24 years or 3 days, with the help of angels. This story tells the importance of the site as a religious pilgrimage site to this day. All of the structures on this site were built by being carved from the rock, which means they were carved from the top down, and then, as the exteriors were decorated, the interiors were carved from the bottom up. This means that each structure is one solid piece of stone, going against typical rules of architecture. All of the decoration inside the structures reflects the stylistic tendencies of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the structures reflect the influences of traditional Ethiopian design techniques, the Jewish religion, and the influence of Byzantine traditions.


Map, Kongo Kingdom

The Kongo Kingdom was founded toward the end of the 14th century in south western Africa by Nimi a Lukemi around Mbanza Kongo, the capital south of the mouth of the Congo River. It grew through alliances and conquests, and by 1483 was largest state in Central Africa. The kingdom was centrally organized. In 1491, the Kongo king Nzinga aNkuwa converted to Christianity, and with his son Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga, helped to establish Christianity as the state religion, although this withered after the dissolution of the Kongo kingdom in 1665.The slave trade led to downfall in 16th century.

Flywhisk handle, Kongo peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th century and Chief or nobleman’s headdress (mpu), Kongo, 1800s (photo By Cliff1066 – Flickr [1], CC BY 2.0, and By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain,

Kongo, Pfemba, date unknown and Crucifix, 16th century  (photo By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0,

Early art of the kingdom proclaimed the sacred authority of the Kongo kings, and often included spiritually charged substances. These substances, called bilongo, could include items that came from animals, plants, shells, or other objects believed to be spiritually potent. Often they were considered to be nkisi (pl. minkisi), which referred to the power within the objects. The patterns woven into the raffia cloths used to drape the king’s throne or for chief’s headdresses were also believed to have this power. Ancestor spirits & lesser spirit beings communicated with human community, not the supreme deity, Nzambi Kalunga. These objects could include the pfemba, which were mother & child images, but after conversion to Catholicism, new types of religious images emerged that reflected a hybrid European and African belief system.

Kongo, Tumba Figure (female), late 1800s and Kongo, Tumba Figure (male), late 1800s (photo By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain, and By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain,

The Kongo people have elaborate funerary traditions. Commemorative and funerary sculptures were made to allow people to consult with deceased ancestors. Tumba memorial figures (pl bitumba) show the idea of deceased as mediator with the spirit world, while niombo are elaborately wrapped mummies that become a symbolic portrait of the deceased. A muzidi is a mannequin for the deceased, serving as a reliquary for disinterred bones. All of them show the importance of ancestors as mediators for the living with the spirits.

Kongo, Nkisi Nkonid and Nkisi Nkondi Kozo (photo By Royaltribalart – Photos_collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Rept0n1x – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Minkisi can also serve nganga (pl. banganga), agents who can see hidden things, meaning healers, diviners, mediators who defend from witchcraft or demands from spirits. Minkisi then act as containers: anything that can hold spiritually charged substances. Often they are anthropomorphic or zoomorphic wooden sculptures, with the bilongo acting as the activating substances. The bilongo was often protected by a mirror or cowrie shell at the center of the figure. The nkondi (pl minkondi) were hunters who could be called upon to protect someone; avenge a wrong; or assist in war. Those with their arms up were considered to be warriors. They sometimes travelled with kozo, which were dogs as hunters in village and forest, considered the home of the dead. Kozo always had four eyes, 2 for this world & 2 for the spirit world, to help track witches. All of these figures, as with most other Kongo sculptural figures, had open mouths, which allowed the spirit contained within to speak and breathe, as well as move around. The prayer or request was symbolized by the nail or iron driven into the figure, and these were often removed after they were perceived to have been granted.



Map, Kuba peoples

Around 1625, Shyaam aMbul a-Ngoong (Shyaam the Great) united a series of groups in south western Africa into 1 kingdom, and reorganized political system. These people were then called the Kuba. The king, or nyim, always came from the from Bushoong group. The Kuba were ruled by a king with a council of ritual speakers and titleholders. Titles were earned, as a means of the distribution of power. Standing within the hierarchy perceived in terms of wealth and rank, with material possessions serving to express status. The current king of the Kuba traces his descent from Shyaam. Each king has his own bwaantshy, state dress, which is symbolic and can weigh up 185 pounds. Previous kings would also commission ndop, royal portrait figures, which were idealized, and believed to contain the souls of the kings themselves.

Kuba, Ndop of  King Mishe miShyaang maMbul, c. 1760-1780 and Janus-Headed Palm wine Cup, early 20th century (photo By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0,

Kuba, Mwaash aMbooy Mask, late 19th or early 20th century and Bwoom Mask, 19th century (photo By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0,

Much of the art of the Kuba reflected status, as well as close relationships to the king. Cosmetic boxes were used by the elite, and were carved in elaborate status-affiliated patterns. Palm wine cups show the Kuba love of two dimensional surface design combined with three dimensional forms. Masks also belong to king & must be danced with his permission. Three of the most important, Mwashamboy, Bwoom, Ngady a mwash, tell story of Woot, the royal ancestor and mythical founder of the kingdom.

Kuba woman embroidering textiles and Kuba, Raffia Cloth, 20th century (photo By Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0,

For the Kuba, textiles are the most widespread types of prestige goods, but they are created and used by all levels of society. There is a high value on production, and these are made from beaten inner bark of certain trees. Men make men’s skirts, women make women’s skirts. But, both men and women work together to make the raffia and felted barkcloth textiles. These are often referred to as Kasai velvets because of their soft texture. Some are also created using a dye technique similar to tie-dying.



Aerial view of the site of Great Zimbabwe (photo By Janice Bell – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Map showing location of Great Zimbabwe

In south eastern Africa, the site of Great Zimbabwe is thought to have been the capital of one Shona group, constructed between the 13th & 15th centuries. The word zimbahwe/Zimbabwe originally referred to judicial center/royal palace. The site consists of three parts: Hill Ruin, constructed c. 1250; Great Enclosure, completed prior to 1450, and consisting 2 solid stone towers resemble Shona granaries in form with a roughly circular wall and a low platform that resembles that used by contemporary Shona women in markets; and the Valley Ruins, consisting of a variety of structures. Based on archaeological evidence, the importance of entire complex was based on its status as a trading center with Swahili merchants on East African coast. All of the elements of the site incorporate natural rock formations, showing the importance of local geography. The Hill Ruin incorporates a natural cave that projects sound like a megaphone over the valley. The Great Enclosure was probably the hub of the trading center. Many of the objects found throughout the site related to long distance trade, coming even from China and Southeast Asia. There are also motifs that seem to highlight the importance of birds, crocodiles, and zebras. More recent Shona art has combination of practical and religious uses, and may have been used for initiations.

Shona, Hill Ruins, Great Zimbabwe, built c. 1250 and (photo CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Macvivo at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Shona, Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe, built before 1450, with view of some of the valley ruins (photo By Simonchihanga – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By Image taken by Jan Derk in 1997 in Zimbabwe. – en:Image:Great-Zimbabwe-2.jpg, Public Domain,


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