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Pre-Colonial Origins of Urban Spaces in the West African Sahel: Street Networks, Trade, and Spatial Plurality

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Present-day West African towns allow us to study how urban space developed in this region. The urban street networks and layout of residential quarters to some extent preserve the possible movement patterns of pre-colonial urbanites. Long-distance trade, in what is ultimately a liminal and transitory locale, linked the urban nodes on the “coast” of the Sahara. This article takes a closer look on the distribution of streets and quarters as a unique kind of material heritage, as well as major trade routes, which linked into the towns. Analyses of the historic towns of Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali are used to demonstrate how the relationships between trade and urban residents were enacted in space. The structuring of the two towns put them in context with the tradition of dual settlements in West Africa, also finding parallels with the role of urban quarters in merchant towns of the East African coast.
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https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144217746375
Journal of Urban History
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DOI: 10.1177/0096144217746375
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Original Research Article
Pre-Colonial Origins of Urban
Spaces in the West African Sahel:
Street Networks, Trade, and
Spatial Plurality
Monika Baumanova1,2,3 , Ladislav Smejda3,4,
and Heinz Rüther5
Abstract
Present-day West African towns allow us to study how urban space developed in this region.
The urban street networks and layout of residential quarters to some extent preserve the
possible movement patterns of pre-colonial urbanites. Long-distance trade, in what is ultimately
a liminal and transitory locale, linked the urban nodes on the “coast” of the Sahara. This article
takes a closer look on the distribution of streets and quarters as a unique kind of material
heritage, as well as major trade routes, which linked into the towns. Analyses of the historic
towns of Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali are used to demonstrate how the relationships between
trade and urban residents were enacted in space. The structuring of the two towns put them in
context with the tradition of dual settlements in West Africa, also finding parallels with the role
of urban quarters in merchant towns of the East African coast.
Keywords
street networks, urban layout, Sub-Saharan Africa, pre-colonial urbanism, historical trade
Urbanism in Sub-Saharan Africa of the pre-colonial era was, like that of many other urban tradi-
tions, characterized by a built environment that featured spatial connections and divisions, and
was represented by complex street networks and town quarters.1 If we characterize the layout of
urban settlements generally as conglomerations incorporating hundreds of built structures, then,
especially in West Africa, such settlements have had long tradition of development into multicen-
tric layouts, which were spatially interlinked and yet structurally subdivided. This might be
termed spatial plurality. Certain spatial patterns were repeated within the town, or the town layout
for centuries did not represent a coherent whole but rather was composed of multiple separate
units or quarters, which developed either simultaneously side by side or one at the limits of a
1Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
2University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland
3University of West Bohemia, Pilsen, Czech Republic
4Czech University of Life Sciences, Prague, Czech Republic
5University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
Corresponding Author:
Monika Baumanova, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Engelska Parken,
Thunbergsvagen 3H, Uppsala 751 26, Sweden.
Email: monika.baumanova@uclmail.net
746375JUHXXX10.1177/0096144217746375Journal of Urban HistoryBaumanova et al.
research-article2017
2 Journal of Urban History 00(0)
pre-existent other (such as at Timbuktu, Gao, or Djenne). Studying how these patterns catered for
and influenced spatial and social environments is important for disentangling the pathways and
long-term effects of urban development.
In this article, spatial plurality is considered not in terms of building typology, but in terms of
urban structure, represented by city quarters developing in close vicinity, interlinked by streets or
to some extent preserved as self-contained by the same medium. In urban Africa, especially from
the thirteenth century CE, we may discern examples of a process, apparent on the material heri-
tage of organically developed urban layouts, where the quarters of a settlement may represent its
several cores. As the city is regenerated by being developed over centuries and by many genera-
tions, which maintain certain material structure of the built environment, then it can be assumed
there was a balance between its spatial structure and social mechanisms.2 With enough archaeo-
logical and historical data, we may be able to see that city quarters in pre-colonial Africa differed
in relative social influence, wealth, or primary occupation of their inhabitants, and may display
heterarchy and competition at the same time.3 Yet these variations apparently did not produce a
single interlinked network of movement routes such as we might know from the European his-
torical urbanism where cities grew radiating from a core and where there was less regional het-
erogeneity in urban morphology compared with Sahelian Africa.4
Examples of spatial plurality may be discernible especially in the case of towns for which
trade played a major role in their establishment and/or throughout their history. This is the case
of the dual or twin settlements known from West Africa. This classification refers to centers that
became known by a single name and location, and yet in terms of spatial fabric, they represent
two adjacent urban cores or quarters, which, however, are not grown together. This phenomenon
has been recorded archaeologically and referred to in historical documents relating the Sahel
zone, which borders the Sahara on the south. These sources inform us about towns that date to
the early second millennium CE such as Gao, Koumbi Saleh, or Essuk/Tadmakka.5 There might
have been other dual settlements beyond these classical examples, as some settlements (such as
Timbuktu) were only sparingly excavated archaeologically or there are other reasons why their
past plurality cannot be proven or ruled out.6
Closer to the Atlantic coast in the Gulf of Benin, the polities of the tropical Guinean forest
zone developed plurality represented in the respective positioning of centers. The inter-
twined relationship and shared dominant location in the regional network were convincingly
demonstrated for dual centers of Abomey and Cana as seats of royal authority in the polity
of Dahomey, known for its heavy involvement in slave trade across the Atlantic dating to the
seventeenth to nineteenth century.7 On the coast of East Africa, on the other hand, Swahili
towns of the tenth to sixteenth century, before the Omani Arab and Portuguese colonial
involvement in the area, have been argued to represent city states.8 Although Swahili towns
probably did form a coherent spatial whole, they lacked a formal center, and for some of
these towns such as Shanga or Lamu, it has been argued they were divided into quarters
representing competing lineages, which controlled the use of specific gates and zones within
the urban space.9
In this article, we outline how plurality in spatial structure, represented by contemporary or
subsequent development of individual urban quarters and street networks, may be viewed in
context of the tradition of social centrality and liminality in urban trading communities of sub-
Saharan Africa. This notion is elaborated focusing on urban settlements in coastal zones as a type
of frontier towns, where facilitating social contacts and trade in particular were of key impor-
tance for social life and management of economic livelihoods.
Most social interaction within an urban population occurs on the streets, open spaces and in
public buildings.10 The layout plan of towns is, hence, an ultimate map of potential social encoun-
ters, a materially delineated network, which defines limits and settings for all activities. In many
ways, urban streets are the ultimate material reflection of the daily life of urban community, all
the more so for societies where trade is a significant part of urban life.
Baumanova et al. 3
We use a range of spatial integration analyses and layout plans in GIS to analyze and compare
the street networks of two historic towns. This approach allows highlighting forms of spatial plural-
ity in West Africa still discernible from the material fabric of present-day towns. We demonstrate
on two towns of the West African Sahel, Timbuktu and Old Djenne, which are not formally classi-
fied as representing dual settlements, but they developed from several cores gradually growing
together, how their street networks functioned to both allow access and to interlink, or demarcate
and contain individual parts of the town. Through comparison of the two towns and confrontation
with other data on the tradition of dual/twin centers, the role of quarters in trading towns, and the
spatial connection of the urban fabric with associated major trade routes, we derive how and why
specific spatial patterns in the layout of the two towns might be similar or different.
With the amount of data currently available, comparative studies can highlight patterns that
may not be visible or analyzed if only one case study was selected. Furthermore, archaeological
excavations in both towns under scrutiny have been limited because of the formidable cost and
technical difficulties given the presence of modern settlement. Small-scale excavations do not
allow assessing the material heritage of the whole layout of the towns, but survey and analysis of
the patterns preserved in the built environment can serve to shed light on choices made by mul-
tiple generations of urban dwellers about this type of material culture. The resulting observations
are relevant for understanding the long-term development of African urbanism, as well as the
possible forms and nature of sustainable urban social environments with which people have rich
historical experience on a global scale.
Trade and Coastal Regions
Trade on the edge of the Sahara was of paramount importance in the pre-colonial era in terms of
politics of social structure and economy (Figure 1), and very likely, it played a role in where new
Figure 1. Map of Africa showing the location of all sites mentioned in the text.
4 Journal of Urban History 00(0)
towns were established and how they developed in size and prosperity.11 The West African Sahel
represents a liminal zone on the edge of the Sahara, the word Sahel derived from the Arabic
il,
which means “coast.” The region was a zone of great importance for trans-Saharan trade related
to Islam from the ninth century CE,12 but probably represented a hub of trade between the various
environmental zones of West Africa already in the first millennium BCE.13 At the time of the
great West African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, which were involved and controlled
the trade between the ninth and sixteenth century CE, the main articles were gold and slaves from
the south and salt coming from the Sahara in the north.14 The north-south flow of exchange
across the Sahara broke up further into local networks in the Sahel zone, making use of the east-
west transport on the river Niger in the Inland Niger Delta and the Niger Bend, in what is today
Mali and Niger.
Trading towns elsewhere in Africa characterized by spatial plurality also developed on or
were tightly linked to coastal zones. For example, trade on the coast of the Indian Ocean in East
Africa saw its height between the thirteenth and sixteenth century with the Swahili-managed
trade networks.15 Similarly to the West African Sahel, the Swahili towns were ports on a border
zone, where goods from around the Indian Ocean were exchanged for goods from the African
interior, while in parallel, the Swahili managed the trade through the network of interlinked
Swahili towns along the coast.16 During the Atlantic era, the West African coast flourished, build-
ing their prosperity on trade with the Europeans, especially between the sixteenth and eighteenth
centuries, until which time sourcing the goods for commerce from the African interior was exclu-
sively in hands of the local African kings that dealt with the Europeans.
Coastal cities may be understood as frontier settlements on the edge of major environmental
zones, at the start and end points of caravan routes, but they are also central hubs and market
places of exchange networks represented by social ties. Although such urban societies lived in
permanent settlements, the lifestyle of its inhabitants was seasonally that of nomadic or semino-
madic people (sailors, porters, and traveling merchants) or at least tightly intertwined with these.
The West African Sahel and East African coast were predominantly Islamic at the height of the
pre-colonial trade period, and emphasis on community matters and formalization of human inter-
action was made possible by urban life.17 In the coastal cities, goods and people arriving from
rather clearly defined directions such as from the ocean or from the desert were brought together,
stored, and redistributed. These activities might have been happening in spatial context of par-
ticular buildings, on open spaces such as markets, caravanserai, or in the houses, but while on the
move in and out the city, objects of trade and people needed to engage with the city’s streets
physically or through representatives.
Cities as Street Networks
An urban settlement as a collection of particular buildings or open spaces and streets can also be
seen as a network of nodes and edges. The streets represent edges that somewhat differ from a
simple schematic network, because especially in organically developed towns, they are usually
not straight but mostly bent on junctions and open spaces, and these turns do not always represent
nodes or end points with a given function in their own right. The bends and junctions are impor-
tant nevertheless. As experiments in environmental psychology have confirmed, these places are
where decisions must be made, and people moving in the network perceive their surroundings
with more attention, and they become prominent in human memory.18 Street as a network’s edge
has an important role, because in movement on the main (usually long and wide) streets, people
regardless of cultural background acquire knowledge of the city as a whole, first remembering
landmarks along the route, then routes to places of their interest, and only then configurational
knowledge of other places that may lead them to explore the city further.19 The stages in this
process are even more pronounced when maps are not available.20
Baumanova et al. 5
Streets represent abstract heritage of the past, yet they share with buildings the ways in which
they structure social action through creating obligatory passage points and stabilizing social
action by increasing cost of innovative use,21 which might be, for example, changing the points
or set of places they interlink in the network. In analyzing streets as edges in the network and the
way they facilitated particular social structuring and interaction, we cannot provide insights into
individual experience of the town but rather look at what collective use was promoted by the
spatial structure the urban society organically produced.
The understanding and perception of streets may of course differ from one culture to another. For
example, in Islamic cities with which this article is most concerned, streets are known to be under-
stood as potentially polluting or liminal spaces.22 Apart from connecting places in the city and facili-
tating traffic of people, goods, and information, streets may also represent barriers. In Islamic cities
with private blocks of houses and residential units with semiprivate courtyards, street may represent
borders of a territory as a certain zone of protective power of the houses. While some researchers
have clearly distinguished between territorial and spatial material representations,23 others engage
with this classification less rigorously.24 Yet Islamic towns with their informal structure25 can be
taken as an example of territorial behavior, which is an expression of power and degree of access to
places,26 where streets delimit residential units and vice versa in a stereotypical way across the town
to provide a feeling of security, privacy, and identity.27
Cultural factors such as these must have had an impact on the nature and distribution of
interactions that took place on the streets. Specific insights are, however, difficult to discern
from material evidence and hence our analysis is based solely on universal principles of bodily
movement.28 The size of pre-industrial cities in Africa mostly allowed for convenient move-
ment on foot,29 with associated sensory perception of sights, haptic stimuli (including wind,
sand storms etc.), sounds, and smells that must have affected and tempered all social interac-
tions taking place. People irrespective of their cultural background move and visually perceive
their environment through their bodies and senses. Hence, we first set out to define each indi-
vidual street on the basis of these principles, where the start and end of a street is defined by
its course running approximately straight until it is interrupted with a building or an open
space, or it bends at an angle greater than forty-five degrees, which obscures visual apprehen-
sion of the street’s continuation.
In towns that remain in use over generations and centuries, and are built using durable mate-
rial, streets represent a fixed-feature element that changes only slowly and rarely. Especially the
main streets—in terms of length, width, or centrality—represent arterial routes playing a major
role in giving visitors an image and memory of the entire settlement.30 A historic town then never
simply becomes old but is made such31 through long-term preservation of visual sceneries and
concepts inherent to its structure. That does not mean that settlements do not change, or that we
must assume that social shifts occur while spatial structure remains unchanged. Construction of
buildings, and, by extension, of urban streets, using certain building material is also a social
choice, and so is the repair and maintenance of the built environment. Every spatial structure,
hence, creates divisions and caters for making connections, and analyzing these, we can ask how
society in the spatial setting chooses to regenerate or alter itself. The presented analysis of street
networks aims to establish how the location of trade routes might have affected the evolving
street networks within the towns of Timbuktu and Djenne, and whether there were any differ-
ences between the towns in this respect.
The Trade Towns of Timbuktu and Djenne
In this article, we analyze the street network and public spaces of two pre-modern towns in
present-day Mali, Timbuktu, and Djenne. What is known about their environmental, political,
and economic history suggests that they had a lot in common. Both towns have been
6 Journal of Urban History 00(0)
predominantly Islamic: Timbuktu since its foundation32 and an earlier settlement of Djenne
becoming Islamic in the thirteenth century.33 They are located in the Sahel zone on the edge of
the Sahara, Timbuktu to the north close to the Niger Bend, and Djenne in the Inland Niger Delta.
In terms of urban development, it is likely that both towns or their old parts at the core of mod-
ern cities gradually grew together out of smaller clusters or quarters that were set up near the trade
routes and on the most suitable landscape features. The towns were linked by trans-Saharan trade
in salt, gold, slaves, as well as book trade connected to Sankore University in Timbuktu.34 For this
trade, travel on the river Niger played a crucial part according to Ibn Battuta’s accounts,35 espe-
cially since mid-fourteenth century. This is confirmed by later accounts, which suggest that the
towns were as “two halves of the same city”; Timbuktu served as a trading outpost on the Niger
directly sponsored by Djenne merchants.36 The salt arriving to Timbuktu from the Sahara was
probably taken on canoes further south to Djenne, and from there, at least part of it was distributed
on land to the gold mines—in case of Djenne probably those in modern Ghana and Ivory Coast.37
Timbuktu is closer to the desert and enjoyed less favorable environmental conditions. Trade
routes led up to the town from the north and the Sahara, and the south in the direction of the Niger.
It is likely that wadis once allowed a direct access to the Niger by boat,38 but, for example, Ibn
Battuta who visited Timbuktu in the fourteenth century already described a six kilometer stretch
of land between the river and Timbuktu town,39 a distance that today is nearly twenty kilometers.40
According to the written records, Timbuktu was founded in the early twelfth century CE as a
Tuareg camp,41 with previous (possibly early urban) occupation attested archaeologically in the
wider hinterlands between the first and seventh centuries CE.42 Timbuktu then fell under the politi-
cal influence of the Empire of Mali in the thirteenth century.43 The visual landscape of Timbuktu
was dominated by three “towers”, or minarets of mosques, the two most monumental standing on
the limits of the city.44 The building of the great mosque on the south edge of the city, Djinguereber,
was visited and sponsored by Mansa Musa, a fourteenth century Malian emperor on his pilgrim-
age to Mecca.45 Sankore mosque at the north end represents the well-known university of Timbuktu
and is somewhat later than Djinguereber, and the third mosque, centrally- positioned Sidi Yahya,
is the youngest and smallest dated to the fifteenth century,46 when the Empire of Songhay con-
trolled the town. Archaeological and historical studies agree that the joining of Timbuktu’s quar-
ters together was only completed in the sixteenth century.47 Thanks to its direct links with Djenne,
Timbuktu replaced Walata as the center of trade.48
Djenne (also spelled Jenne) was founded possibly in the thirteenth century CE,49 in close
vicinity of an even older settlement known as Jenne-jeno, which can be classified as urban at
least from the fifth century CE.50 Djenne was originally a settlement of Bozo fishermen and
politically subject to Soninke.51 It is known from the earliest historical accounts of the fifteenth
century52 and was perhaps less isolated for European travelers from the late eighteenth century
onward, when Mungo Park visited Djenne but did not reach Timbuktu, and Felix Dubois visited
both towns. Djenne is located directly by the river, being surrounded on most sides by water and
becoming an island during floods. According to the historical sources, this characteristic made it
different to Timbuktu and more difficult to conquer; in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,
both towns were part of the Empire of Mali, but after its decline, Djenne flourished as an inde-
pendent town.53 Trade routes reached Djenne from west and east, traversing the river or making
use of bridges.54 As opposed to Timbuktu, Djenne’s Great mosque is located at the heart of the
town, removed from the point where trade routes enter the city. The present-day mosque is a
complete redevelopment undertaken by Sheikh Amadou in the early twentieth century, when also
a significantly smaller religious school was established in the center of the town to the east of the
market. The original mosque was founded in the thirteenth century.
The two towns probably developed to their highest economic prosperity and importance in
trade at about the same time between the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries. Situated on the conver-
gence of major trade routes that were channeling the flow of goods and people, the spatial layout
Baumanova et al. 7
of these settlements might be expected to have revolved around the placements and distribution
of trade-related practices. We might ask whether trade was the defining force in affecting the
inner structure of the towns or whether the material definition of street networks and intercon-
nectedness of spaces within the towns display evidence of being influenced by other social fac-
tors, such as that Timbuktu was a center of learning or that Djenne functioned as an independent
political center. By analyzing the spatial layout of Timbuktu and Djenne, we can learn which of
these aspects might have gained an upper hand in defining the resulting street layout of these
towns, as we know them today.
Analysis of Street Networks, Open Spaces, and Movement
Both Timbuktu and Djenne are today much larger towns than in the past, having outgrown their
earlier boundaries, especially in the case of Timbuktu. The built environment of Timbuktu has for
centuries been subject to not only desertification and covering by wind-blown sands55 but also
continual upkeep of buildings and house blocks.56 The extent of the historic town is apparent
from the sharp contrast between the irregular street grid of the historic core and more right-angle
regular layout of the modern town. In our analysis, we focused on the historic core of Timbuktu.
Historical and pictorial evidence further confirms the fact that the extent of the historical core
matches the former extent of the town. The three mosques of Timbuktu have been known to
dominate its visual landscape, and their positioning, with the largest mosques on the edges of the
town have approximately delimited its boundaries.57
The clay architecture of Djenne is particularly durable, and although the layout of individual
houses or their blocks might change, the distribution and course of streets that had been formed
by continual line of buildings can be expected to have changed, only little and with great diffi-
culty once established. The town of Old Djenne is located virtually on an island, nearly com-
pletely enclosed by branches of the Niger. The natural environment, hence, approximately
delimits its extent. The development of the built environment in both towns was affected during
the period of French colonialism, when certain buildings were subject to remodeling following
contemporary political agenda or virtually built anew (such as the Great Mosque of Djenne).
The analysis presented in the following paragraphs contributes to an understanding of the
movement of people in relation to specific structuration of urban space in Sub-Saharan Africa.58
The Table 1 presents the quantified data we observed analyzing both towns. It shows that apart
from sharing common history of development and trade, they are of approximately the same size,
Table 1. The characteristics of the street networks of Timbuktu and Djenne.
Timbuktu Djenne
period 13th-15th -17th century 13th-14/15th century
polity Mali, Songhay Mali, independent
Total area analysed =size of the Old
Town
520 491m2453 741 m2
Perimeter of the Old Town 2 761 m 2 737 m
Total number of axial streets 276 382
No. of N-S streets 126 194
No. of W-E streets 150 188
No. of open spaces 21 21
Town area relative to number of streets 52 ha : 276 =5.3 street/ha 45.3 ha : 382 =8.4 street/ha
Average street length 71.1m 56.4 m
Average length of N-S streets: W-E
streets
66 m : 76 m 54 m : 59m
8 Journal of Urban History 00(0)
interestingly with virtually the same perimeter length (difference of approximately 24 m). The
survey data on the street network in these towns conducted by the Zamani project (University of
Cape Town) were mapped and further edited in geographic information systems (ESRI ArcGIS
10) and combined with information from satellite images. The streets were plotted as linear fea-
tures defined by their unbroken course, that is, a single street is supposed to continue until it ends
in an open space, edge of settlement, is blocked by a building, or turns at an angle that would
prevent a moving person to anticipate its further direction (approximately forty-five degrees or
more). They are referred to as axial streets, because they represent visual and movement axes of
the town. In their definition, they somewhat differ in our study from the category of axial lines as
used in standard space syntax method.59 Here, we wanted to understand the role of open spaces,
so we include them among the features that end the axial streets.
Connectedness
If we want to consider the interconnectedness of a town, as it is apparent from its layout, we can
take into account the number of its streets respective to total area, the number of open spaces, and
average length of (axial) streets. Street lengths are relevant in this respect because they speak
about comprehensiveness of the town—longer axial lines allow people to apprehend the direc-
tion of movement. It derives that on a somewhat larger total area, Timbuktu has less streets (276),
while Djenne has 382, a 38 percent more. Counting the relative number of streets per hectare,
Timbuktu has approximately five streets/ha, Djenne eight streets/ha. Regardless of this, both
towns have twenty-one open spaces/squares of various sizes, and the average street length in
Djenne is lower (56 m) than in Timbuktu (71 m). This means that Djenne, although it has more
streets, is less comprehensive for orientation, especially for strangers, because it has more shorter
or winding streets.
Trade
We can also compare the impact movement related to trade had on defining the communication
network within the towns. We may argue that trade would be represented by the distribution of
markets and also by following the continued course of major trade routes as they enter the town
and become avenues that would naturally bear the most traffic of arriving and departing mer-
chants and goods. In the case of Djenne, two major trade routes are known to have led to the city
from the west, and one left the town toward the river on the east, all of these following the edge
of the town forming an avenue before ending at the core of the town on the largest open space by
the great mosque.60 These are prominent on the analysis of the street network, where longest
axial streets are highlighted by increased relative thickness (Figure 2). However, there are other
streets within the town that display similar qualities, unrelated to the direction of trade routes.
These are somewhat related to the central area but leading up to it indirectly. They might have
serviced the inner-city traffic, and interestingly correlate with the edges that existed between the
quarters of the town before they were built up with development.61 These quarters were charac-
terized by the occupation of the residents—merchants, artisans, fishermen, and farmers/herders
clockwise from the north.62
Less detailed information is available for Timbuktu, but one major trade route must have been
reaching the town from the north or north-west servicing caravans coming from across the
Sahara. To the south, traffic would move in the direction of the Niger and to Kabara.63 The north-
south focus on trade-related movement is discernible from the distribution of longest axial streets
(Figure 3). These divide the town into approximately four parallel vertical parts. However,
Timbuktu was originally built on two parallel longitudinal dunes, and the residents of both were
using water standing in the interdunal depression known as Badjinde or The Stream of Hippos in
Baumanova et al. 9
Songhai.64 As opposed to Djenne, this way, the main axial streets cut across and through the
original residential quarters, instead of passing along their edge. A number of west-east streets
running from Timbuktu’s main avenues then serviced the intra-town traffic, but interestingly the
most central avenue, which passes by the two mosques and through the main markets, has the
least number of such off-shooting west-east streets. As a result, those parts of the city adjacent to
its core are the least connected with the rest of the town. This pattern is further accentuated with
the lack of open spaces in this area.
While the concentric distribution of city quarters that gradually grew together towards the
center of the town is reflected in the street network of Djenne, in Timbuktu, the distribution of
Figure 2. Analysis of Djenne street network in geographic information systems (GIS). The thickness of
the axial streets represents their relative length. The black dashed line represents approximate limits of
the original urban quarters, along which they subsequently grew together.
10 Journal of Urban History 00(0)
major axial streets is not in accordance with the edges of the original city quarters. To consider
whether the position of trade routes, which was mostly west-east in Djenne and north-south in
Timbuktu, affected the intra-town direction of streets, we calculated the number of streets run-
ning north-south and east-west (Figures 4 and 5). The results show that Djenne has approxi-
mately similar number of north-south (194) and west-east (188) streets, with somewhat greater
difference in the case of Timbuktu (126 and 150, respectively). The same pattern is present
when we look at their average length, which is for both directions very similar in case of Djenne
(54 and 59 m) and slightly larger for Timbuktu (66 and 76 m). Djenne’s street network in terms
of directional distribution of streets is even and reflects neither the course and placement of
major trade routes. In Timbuktu, the west-east streets, which can be related to intra-town and
Figure 3. Analysis of Timbuktu street network in GIS. The thickness of the axial streets represents
their relative length. The white dashed line represents approximate limits of the original urban quarters,
along which they subsequently grew together.
Baumanova et al. 11
intra-quarter movement, generally predominate in number and average length. On the other
hand, the three north-south axial avenues connect the major public buildings and spaces, and
most likely bore the load of trade-related traffic. These main arterials crossed the natural depres-
sion between the two dunes on which the town was established, which underlines their special
standing in the entire street network.
Duality, Plurality, and Urban Quarters
Because both towns became spatially continual settlements only with the joining of the individ-
ual town quarters, which took several centuries to occur, it is important to consider how the
Figure 4. Analysis of Djenne street network in GIS highlighting the distribution of North-South and
West-East running streets.
12 Journal of Urban History 00(0)
quarters came to be spatially interconnected with one another and, also, whether they differ in
comparison of their individual street networks. For this end, we consider the relative length of
streets in individual quarters and the placement of longer axial streets that cross the approximate
boundaries between quarters reaching deeper into the quarters’ cores.
The eastern part of Djenne was described as consisting of two quarters occupied by mer-
chants, who were Muslim,65 that is, Dubois’ “Moorish quarter,”66 and a south-east quarter occu-
pied by artisans (Figure 2). On the easternmost edge of the city was the house of the town’s
leader.67 These, however, appear spatially grown together seamlessly without an edge between
them apparent, and the street network does not bear evidence of spatial inequality in terms of
separation. Together, they are distinct from the rest of the city in featuring shorter streets and only
Figure 5. Analysis of Timbuktu street network in GIS highlighting the distribution of North-South and
West-East running streets.
Baumanova et al. 13
six squares/open spaces positioned away from the center of the city with mosques. The center of
Djenne has a less dense street network but longer avenues, as well as seven or eight larger open
spaces approximately. In terms of movement, it facilitates communication between the western
and eastern halves of the city and connects to the major trade routes. The western part of Djenne
known as Yoboukayna and smaller Djoboro68 features three long avenues running in west-east
direction, which cut through Yoboukayna. It is hence more comprehensive for orientation, espe-
cially for people unfamiliar with the environment. One of the main axial streets serves as an edge
between the quarter of farmers/herders (north-west) and fishers (south-west).
Timbuktu was divided by the natural relief in two quarters, the northern part featuring the
Sankore mosque as the scholarly center. The core part of the town in the interdunal depression is
the youngest in the town, but apart from being traversed by the three north-south main axial ave-
nues, it features comparatively short streets (Figure 3). It forms an integrated part of the urban
spatial fabric and yet it does not provide the radiating communication channels to the rest of the
city. This results in a pattern where the mosques and markets are evenly spread out along the main
communication channels attracting traffic, which can easily reach them or pass through. The street
network from the west and east is spread out to draw movement toward the main north-south axes,
and it does so using a much denser web of relatively long and straight west-east axial streets. The
quarters do not seem to be distinguished in terms of differential street networks; in fact, the two
halves of the town are similar if considered separately, although in between them lies the less
interconnected Bajinde quarter. The west and east part of the city, if we consider them divided by
the central avenue (regardless of natural relief), have approximately the same number of open
spaces (eleven and ten). The north part of the town with Sankore mosque, which has been so often
noted for by foreign travelers,69 does not display differential street pattern either, but it is not posi-
tioned in direction of any of the major trade thoroughfares, and it is not connected to the main
market space by a direct axial line; instead, the approach route is set off course. The north part of
the town also features the least open spaces (three in total, located north of the main market).
A number of towns in West Africa have been ascribed a dual nature in spatial terms. Al-Bakri
in 1068 described the towns of Sila and Ghana as consisting of two towns, characterized by
Muslim and non-Muslim pagan population with the king’s enclosure with the latter and neverthe-
less featuring a mosque for the king and visitors, while between both parts of the town, there was
continuous habitation.70 On the basis of archaeological research, the same characteristic is
claimed for a number of other towns, some of which are contemporary with Old Djenne and
Timbuktu, such as Gao.71 The tradition of dual centers, which co-exist as complementary sharing
a sphere of influence over a single polity, is also known from elsewhere in West Africa.72
The analyses presented in this article point out that the concept of plurality represented by
urban quarters within a single town should be more frequently brought into the debate on urban-
ism in the West African Sahel. Parallels can be drawn with another “frontier” zone of the East
coast of Africa, where trading Islamic towns of the Swahili were in the same period tied into
far-reaching trade networks. The spatial arrangements of the towns, place of residence, and dis-
tribution of quarters have been established as deeply meaningful for enacting political power and
social relationships of the Swahili urban communities.73 Studying the spatial development of the
towns in the West African Sahel over time and the patterns preserved in the layout, we argue that
the towns evolved around a certain degree of spatial plurality represented by individual quarters
as distinctive entities. In case of Timbuktu, the spatial arrangement of quarters and the street
network suggest that the town served and facilitated the flow of trade-related traffic. In Djenne,
the quarters of the town emerged in almost-island conditions delimited by the Niger, and they
were in more competitive or complementarily specialized spatial relationships respective to
trade-related traffic. This fits in with the historical argument that Djenne was the producer and
investor, while Timbuktu represented the depot and intermediary in the relationship between both
towns74 as well as later architectural historical and ethnographic analysis.75
14 Journal of Urban History 00(0)
Conclusion
This article aimed to establish how two major social defining forces, involvement in trade and
urban life represented by place of residence in individual quarters, might have affected and led a
dialogue on the level of spatial fabric and urban layout of Timbuktu and Djenne.
The street network of Timbuktu was probably more affected by the placement of trade routes
than that of Djenne. In Timbuktu, major avenues that represented continuation of trade routes
were channeling trade-related traffic to cross through the individual town quarters, but in Djenne,
such routes were following their limits and passing through the borders between them.
As for the social role of individual urban quarters as it is discernible and promoted by the
spatial layout, at Timbuktu, the quarters brought together by trade were, on the other hand, clearly
distinguished with landmarks (the three minarets of major mosques) evenly distributed on the
edges of the town with the smallest mosque in the middle. At Djenne, trade was channeled to pass
where all quarters had access to it, but it did not facilitate movement between quarters.
Although both towns had approximately four to five main quarters, they grew together in a
way, which resulted in the towns seemingly having an eastern and western half. In Timbuktu, the
two halves have a very similar layout within. Although the quarters might have differed in terms
of resident majority, such as the learned families residing in the vicinity of Sankore mosque,76 the
individual quarters do not display a differential spatial pattern. The street network of the town
brings traffic to the main routes, and there is a pattern in preference for open spaces on the main
routes also. In the case of Djenne, the eastern half incorporating the original Muslim quarters of
traders and artisans developed to feature comparatively short winding streets, while the western
half of Djenne became more open and, hence, potentially more comprehensible for foreigners
entering the town.
For both analyzed towns, the concept of spatial plurality known in West Africa mostly in the
dual form, hence, appears to be present and inherent to their nature, given their development in the
pre-colonial period. By analyzing the spatial organization attained by the towns involved in the
trans-Saharan trade, we can more reliably disentangle the trajectories of urban social develop-
ment, which characterized the edge of the Sahara in this period. More intensive and more system-
atic analyses of the urban fabric in this part of the world would provide information for further
testing of the hypotheses presented here. It has been shown that the preserved street networks in
the historic core of cities hold considerable potential for teasing out more information on the spa-
tial logic that provided an ever-present context to the life of the urbanites in the recent past. Current
research can make use of an increasing volume of available data and analytical tools such as satel-
lite imagery, terrestrial and airborne 3D scanning, spatially indexed databases, and geographic
information systems. Future studies should aim to expand this type of enquiry geographically,
making cross-cultural comparisons. Spatial plurality being enacted in the form of urban quarters
makes it an all the more promising theme for a wider research program of comparative analyses.
Acknowledgments
The authors would like to thank Magdalena Buresova for her valuable comments of an architect on the
figures and analyses presented.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article: This article was written with the support of Monika Baumanova’s Marie
Baumanova et al. 15
Skłodowska–Curie Actions Individual Global Fellowship (No. 656767 -TEMPEA). Ladislav Šmejda’s
work was supported by the Grant Project CIGA 20144207 of the Czech University of Life Sciences
Prague.
ORCID iD
Monika Baumanova https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6953-2636
Notes
1. For example, Graham Connah, African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2016), 164; Peter Garlake, Early Art and Architecture of Africa (Oxford:
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2. For example, Christopher Schliephake, Urban Ecologies: City Space, Material Agency, and
Environmental Politics in Contemporary Culture. Ecocritical Theory and Practice (Lanham, MD:
Lexington, 2015); Sharon R. Steadman, Archaeology of Domestic Architecture and the Human Use
of Space (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2015); Amos Rapoport, “Spatial Organisation and
the Built Environment,” in Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology, ed. Tim Ingold (London:
Routledge, 1994), 460-502.
3. For example, Susan K. McIntosh and Roderick J. McIntosh, “Cities without Citadels: Understanding Urban
Origins around the Middle Niger,” in The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals, and Towns, ed. Thurstan
Shaw, Paul Sinclair, Basey Andah and Alex Okpoko (London: Routledge, 1993), 622-41; Roderick J.
McIntosh and Susan K. McIntosh, “Early Urban Configurations on the Middle Niger,” in The Social
Construction of Ancient Cities, ed. Monica L. Smith (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 2003), 103-120.
4. Bruno Blondé and Ilja Van Damme, “Early Modern Europe: 1500-1800,” in The Oxford Handbook of
Cities in World History, ed. Peter Clark (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 241-43.
5. Sophie Berthier, Recherches archéologiques sur la capitale de l’empire de Ghana: étude d’un secteur
d’habitat à Koumbi Saleh, Mauritanie: campagnes II-III-IV-V, (1975-1976) - (1980-1981) (Oxford:
Archaeopress, 1997); Augustin F.C. Holl, West African Early Towns: Archaeology of Households in
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Results of Excavations and Surveys at Gao and Timbuktu, October and November 1996,” Nyame
Akuma 47 (1997): 33-37; Timothy Insoll, Urbanism, Archaeology and Trade: Further Observations
on the Gao Region (Mali). The 1996 Field Season Results (Oxford: BAR Archaeopress, 2000); Sam
Nixon, Essouk-Tadmekka: An Early Islamic Trans-Saharan Market Town (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
6. Timothy Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2003), 258.
7. J. Cameron Monroe, The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey Cambridge:
Cambridge (University Press, 2014).
8. Paul Sinclair and Thomas Håkansson, “The Swahili City-State Culture,” in A Comparative Study of Thirty
City-State Cultures: An Investigation, ed. Mogens H. Hansen (Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of
Sciences and Letters, 2000), 463-82; Stephanie Wynne-Jones, A Material Culture: Consumption and
Materiality on the Coast of Precolonial East Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 126.
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Approaches to Social Space, ed. Mike Parker Pearson and Colin Richards (London: Routledge, 1994),
147-69; John Middleton, African Merchants of the Indian Ocean: Swahili of the East African Coast
(Long Grove: Waveland Press, 2004), 51-55.
10. Setha M. Low, On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture (Austin: University of Texas,
2000).
11. Kevin MacDonald, “Complex Societies, Urbanism, and Trade in the Western Sahel,” in Oxford
Handbook of African Archaeology, ed. Peter Mitchell and Paul Lane (Oxford: Oxford University Press
2013), 839-40.
12. Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, 209.
13. Roderick J. McIntosh, “Clustered Cities of the Middle Niger. Alternative Routes to Authority
in Prehistory,” in Africa’s Urban Past, ed. David Anderson and Richard Rathbone (Portsmouth:
Heinemann, 2000), 19-35.
16 Journal of Urban History 00(0)
14. Randall L. Pouwels, African and Middle Eastern World, 600-1500, Medieval & Early Modern World
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
15. Wynne-Jones, A Material Culture, 120.
16. Middleton, African Merchants of the Indian Ocean, 15; Michael N. Pearson, Port Cities and Intruders.
The Swahili Coast, India and Portugal in the Early Modern Rra (London: John Hopkins Press, 1998), 67.
17. Stefano Bianca, Urban Form in the Arab World: Past and Present (Zürich: VDF, 2000), 29.
18. Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960), 53; Anoosheh Gohari, Homa
Behbahani and Ismael Salehi, “Urban Landscape Perception in Relation to Collective Mentalities and
Memories. Case Study: Tajrish District,” Journal of Environmental Studies 42 (2016): 37-39.
19. Tommy Gärling, Urban Cognition (London: Academic Press, 1995), 104.
20. Perry W. Thorndyke and Barbara Hayes-Roth, “Differences in Spatial Knowledge Acquired from
Maps and Navigation,” Cognitive Psychology 14 (1982): 560-89.
21. Thomas F. Gieryn, “What Buildings Do?,” Theory and Society 31 (2002): 43-44.
22. For example, Bianca, Urban Form in the Arab World, 74-79.
23. Robert D. Sack, Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University
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24. Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Jeffrey Fleisher, “The Multiple Territories of Swahili Urban Landscapes,”
World Archaeology 48 (2016): 1-14.
25. Bianca, Urban Form in the Arab World, 31.
26. Sack, Human Territoriality, 26.
27. Paul Knox and Steven Pinch, Urban Social Geography: An Introduction, 4th ed. (Harlow: Prentice
Hall, 2000), 194.
28. For example, Dušan Borić and John Robb, Past Bodies: Body-Centered Research in Archaeology
(Oxford: Oxbow, 2008).
29. Knox and Pinch, Urban Social Geography, 37.
30. Amos Rapoport, The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach
(Tucson: University of Arizona, 1990), 173.
31. Mark P. Leone, The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital: Excavations in Annapolis
(Berkeley: University of California, 2005), 29.
32. Although see Susan K. McIntosh and Roderick McIntosh, “Archaeological Reconnaissance in the
Region of Timbuktu, Mali,” National Geographic Research 2 (1986): 302-319.
33. Raymond Mauny, Tableau géographique de l’Ouest africain au Moyen Age, d’après les sources
écrites, la tradition et l’archéologie (Dakar: IFAN, 1961), 115.
34. Gary White, Marguerite Pienaar and Bouwer Serfontein, Africa Drawn: One Hundred Cities (Berlin:
DOM Publishers, 2015), 188.
35. Nehemia Levtzion and Jay Spaulding, Medieval West Africa: Views from Arab Scholars and Merchants
(Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2003), 70.
36. Felix Dubois, Timbuctoo the Mysterious (New York: Longmanas, Green and Co., 1896), 170.
37. Nehemia Levtzion, “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500,” in History of West Africa, ed. J.
F. Ade Ajayi and Michael Crowder (Harlow: Longmann, 1985), 139.
38. McIntosh and McIntosh, “Archaeological Reconnaissance in the Region of Timbuktu”; Dubois,
Timbuctoo the Mysterious, 205.
39. Cited in Levtzion and Spaulding, Medieval West Africa, 85.
40. White et al., Africa Drawn, 188.
41. Timothy Insoll, “Archaeological Research in Timbuktu, Mali,” Antiquity 276 (1998): 415.
42. Timothy Insoll, “The Archaeology of Post-Medieval Timbuktu,” Sahara 13 (2002): 7-22; Douglas
Post Park, “Prehistoric Timbuktu and its Hinterland,” Antiquity 84 (2010): 1-13.
43. Levtzion, “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500,” 140.
44. Dubois, Timbuctoo the Mysterious, 210.
45. Mauny, Tableau géographique de l’Ouest africain, 114; Bertrand Poissonnier, personal communica-
tion, July 2016.
46. Mauny, Tableau géographique de l’Ouest africain, 115.
47. Timothy Insoll, “The Origins of Timbuktu,” Antiquity 285 (2000): 483-84; Nehemia Levtzion, Ancient
Ghana and Mali, Studies in African history 7 (London: Methuen, 1973), 158.
Baumanova et al. 17
48. Levtzion, “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500,” 139.
49. ibid., 141.
50. McIntosh and McIntosh, “Cities without Citadels”; MacDonald, “Complex Societies, Urbanism,” 836.
51. Levtzion, “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500,” 141.
52. Pierre Maas, Geert Mommersteeg and Wolf Schijns, Djenné: chef-d’œuvre architectural (Amsterdam:
Institut royal des tropoques 1992), 15.
53. Levtzion, “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500,” 141.
54. Maas et al., Djenné: chef-d’œuvre architectural, 36-37.
55. Insoll, “Archaeological Research in Timbuktu”.
56. Poissonnier, personal communication, July 2016.
57. Dubois, Timbuctoo the Mysterious, 210.
58. Monika Baumanova and Ladislav Smejda, “Structural Dynamics of Spatial Complexity at the ‘Palace
of Gede’, Kenya,” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 52 (2017): 71-99.
59. Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, The Social Logic of Space (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1984).
60. Maas et al., Djenné: chef-d’œuvre architectural, 36.
61. ibid., 163.
62. ibid., 163-65.
63. Raymond Mauny, “Notes d’archéologie sur Tombouctou,” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Afrique
noire 14 (1952): 900; Dubois, Timbuctoo the Mysterious, 205.
64. McIntosh and McIntosh, “Archaeological Reconnaissance in the Region of Timbuktu,” 305; Mauny,
Tableau géographique de l’Ouest africain, 496.
65. Maas et al., Djenné: chef-d’œuvre architectural, 163.
66. Dubois, Timbuctoo the Mysterious, 146.
67. Maas et al., Djenné: chef-d’œuvre architectural, 176.
68. ibid., 39.
69. Mauny, “Notes d’archéologie sur Tombouctou,” 905-906.
70. Levtzion and Spaulding, Medieval West Africa, 13-15.
71. Insoll, “Preliminary Results of Excavations and Surveys at Gao and Timbuktu”.
72. Monroe, The Precolonial State in West Africa.
73. Middleton, African Merchants of the Indian Ocean; Horton, “Swahili Architecture, Space and Social
Structure.”
74. Dubois, Timbuctoo the Mysterious, 171.
75. Maas et al., Djenné: chef-d’œuvre architectural, 163-65.
76. Dubois, Timbuctoo the Mysterious, 278.
Author Biographies
Monika Baumanova is a Marie Curie Individual Global Fellow at the Uppsala University, Sweden and
University of Basel, Switzerland. She is an archaeologist and currently undertakes research on spatial
organisation of African urban centres of the last millennium. Her research interests include space in urban
environments, historical and sensory archaeologies.
Ladislav Smejda an archaeologist investigating human ecology, social change and mortuary behaviour. He
is interested in analysis of spatial data in the broadest sense and combines various approaches to this prob-
lem in his field surveys, excavations and analyses of legacy data.
Heinz Rüther is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Cape Town, working photogrammetry and
remote sensing. He has been involved in many field projects aimed at documentation of cultural patrimony
in sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb, and the Middle East. He is currently the Principal Investigator at The
Zamani Project.
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