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M’Banza Kongo: The first Christian African city south of the Equator

Fri, 17th May 2013
Amongst the numerous cities and architecture of historical and aesthetic value in Angola, M’Banza Kongo, formerly known as São Salvador do Congo, is a jewel in Angola’s heritage. (May 2013)

Amongst the numerous cities and architecture of historical and aesthetic value in Angola, M’Banza Kongo, formerly known as São Salvador do Congo, is a highlight.

M’Banza Kongo is in Angola’s northern province of Zaire. It is home to a number of precious ruins – the historical remains of the original and only 14th and 15th century intercultural city (between Africa and Europe) in the African interior. The city arose out of the Kingdom of Kongo but was also affected by European influences via the Portuguese.

The Angolan government is now making efforts to review and evaluate the city’s historical role and has started new archaeological searches as well as considering putting the city forward to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Founding of an extraordinary city

São Salvador do Congo was founded as an independent city, pre-dating the arrival of the Portuguese. The autonomy, personality, history and experience of the black community known as the Kingdom of Kongo has a significant bearing on the location of São Salvador do Congo, well within the Angolan interior.

There are, however, physical and material aspects of the city of M’Banza/São Salvador that are common to the cities under Portuguese influence at the time, located in other areas of the Atlantic islands and Africa. These include aspects of construction and style, as well as functional ones, of the main monumental buildings and equipment installed in the city. Examples include the church, the palace, the fortress, the prison and the cemetery – signs of religion and of social and cultural organisation, some of which were imported from Europe to the Congo, and the vestiges of which we can still find in what remains of local ruins to this day.

In the mid 20th century Architect Fernando Batalha (1908–2012) studied the fundamental legacy of São Salvador, and carried out some archaeological research. This scholar analysed a precious etching of the city published in O. Dapper’s Description de l´Afrique, published in Holland in 1676. It identifies the ‘King’s Palace’, the ‘Churches’ and the ‘Citadel’.

When it was founded, the city was part of the Kingdom of Kongo and was the kingdom’s capital. The Kingdom of Kongo was Christianised in the 15th and 16th century, but remained independent. The Portuguese presence began in 1483 and ended during the following century, in material terms, with the building of a church in 1548 – which became a cathedral in 1596. 

John Thornton, a contemporary researcher on Africa and the Congo’s history summarises the city of São Salvador (in Portuguese Heritage, 2012):  “Mbanza Kongo is located at the top of a plateau of sheer escarpments covering an area of around five square kilometres, about 520 metres above sea level and 60–80 metres above the surrounding plains. It has a scenic view from all points and can be easily accessed by a road that ascends from the south-eastern side. Along this road there were various springs which provided water for the City of Congo (...) at the time, its main centre was described as being the same size as Évora.  Anyway, it was the major city in Central Africa and was among the largest ones of the whole continent. At present, it is the oldest inhabited city south of the Equator.”

As Thornton says: “The Portuguese who went to work in the Congo usually lived in their own quarter at Mbanza Kongo and worked in the Congo royal administration or in the army. Others were traders or held ecclesiastical positions. Nonetheless, Congo remained an independent kingdom, repelling Portuguese invasions emanating from Angola in 1622, 1657 and 1670. Following the catholic baptism of King Nzinga a Nkuwu, changing his name to João I in 1491 and particularly during the rule of his son Afonso I (1509–1542), Congo became a Christian kingdom and adopted teaching in Portuguese, creating a system of schools and churches across the country and using Portuguese as the language of instruction. Afonso and his successors built several stone constructions, including a palace and a series of stone churches. A Jesuit school with a library was founded in 1621. It continued to operate until 1678.”

This passage from Thornton allows us to see that the city, although African in its origins, adapted to its specific situation – and unique to the region – of a bi-cultural city (socially, politically and institutionally Euro-African), as well as bi-religious (accepting of the Christian mission alongside local belief systems). It was thus a pioneering community (from a particular point of view, of course) of the future multi-culturalism of the continent.

First church south of the Equator

It was in M’Banza Kongo that the first church south of the Equator was built, before the Americas were even discovered, for which the Portuguese transported paraments, altar-pieces and tools. It was finished in around 1492 and was initially dedicated to St Mary, then to the Holy Cross, and became a cathedral in 1547. The Jesuits, who had since arrived in the Congo in 1548, built three churches in Ambasse and its outskirts, the first of which was the church of S. Salvador, which gave its name to the settlement and became a Cathedral in 1596. 

The only trace of these churches that remain to this day are the ruins of the building that is traditionally attributed to the cathedral. According to D. António Barros, who was there in 1881, the nave measures around 35.5 by 12.5 metres, and is rectangular as well as having a rectangular chancel, on the same axis in the usual manner of the more modest 15th and 16th century Portuguese churches. It was built using solid stone and whitewashed walls. According to Batalha, the church at one point included another chapel and a vestry. The most notable parts of it that are still standing are the presbytery arch and small window in the chancel, both with round arches made from roughly hewn stone in a medieval style. 

John Thornton’s description continues: “The Cathedral of Saint Saviour is now the only original structure that still remains in Mbanza Kongo. It consists of a structure of rust-coloured stone, built by the Jesuits in 1549 and elevated to a cathedral in 1596. The building, in a rectangular-plan, had a thatched roof which is no longer present although it was restored several times during the 20th century. Other churches and buildings in stone were demolished by the colonial administration to make way for the construction of the existing structures, including the present day Catholic and Baptist churches and the buildings of the public administration.”  

There are still traces of other simple, but historically significant buildings, close to the church. These include the Royal Cemetery, which, according to Thornton “adjoins the cathedral and holds the mortal remains of all kings after Henrique II (deceased in 1842). The former kings who were buried in other churches had by then been demolished. On the present day airport runway, a bronze star marks the place where, according to a 17th century tradition, King Afonso I buried his mother alive, probably in the Church of Saint Michael.” Thornton also talks of the Round Tower, saying: “Beside the cemetery stands a unique round tower, approximately three metres high, mentioned for the first time in texts in 1642. According to tradition, it was the place where the first king ordered the tribes to occupy the country and it must also have served as a watch tower over his territory.” A picture of it, from the 1960s, as well as parts of the Royal Cemetery, can be seen in Batalha’s publication (Angola..., 2006).

In terms of military architecture, there are references to the long walled enclosure of São Salvador, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Later, in the 19th century, after a long period of decline, only ruins of the walls and the buildings remained, in the middle of the bush, as recorded by Major A.J. de Castro, in 1845, missionary George Grenfell, in 1879, and D. António Barroso in 1889. 

Remains of Portuguese occupation

Remains of the more recent Portuguese occupation, in the 1800s, include the ruins of the fortress in São Salvador and are part of the process of organised and systematic domination of northern Angola, particularly between 1860 and 1910, as noted by Thornton: “On the eastern side of the mountain, near the edge of the cliff, stands a fort built in 1891 by the Portuguese occupation forces in order to serve as its main military fortification. It is presently a regional jail.” 

The so-called Royal Palace is another legacy of the ancient and original civil and residential architecture of the city of M’Banza Kongo. Batalha notes the theme of the residential buildings mentioned for the first time in 1512, in the Regiment of King D. Manuel of Portugal to Simão da Silva: “After this church or monastery is built (...) we hope that you will make a good planked house of the King (of Congo) so that he may live there, tell how we had it made for him, and this will be better for his health, and also for his safety.” 

Note the information compiled and summarised by Thornton about the palace: “The existing palace was built for King Pedro VI (1901–1910) on the site of the palace of former kings. It now houses the Royal Museum, significantly changed and rebuilt in 2007. It holds several objects from the royal family and the State. Around 1520 Portuguese carpenters and stonemasons built a stone palace. By the mid-seventeenth century there was a locally designed palace with two floors. The structure was abandoned in 1678 and when it was rebuilt (after the reoccupation of 1705) it became an impressively sized building of a single floor, although labyrinthine. 

At present, a single ancient tree named Yala Nkuwu (Majestic Salutation) evokes the palace. It is said that the kings enforced justice in this place.” 

Other buildings in the area should also be noted, including small churches and public buildings, which are possibly from the 1800s: The so-called ‘House of the King of Kongo’, built in the mid 19th century, the church of the mission of São Salvador, the church of the Catholic Women’s Mission and the Council Chambers building. The latter is supported by thick pillars along its Art Deco frontage, with a Portuguese coat of arms at its centre.


By José Manuel Fernandes, architect

(Issue N. 16, May 2013)