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The Ruins of Loropéni

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Overrun with trees and shrubbery, it is easy to dismiss the ruins in Loropéni as just another abandoned compound in Burkina Faso’s south, but then ask of its builders and its age and you begin the path to unveiling the enigma that it is.

The location of the ruins. Gaoua is the nearest major town to the site of the ruins

The location of the ruins. Gaoua is the nearest major town to the site of the ruins

But maybe the fact that sections of the wall encompassing the ruins stand at an imposing 6 meters will tell you this isn’t just another abandoned compound, more so because the compound is an expansive 11,000m2.

The perimeter formed by these walls assumes a squarish form, and the area delimited by the wall was further partitioned, before edifices were erected presumably to accommodate the builders and their wares.

Part of the outer walls of the ruins of Loropéni

Part of the outer walls of the ruins of Loropéni

Yet that is about as much as is known about Loropéni; the who, why, when, and how remain a matter of scientific guessing, as most knowledge of the site is essentially extrapolations drawn from limited digs in the area.

Until recently, it was thought that whatever magnificent splendor that would be reduced to the ruins that they are today was built sometime in the 17th century; it is now believed that the site was erected in the 11th century.

Why it was built is just another shroud of mystery that is yet to be unfurled; from the high stone walls, it can be presumed that it was used shelter something precious, maybe gold, maybe even slaves, both of which were tradable commodities in the Tran-Saharan trade, which thrived in the region from the 8th century to the 16th century.

The general discourse is that gold was most likely the commodity of trade from Loropéni, yet these deductions are made from circumstantial evidence; the area around is rich in gold, and was one of three major gold zones supplying gold to the Trans-Saharan trade.

The polities of the time

In the 11th century, when Loropéni is believed to have been established, kingdoms in West Africa were jostling to secure a foothold in the regional trade, and Loropéni may have been set up by any of these kingdoms.

The most preeminent of these polities is the Ghana Empire, which established itself in 300AD and had tumbled in 1235AD. It had a firm grip on the gold mines in Bambuk and Boure, as roads leading from the mines headed into Koumbi Saleh, the empire’s capital, before proceeding north; and by law, all gold nuggets belonged to the emperor.

The early Trans-Saharan routes didn’t lead to the Lobi gold mines (the general area of Loropéni), but it was, relatively speaking, close to the ancient city of Djenné, located to its northwest, and Timbuktu and Gao, located to the north; Timbuktu and Gao were termini for the Trans-Saharan trade, and gold from Loropéni could possibly be traded there.

The early Trans-Saharan trade; it was known that gold could be sourced from the region, which in this map is identified as Lobi, after the predominant ethnic group in the area. The river straddled by the Lobi area is the Black Volta (Mouhoun)

The early Trans-Saharan trade; it was known that gold could be sourced from the region, which in this map is identified as Lobi, after the predominant ethnic group in the area. The river straddled by the Lobi area is the Black Volta (Mouhoun)

And besides, Gao, the future capital of the Songhai Empire (1461AD to 1591AD) was at this time a small veritable fiefdom growing on the trade in gold, slaves, ivory, salt and the like.

Coincidentally, Loropéni’s foundation was concurrent with the emergence of several Mossi kingdoms in the Upper Volta region, and they could have as easily established Loropéni, which is close to the Black Volta (the Mouhoun River).

The Mossi kingdoms persisted from the 11th century up to the late 19th century, when French colonial forces quashed them, yet long before the demise of these kingdoms, the settlement had already been abandoned.

The Kaan, Lobi, Lorhon Peoples

Prior to the revision of its century of establishment, it was thought that the fortifications were built under the instructions of the ninth Kaan Iya (ruler/king) of the Gan/Kaan peoples, a minority group whose homeland includes the site of the ruins.

The Kaan homeland includes the site of the ruins, and for this reason it had been previously thought that they built the fortifications.

The Kaan homeland includes the site of the ruins, and for this reason it had been previously thought that they built the fortifications.

According to this version of events, Tokpa Farma, the Kaan Iya, ordered the construction of the site in order to shift the capital from Obiré (8km from Loropéni), but the ancestors were not pleased, and his life ended three years later. Even today, reverence for the ancestors is an important aspect of religious belief, and is syncretized into the other major religions that the Kaan, numbering some 12,000, have come to embrace.

But with the new timeline, it is certain that the Kaan couldn’t have built the fortifications (Loropéni is the best preserved of some 100 such fortifications); they found them there, occupied them, and in the early 19th century, abandoned them.

This is because the Kaan moved into their homelands in what is now Burkina Faso, to escape among oter things, the slave raids from further south, as the Ashanti Kingdom in what is now Ghana was expanding; this was towards the end of the 17th century, at which point it is generally believed that the fortifications were fading in splendor, having thrived from the 14th century, when they could have easily been under the rule of the Mali Empire.

This was the extent of the Mali Empire in 1350AD. The empire reached its zenith in the 14th century, in which is when Loropeni began thriving.

This was the extent of the Mali Empire in 1350AD. The empire reached its zenith in the 14th century, in which is when Loropeni began thriving.

The same Mali Empire from whence its ruler, Mansa Musa, made his hajj to Mecca in 1324, and because he gave out so much gold along the way, caused a massive devaluation of gold in Cairo, Mecca and Medina, a price crash which would be felt for a decade. Pretty coincidence that Loropeni, rich in gold, thrives around the same time the emperor of Mali is splurging gold dust to everyone along the way; as with its predecessor the Ghana Empire, gold nuggets were the property of the emperor.

Back to the Kaan.

Clearly the Kaan didn’t build these fortifications, so could it be the more numerous Lobi peoples? Once again, no.

The Lobi know their old country to be to the right of the Mouhoun River (Black Volta), territory which is now within the modern state of Ghana; they crossed the river, because, like the Kaan, they were under pressure from the ever-expanding Ashanti kingdom from the south. They also moved into the region towards the late 17th century.

The Lobi homeland abuts that of the Kaan

The Lobi homeland abuts that of the Kaan

For now, it is presumed that the Lorhon peoples may have had something to do with the ruins in Loropéni, yet even that connection is tenuous at best; the only connection between the people and the ruins is that the people were known to be in Kong, a region to the south of the region by the 10th century. Kong would later rise to be an empire (1710-1898) occupying territory in both Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, and prior to its imperial designs, was dominated by the Senufos.

And as it rose, the Lorhons were displaced to the the slightly safer northern reaches, with other groups going farther, ending up in what is today Burkina Faso. These northward migrations happened in the mid-1700s, and are better known than the initial migration which landed them in Kong.

The slump in its fortunes in the 17th century came as Mali and Songhai Empires to the north collapsed along with the Trans-Saharan trade, as trade now went to the coasts, where Europeans had since the 1500s established trading posts; furthermore, gold was now being sourced from the Ashanti holdings closer to the coast, which made procuring gold from this far in the interior undesirable as a venture.

For now, we really do not know much about the site, which was in 2009 declared a UNESCO World Heritage, but maybe archaeological missions in the near future will give us better insights into the circumstances surrounding the ruins of Loropéni.

More pictures of the site can be viewed on this UNESCO gallery.

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