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Trace human history across Africa at five iconic ancient sites

Human evolution can be tracked by looking at the artefacts and ruins left by civilisations on the continent over thousands of years, from rock-hewn churches to ancient cities.

By Tamsin Wressell
Published 25 Apr 2021, 08:04 BST, Updated 28 Apr 2021, 11:47 BST
The Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor, Egypt is home to an impressive and stunning array of ...

The Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor, Egypt is home to an impressive and stunning array of historical wonders.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Ancient temples of Thebes: Luxor, Egypt

Luxor is of the most renowned archaeological sites in the world, its remains lying on both sides of the Nile River dating back some 5,000 years ago to the 11th dynasty of ancient Egypt. The mud-brick houses and palaces of the ancient city of Thebes (today’s Luxor) may have disappeared, but the stone temples remain, with the best-preserved being the Karnak Temple Complex, which was a site of worship for Thebans. Thebes is a site of holy places, palaces and royal stone tombs, with the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and Karnak all found here. 

How to do it: The Voyageurs Collection has an eight-day tour on the River Nile, including hotel stays, activities, return flights to Cairo and domestic flights to Luxor from £3,700 per person.

Alternative: The ruins of the ancient city of Meroë (the  capital of the Kingdom of Kush), in Sudan, lie on the east bank of the Nile. More than 200 ancient pyramids remain here, deep within a semi-desert landscape. 

Read more: Life along the River Nile

2. Human evolution in Olduvai Gorge: Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Located in the eastern plains of the Serengeti, Olduvai Gorge is a place of huge paleoanthropological significance, showcasing the oldest evidence of human evolution. Fossils and tools unearthed here cover a period spanning 2.1 million to 15,000 years. More than 60 fossil remains of our human ancestors have been discovered in the area, showing evidence of humans as hunters as well as social beings. The gorge is home to incredible landscapes, plus the Olduvai Gorge Museum, which was unveiled in 2017. Thirty-seven miles from here is Laetoli, a site where visitors can see ancient human footprints preserved for four million years in volcanic rock. 

How to do it: Exodus has the 10-day Premium Tanzania Safari tour, visiting the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire and Lake Manyara. Includes accommodation, return flights from Heathrow, meals and transport, from £4,449 per person.

Alternative: Sterkfontein Caves (part of the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site), an hour’s drive from Johannesburg in South Africa, with human fossils dating back over four million years — including a 2.3-million-year-old skull. 

3. Rock carvings of Twyfelfontein: Kunene Region, Namibia

Close to the Skeleton Coast in West Namibia, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein has one of the highest concentrations of rock engravings in Africa. It’s Namibia’s first and only UNESCO site to date and although their age is a little unknown, it’s estimated the carvings were formed between a period of 1,000 and 10,000 years. The valley, flanked with sandstone slopes, has over 2,000 well-preserved engravings etched into the vivid red rocks, forming essentially an open-air gallery of paintings and carvings of game and wildlife, as well as drawings of humans. 

How to do it: Travelsphere has a 14-day Namibian Adventure tour that includes a tour of Twyfelfontein. Return flights from Heathrow, accommodation, most meals and transfers are included from £3,499 per person.

Alternative: Bushman’s Kloof in South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains is one of the best locations to view the over 2,500 rock paintings in the area. The region was inhabited by the Khoisan people, one of Southern Africa’s oldest recorded civilisations. 

A Catholic priest stands in the front of one of the anicent rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela: Amhara, Ethiopia

Built between the seventh and 13th centuries, these 11 rock-hewn monolithic churches are linked by a series of tunnels and courtyards. Each church was carved from a single, gigantic block of stone and has its own bold design, shape and size, uniquely decorated with preserved mural paintings; a few of the churches contain openings to catacombs and caves. The most famous is the Church of Saint George, cut 40ft down into the ground. What’s more, the churches are still used to this day. 

How to do it: It’s only possible to visit the churches with a tour guide. Explore’s 14-day Highlights of Ethiopia is a history-focused tour that includes a trip to Lalibela, as well as accommodation, return flights from Heathrow and some meals, from £3,169 per person.

Alternative: The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali on the flood plain of the Bani River was built in the 13th century entirely out of the earth — bricks were made out of mud, while the sticks that adorn the exterior walls make it entirely distinctive.  

Read more: A testament to faith and devotion in Ethiopia's rock churches

5. Ancient city of Great Zimbabwe: Masvingo, Zimbabwe

Representing the largest collection of ruins south of the Sahara, Great Zimbabwe was a city built between the 11th and 14th centuries, during the country’s Late Iron Age. Towers, large granite walls and stone buildings make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The political, economic and religious artefacts and ruins reveal the extent of the vast empire once based here. The country of Zimbabwe was named after this ancient city, with the central ruins and surrounding valley thought to support a population of 18,000 people at its peak.

How to do it: African Budget Safaris offers the six-day Zimbabwe Camping Safari Adventure, including a visit to Great Zimbabwe with meals and camping included from £776 per person. Kenya Airways flies from Heathrow to Victoria Falls Airport with one stop in Nairobi from £607 return.  

Alternative: The partly-excavated Berber city of Volubilis in Morocco is considered to be the ancient capital of the kingdom of Mauretania.

As featured in the 2021 edition of National Geographic Traveller The Africa Collection

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