KANO’S HISTORIC EMIR’S PALACE
FACTS: The Emir’s Palace in Kano state has a rich history. Built more than 700 years ago, the palace is the oldest and largest traditional palace in Nigeria. The grounds span 33 acres, guarded by walls that reach as high as 15 feet. It’s the official residence of the Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero II, who briefly welcomed Arise News into the marvelous building.
The Emir’s Palace at Kano, which today continues to define the axis of the city, was built in the fifteenth century by Sarkin Rumfa (also Rimfa). Rumfa transformed the fabric of Kano, and was said to be the author of twelve innovations in Kano, including the palace and the Kurmi market, according to the Kano Chronicle. However, before the erection of the Gidan, or Dakin, Rumfa (sic. House of Rumfa), there existed a palace, the south gate of which now serves as the passage from the Sarkin’s private courtyard to the royal graveyard. The 33-acre palace continues to house about 1,000 people in some of the most desirable housing in Kano. The palace grounds occupy the highest space in Kano. The entire palace complex is embraced by a wall of 20 to 30 feet high from the outside the height of which never exceeds more than 15 feet from the inside. Visitors at the turn of the twentieth century commented on the wall’s durability, which was said to have been 15 feet thick in some places. It is tapered inward and surmounted by rounded crenelations.
The exterior wall, similar to the exteriors of the buildings inside the complex, is modestly decorated with shallow arched grooves traced in the mud plaster. The eleven mile wall was once surrounded by a moat with a parapeted bridge to the main south gate. The main entry gate of the complex, Kofar Kudu, is located in the southern façade of the wall. This gate that has bronze detailing, is recessed from the line of the wall. Within the walls of the recession are studded loopholes, as once a mantelet was hung in front of the gate. Legend has it that this southern gate was sealed by Muhammad Rumfa in the 1480s, soon after the completion of Gidan Rumfa, on the advice of the town’s official Islamic scholar, or malam, who prophesized that as long as the southern gate was sealed, the Rumfa dynasty would remain in power. Not until just before 1806 was the mantelet ostensibly removed, and the Rumfa dynasty then fell from power. The palace compound used to contain grazing land for the royal cattle as well as the houses of the palace retainers, public reception rooms, and the apartments of the Sarkin himself.
After entering through the confines of the outer wall of the palace complex, one is confronted on the same axis by the impressive and more recent Soron Gabjeje gateway. The graceful two-story height of the doorway of the gate is buttressed by two sturdy gatehouses. The thick tapered sides of the gatehouses visually hug the slender central passage. Though the defining feature of the passage is the central steeped arch interrupted by a thin-railed passage, the side buttresses complement the center through the replication of vertically elongated windows. These side gatehouses also mimic the central roofline crenelations and corner pinnacles, which in Hausa architecture define the intersection of interior and exterior walls. Numerous other gates set up a hierarchy of accessible space through a series of courtyards. One such gate, which leads into the Soron Giwa (or Hall of the Elephants), is said to demarcate the space for the pasturing of the royal elephants. Like the Soron Gabjeje, each gate is set in an impressive gatehouse called a zaure (plural, zauruka). Many of the gates, which originally were circular entrance vestibules, have taken on a rectangular shape, such as the Soron Gabjeje gateway. This early twentieth century transformation from round to rectangular rooms is a larger trend in Hausa architecture.
The Soron Gabjeje is the first court of the palace complex. The north gate of the Soron Gabjeje, which leads to the reception rooms, is much more modest. Entering through it into the next courtyard, one enters a passage that is flanked on the east by the royal audience chamber. At the end of this passageway is yet another gateway, the Soron Giwa, which leads into a private royal courtyard. Crossing this passage leads one to the outer room of the Sarkin’s private apartments.
This processional access of the palace resembles an elongated version of a typical Kano house, where entry through a zaure (in this case the Soron Gabjeje) leads to the semi-private kofa gida courtyard which is bounded to the north and east by reception spaces. As in a traditional Kano house, one proceeds from this space into the private apartments which shelter the family’s private cikin gida. In the case of the palace, the main reception rooms, the Soron Ingila to the northeast of the courtyard, and the Soron Giwa to the northwest of the courtyard, were built of clay with a door on each side, and were connected by narrow dark passages. The most elaborately decorated parts of the palace are these two royal audience chambers. The Soron Ingila interior reaches a height of between six and eight meters. The room is divided in two by high domed bays created by five arches each. These intersecting arches comprised of coupled corbels, are a unique element of Hausa architecture called bakan gizos. The main audience chamber is comprised of 20 such corbels forming ten bakan gizos.
These structures are covered with azaras, heavy rigid timbers that are resistant to termites and decay, laid in two directions. These are then covered with layers of azaras set horizontally until they reach the height of the dome’s apex. These azara’s are usually plastered into the wall, which is made of tubali, or sun dried bricks. The plaster reveals the azara’s coffering which defines rectilinear shapes on the wall surfaces. In the ceiling these beams are often left exposed to reveal their linear patterning. Inlaid enamel bowls stud the intersection of the arches. The massive doors to the room are comprised of planks bound together by iron bars fastened by nails and then ornamented with circular brass heads.
Practically the entire ceiling and walls are decorated with grooved patterns and bold paint. The ceiling, the beams and the floor are stained a deep black by the varnish from a locust bean shell. The walls are plastered with a mixture that includes mica, giving the walls a silvery sheen. This plaster is burnished with a stone to give the raised sections of the grooves this soft gleam rather than a glittery effect. Mica is non-static and therefore does not attract dust as well as repelling spiders and hornets from building their webs and nests inside the dark buildings.
The palace undergoes constant restoration and has been replastered multiple times throughout the centuries. More recently, yellow dye has been introduced to the micaceous clay giving the sheen more of a gold than silver tint. Also more recently, restoration craftsmen have gummed mica flakes onto the yellow base.
The soffits of the arches and the ceiling panels in between are decorated with brightly painted sculpturally molded abstract designs. The abstract designs are coupled with more figural features, including a picture of an ablution jug, or santali, near the doorway. In another reception building, designated for the signing of the Sarkin’s visitor book in the mid-twentieth century, one can find a representation of a sword painted onto the wall. These more bold designs are probably from the 1930s and 1940s and are more representative of an increasingly popular deeply incised style from southern Hausaland. Along with the attention to constant maintenance and repair, craftsmen have maintained stylistic license in applying new patterns and colors.
The northernmost section of the palace opens onto a public space, through the Kofar Fatalwa, still very much in its fifteenth century form. The dendal, or public plaza, runs on an east-west axis and aligns the Friday Mosque, or Masallacin Jumma’a, with the north-south axis of the Emir’s palace.