Where Cultures Collide

Kano, the capital city of Kano State in northern Nigeria, located on the Jakarta River, originated around the 7th century CE when it was founded by hunter-gatherer Nok peoples. It was traditionally founded by Kano, a blacksmith of the Gaya tribe, who in ancient times came to Dalla Hill in search of iron.

Kano is most well-known for: its unique governance structure; rich trade linkages; position as a terminus for caravans; strong surrounding walls; and ancient style of stacking bags of groundnut into pyramids, which tell the story of a thriving agrarian economy.

Groundnut Pyramids

Photogrpahs of Kano’s ancient style of stacking bags of groundnut into pyramids, which tell the story of a thriving agrarian economy.


The ancient Kano City Walls, a tentative UN Heritage Site, were originally constructed between 1095 and 1134 CE when Kano became the Hausa capital. The walls were about 12 miles long and 40 feet wide at the base, and 30 to 50 feet high.

Kano Capital
Cameron Wocke

The artist’s rendition of Kano city with its notable surrounding walls.

The city’s proud walls and opulent displays of food stocks showcase the highly productive and independent nature of Kano’s people. The evolution of Kano is defined by different battles and alternating tenures of independence and subjugation. But regardless of the era, the city maintained its economic and commercial strength as a regional center of trade.

In the 14th century, Sultan Ali Yaji converted to Islam and announced that the Kingdom of Kano would henceforth be the Sultanate of Kano, a political entity that would last until the 19th century.

The important city prospered during the Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903), and was often used as a model for other cities within the caliphate. The city holds huge significance among the Hausa peoples, who, at an estimated 30 million people, qualify as the single largest ethnic group in Africa, and still unofficially consider it their cultural capital.


Kano’s position as a center of exchange made it a vital hub for the region. The city’s commercial strengths have historically been its large-scale agriculture, leather works, and animal husbandry. Exports in these areas consistently generated wealth for the city over the centuries.

Today, Kano is still home to one of the largest markets in West Africa: the Kurmi Market. The market was established in the 15th century to support expanding regional and Trans-Saharan trade. At periods, cowrie shells were used as the medium of exchange. Traders brought kola nuts from Ghana, weaponry, silk, spices, and more from across the Sahara, salt from the Sahara itself, and slaves from several locations, among a cornucopia of other tradeables.

Kano’s Kurmi Market
Vakhtang Gabrichidze

A busy day at Kano’s bustling Kurmi Market.

Kano was one of the last major slave societies, and in the 1850’s German scholar and explorer Henirich Barth estimated that 50% of Kano’s population was enslaved. Many of these people lived in slave villages, and even helped decide a civil war in 1895, between two rival claimants to the throne.


In the 10th century, Kano was chosen as the official capital of the Hausa state under the rule of King Gajemasu, and has remained a monarchy since its first king in 999.

In 1463, Muhammad Rumfa was crowned monarch (or Sarki) of Kano, and would go on to reform the governance of Kano so significantly that he would be considered one of its greatest leaders. Chief among Rumfa’s accomplishments were extending Kano’s city wall, establishing the Kurmi

Market, and the centralization and reorganization of Kano’s administration. Administration was one of Rumfa’s primary concerns, as he was tasked with the uncomfortable balancing act of maintaining a state in accordance with Islamic law in a multi-religious society.

The Sarki’s Visit
Vakhtang Gabrichidze

The monarch or “Sarki” of Kano comés to appraise the new walls of his city as onlookers  come to see the monarch himself.

Rumfa encouraged prominent residents of Kano to convert to Islam. Encouraging conversions wasn’t, however, the only thing that Rumfa did to encourage the practice of Islam. He contacted the famous scholar Muhammad al-Maghili, who relocated to Kano and wrote one of his most famous treatises: “Taj al-din fi ma yajib ‘ala I-muluk”, or “the crown of religion concerning the obligations of kings.” One of the institutions to come out of this process was the Taran Kano, or Council of Nine, that assisted the Sarki in matters of governance and acted as a legislature. Other reforms led to the centralization of much of Kano’s land in the hands of the Sarki. As a result, the Sarki could allocate land to immigrants or seize land from the disloyal.

governance changes

In 1805, the Fulani ethnic group led by Usman dan Fodio engaged in a jihad that conquered much of northern Nigeria and led to the emergence of the Sokoto Caliphate. Under this Caliphate, Kano became the capital of the region. Kano was the largest and most prosperous province in the Caliphate. Despite losing its independence, the city was still allowed to retain its monarch as the highest political authority in the city.

Nathan Silver

Citizen’s go about their daily business through one of the city’s gates

Both Kano and the greater Sokoto Caliphate were eventually conquered by the British Empire in 1903. The city withstood three British attacks thanks to its sophisticated walls, and its well-funded military forces put up stiff resistance, but in the end the city’s defenses were broken, and it officially became a British protectorate. The modern-day Kano State was created in 1967 as one of 36 states within Nigeria, with the city of Kano as its capital.


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