World Heritage Sites
by Ellie Schimelman

Ghana, roughly the size of Oregon, is a small country in West Africa. The country is divided into 10 regions and each has its own character and appeal to visitors. The following observations focus on World Heritage Sites in two of the regions.


Anyone with an interest in African history has heard of the Ashanti. They have been a powerful force in Ghana's history. When the British "brought civilization" to Ghana they approached from the sea and easily converted the people until they reached the Ashanti where fierce warriors resisted colonization for 70 years. This fighting destroyed many of the traditional buildings in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Region. As the city was rebuilt, the uniquely decorated buildings were replaced by ones built with cement blocks without the input of craftspeople whose carvings and attention to architectural detail gave life to the original buildings.

The traditional design consists of four buildings surrounding a courtyard. The buildings are low, constructed of mud plastered onto timber framework and are given height by the addition of tall thatched roofs. Painted white, their most distinctive feature is the elaborate geometric and sometimes animal designs carved in bas-relief. As with everything else in Ghanaian culture, the designs have meanings that have been handed down through generations.

UNESCO with the help of the French Embassy in Ghana and a few companies doing business in Ghana have added the Ashanti Traditional Buildings to the list of World Heritage Sites and have begun the work of restoring the remains of these buildings. The few traditional buildings that remained intact are all shrines to powerful deities. They are in villages near Kumasi. Not being in the capital probably saved them from being destroyed, but what war didn't erode, nature has.

Aba Tours recently took some tourists to visit the shrine at Besease which is located a 10 minute drive from Kumasi going toward Accra. From the outside you see a plain mud wall, but as soon as you enter the courtyard you are in another century. For an entrance fee of approximately $4.00 you are given a tour, a brief history of the shrine (which is also recorded on plaques attached to the courtyard walls) and the opportunity to take photographs. Near the end of the tour our guide reached into the bushes and threw what appeared to be rocks at our feet. When the rocks began to move, we realized that these were turtles. Our guide explained that they were enjoyed by the fetish priestess and therefore allowed to live there. The priestess was not in the shrine, but as custom required, we left a few coins near the door to her room. Although the shrines are still considered powerful and spiritual by the Ashanti, many of the priests and priestesses are elderly people, so besides being neglected by nature the shrines also fall into disuse when the leader is not replaced.

The Ghana Museums and Monument Board maintain the 10 remaining traditional examples of early architecture, so even if in the future they are not active shrines they will at least be preserved as a memorial to a great Ashanti Empire.


Driving a few hours South of Kumasi you enter the Central Region, home of another World Heritage Site. The building is large, white and sits impressively next to the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Coast is a picturesque fishing village and home to an infamous slave castle.

Cape Coast Castle was built by the British in 1665. Originally it was a small fort built by the Swedes and went through ownership by Danes, Dutch and the local people, eventually becoming the headquarters for the British Administration. Because so many countries came to benefit from the riches of "The Gold Coast" there were many forts in the country, but most of them are in disrepair with the exception of a few such as the Christainberg Castle in Accra which is now the seat of the Ghana Government.

Cape Coast Castle, Elmina Castle in a neighboring village and Fort St. Jargo which is on a hill facing Elmina Castle were given the status of World Heritage Monuments by UNESCO in 1979.

Perhaps the most visited tourist attraction in Ghana, Cape Coast Castle is well maintained. Your entrance fee of $2.00 (less for Ghanaians) entitles you to watch a brief video covering the culture and history of Ghana, to visit a small museum, to go on a tour led by a local volunteer and to revisit the tragic drama of the slave trade. You are led into underground dungeons and to the DOOR OF NO RETURN. This small opening led from the dungeon to the sea where slaves were put into boats and taken away from their land. The slaves were marched from the North and brought to a large room in the castle where they were sorted according to age and sex and sold or traded for guns.

There is much discussion now among scholars about who sold the slaves to the Europeans. History shows that it was fellow Africans and the discussion centers around whether they knew what fate awaited the captives.

There is no way to visit Cape Coast Castle without being overcome with sadness, but it is a necessary stop for visitors. I can't imagine being in Ghana without experiencing this important part of history.

Recently a DOOR OF RETURN has been added. This signifies the return of the slaves descendents to Ghana to acknowledge the history of their ancestors and each year Ghana celebrates Emancipation Day which welcomes the people from the Diaspora back to their homeland.