Kano is the largest city in northern Nigeria and has been inhabited for well over a thousand years. It’s the capital of the Kano Emirate, and with a population of nearly 2.2 million, it’s a teeming and vibrant place with a variety of interesting things to see including museums, mosques, the Emir’s Palace and large markets. Kano has several districts, including the old city, which is walled and contains many clay houses, giving Kano a mediaeval atmosphere.

The city’s history dates back to the 7th century, when it was the southern most point of the famous trans-Sahara trade routes, and it was well connected with many North African cities. Islam was adopted probably between the 12th and 14th centuries from visiting sheikhs from North Africa and Mali, and was practised by almost all the city’s occupants by the 16th century. Kano’s traders exchanged groundnuts, leather, pottery, and cloth – Kano is famous for its indigo dye pits, and the bright blue cloth is still worn by the Tuareg and other peoples of the Sahara. In return they took back to Kano salt, weapons, silk, spices, perfume and Islamic books. Like the rest of northern Nigeria, Kano was taken during the Islamic jihad of Usman Dan Fodio in 1809 and held under the Sokoto Caliphate until 1903, when the British took control.

Today Kano remains the most important commercial city in northern Nigeria. The majority of inhabitants are Sunni Muslims, though Christians and followers of other non-Muslim religions form a small part of the population, and traditionally live in the Sabon Gari, meaning “new town” in Hausa.

Most of Kano’s sights are in the old city. Remains of the ancient walls can be seen, dating back to the 11th century when an estimated 25 kilometres were built, studded by 15 gates (kofars in Hausa); they were extended and enlarged in the 15th century. Although now largely in ruins, a 6-kilometre section of the mud-straw walls has been restored in recent years and this can be seen between the Kofar Sabuwar and Kofar Dan Agundi gates to the south of the old city.

Flat-topped Dala Hill in the middle of the old city is believed to be the original site of Kano – it first appeared on a map by the Arab geographer Idrisi in 1145. You can climb to the top via narrow alleyways through the old mud-brick houses with rusty tin roofs for fine views of Kano spreading endlessly in every direction; look out for the Central Mosque, the Emir’s Palace and the airport (the latter being 8 kilometres north of the city centre).

At the foot of Dala Hill is Kurmi Market, one of the oldest in West Africa and founded by Muhammad Rumfa, a King of Kano, in the 15th century. It’s frantic, congested and hugely atmospheric, though some visitors may get overwhelmed and claustrophobic. It is one of the most exotic and colourful places in the Sahel and the craft section offers carved calabashes, leather and beads; also interesting is the nearby section for the horse attire worn at the durbars.

The Kano dye pits are one of the most fascinating aspects of the old city, and are thought to have been in use for more than 500 years – indigo dyes were used to make garments for Nigerian royalty. They are located along the road beyond Kofar Mata Gate. Indigo is mixed with potassium and ash and fermented for a month before being ready to dye cloth. The indigo, extracted from a plant of the same name, provides a brilliant blue colour.  You can get a short tour around the pits and the traders there will be happy to sell you cloth in a variety of tie-dye patterns, and show you the process of “ironing” – which is actually beating the fabric with wooden mallets to achieve a shiny appearance.

Further down Kofar Mata Road from the dye pits is Kano’s Great Mosque, which on Fridays attracts over 50,000 people for worship. Outside is a huge arena for prayer by the many men who can’t gain access to the mosque. The mosque is adjacent to the Emir’s Palace, which was established by Sarkin Kano Muhammadu Rumfa (1463–1499) and has been in continuous use ever since. Mallam Muhammadu Sanusi II is currently the Emir of Kano, having succeeded the late Emir Alhaji Ado Bayero, who died in December, 2015.

The Gidan Makama Museum is across the square from the Palace. In a series of Sudanese-style structures, it contains a wealth of information and helpful guides meet visitors at the door. The museum walks you through Kano’s history from the 9th century. It exhibits examples of local art, an old door from one of Kano’s many city gates (Kofar Dukauuyam) and historical photographs, some of them very old and featuring jihad warriors and important members of the Sokoto Caliphate before the arrival of the British. There are also pictures of the old pyramids formed from sacks of groundnuts, which were a feature around Kano until the 1970s.

Away from the city, the Gidan Dan Hausa on Dan Hausa Road is an excellent example of Hausa traditional mud-walled architecture built in 1905 as the home of Hans Vischer, a Swiss-born teacher who contributed much to Nigeria’s education system during colonial times. He was appointed Director of Education for Northern Nigeria and by 1914 had established over 1,000 primary schools in the north, including one in the grounds of the house. He was known as Dan Hausa (“son of Hausa”) because he spoke the language so well. Today the house is an interesting museum with rooms dedicated to arts and crafts, Durbar costumes and gowns previously worn by Emirs.

The Kano Durbar (in Hausa, Hawan Sallah) is a festival to mark and celebrate the two annual Muslim festivals of Eid-ul-Fitr (the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan) and Eid-al-Adha (the month of holy pilgrimage or Hajj). Its origins are in the northern emirates that used horses in warfare, each community or village being expected to contribute a regiment to the defence of the emirate. Hosted by the Emir of Kano, it’s a parade of thousands of men on horseback adorned with bright red turbans and copper armour, the horses clad in tartan-like regalia, and the accompanying musicians wearing feathered headdresses decorated with cowrie shells. The Durbar begins with prayers in mosques around the city, followed by a colourful procession accompanied by drumming, dancing and singing. Performances include charges on horseback, knife swallowers, acrobats, snake charmers, drummers and horn blowers. Once assembled in the public square in front of the Emir’s Palace, the groups of horsemen take it in turn to charge at full gallop towards the Emir, dramatically pulling up just short of him and his dignitaries to raise their swords in respect and allegiance. It’s a colourful display of culture, full of pomp and pageantry, and a not-to-be-missed event when visiting Kano. Durbars are also held in other northern Nigerian cities, Zaria and Katsina, but the Kano Durbar is considered by many to be the biggest and the best.