Three major phases are distinguished during the growth of Nyiragongo, an active volcano at the western limit of the Virunga Range, Zaire. Lavas erupted during phase 1 are strongly undersaturated melilities characterized by the presence of kalsilite phenocrysts, perovskite, and the abundance of calcite in the matrix. Such lavas crop out mainly on the inner crater wall and progressively evolve toward more aphyric melilite nephelinites well represented on the flanks of the volcano. Adventive vents lying at the base of the cone developed along radial fracture systems and erupted olivine and/or clinopyroxene-rich melilitites or nephelinites. Stage 2 lavas are melilite-free nephelinites. Clinopyroxene is the main phenocryst and feldspathoids are abundant in the lavas exposed on the crater wall. These flows result from periodic overflowing of a magma column from an open crater. Extensive fissure flows which erupted from the base of the cone at the end of this stage are related to widespread draining out of magma which in turn induces the formation of the summit pit crater. Magmas erupted during stage 3 are relatively aphyric melilite nephelinites and the main volcanological characteristic is the permanent lava lake observed into the pit crater until the 1977 eruption. Fluctuations of the level of the lava lake was responsible for the development of the inner terraces. Periodic overflowing of the lava lake from the central pit formed the nepheline aggregate lava flows. Petrography and major element geochemistry allow the determination of the principal petrogenetic processes. Melilitites and nephelinites erupted from the summit crater are lavas derived, via clinopyroxene fractionation, from a more primitive melt. The abundance of feldspathoids in these lavas is in keeping with nepheline flotation. Aphyric melilite nephelinites covering the flanks and the extensive fissure flows have a homogencous chemical composition; rocks from the historical lava lake are slightly more evolved. All these lavas differentiated in a shallow reservoir. Lavas erupted from the parasitic vents are mainly olivine and/or clinopyroxene-phyric rocks. Rushayite and picrites from Muja cone are peculiar high-magnesium lavas resulting from the addition of olivine xenocrysts to melilitic or nephelinitic melts. Fluid and melt inclusions in olivine and clinopyroxene phenocrysts indicate a crystallization depth of 10–14 km. A model involving two reservoirs located at different depths and periodically connected is proposed to explain the petrography of the lavas; this hypothesis is in accordance with geophysical data.