The Walls of Benin: Four Times Longer Than The Great Wall of China!
The Kingdom of Benin was an important African kingdom that flourished between the 13th and 19th centuries AD. Benin was located in the southwestern part of modern-day Nigeria, with Benin City as its capital. Benin City is perhaps best-known for a group of artifacts collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. These objects looted by British forces during their expedition against Benin in 1897. Whilst a large number of these artifacts ended up in the British Museum, others were dispersed amongst museums in the West. A lesser-known accomplishment of the Kingdom of Benin is the so-called Walls of Benin, which surrounded Benin City. The Walls of Benin were damaged by the British during their expedition and deteriorated further in the decades that followed. Parts of the walls are still visible today, though they are still facing the threat of destruction.
A closeup of one of the many Benin Bronzes that speak for the legendary Kingdom of Benin and its famous Walls of Benin earthworks. ( Historical Association )
From the Benin Empire to the Walls of Benin
The Kingdom of Benin is known also as the Benin Empire or the Edo Kingdom. According to one oral tradition, the Edo people, the original ethnic group of the Kingdom of Benin, were once ruled by a line of semi-mythical kings known as the Ogisos (meaning “Kings of the Sky”). There were about 36 Ogisos who ruled over the Edo people. During the reign of the last Ogiso, his son and heir, Ekaladerhan, was banished, as punishment for an offence committed by one of the queens. The queen had changed the message from the oracle to the Ogiso.
Following his banishment, the prince travelled to the land of the Yorubas, another ethnic group in the western part of modern-day Nigeria. The oracle of the Yorubas prophesied that a king would come out of the forest. Therefore, when Ekaladerhan arrived at the Yoruba city of Ife, he was welcomed, and appointed king. Ekaladerhan changed his name to Imadoduwa, meaning “I did not misplace my royalty”
After some time, Imadoduwa’s father died, and the throne of Benin was left vacant. A delegation of Edo chiefs came to Ife to ask Imadoduwa to return to their lands and take the place of his father as Ogiso. Whilst he had been a prince, Imadoduwa was well-loved by the Edo people.
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Imadoduwa, however, would not abandon his new subjects. Instead, he told the Edo delegation that he had seven sons and was willing to send one of them to rule as king. The prince chosen to return with the delegation was Oranmiyan, who spent the next few years living amongst the Edo people. When Oranmiyan’s wife gave birth to a son, Eweka, Oranmiyan returned to Ife. Eweka became the first oba (roughly equivalent to king) of Benin.
According to another version of the oral tradition, the Edo people had become dissatisfied with the rule of the Ogisos during the 13th century. Therefore, they invited Oranmiyan from Ife to rule over them. In this version of the story, Oranmiyan is not related to the Ogisos of Benin. This version of the story also has Oranmiyan’s son, Eweka, becoming the first oba of Benin.
The Walls of Benin in a drawing from the 19th century. ( Nigerian Embassy )
Benin City is Rebuilt and the Walls of Benin Begin
In the late 13th century, royal power was firmly established in the Kingdom of Benin. This contributed towards the kingdom’s rise as a regional power in the 15th century. Oba Ewuare, who reigned between 1440 and 1480, was arguably the most famous ruler of the Kingdom of Benin. Ewuare is said to have been a powerful warrior and magician . During his reign, the hereditary succession to the throne was established.
Additionally, Ewuare conducted numerous military campaigns that served to enlarge his kingdom. At its maximum extent, the Kingdom of Benin stretched from Onitsha (in present-day Nigeria) in the east, through the forest region of southwestern Nigeria, and into modern-day Ghana in the west.
Ewuare is also credited with the rebuilding of Benin City, known also as Edo. According to tradition, Benin City, was founded in 1180, and was known originally as Ibinu. Benin City is situated on a plain on a branch of the Benin River and served as the capital of the Kingdom of Benin. It is believed that the Walls of Benin were constructed during Ewuare’s reign.
These walls consist of two parts, a moat and a rampart. A ditch was dug to form the inner moat, and the excavated earth was used to form the outer rampart. The Walls of Benin no doubt contributed towards the defense of the city. Additionally, the walls may be viewed symbolically as a representation of the kingdom’s power.
According to the 1974 edition of the Guinness Book of Records , the Walls of Benin were the “world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era.” Elsewhere, it is claimed that they were “four times longer than the Great Wall of China and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.” Furthermore, it is asserted that the walls “extended for some 16,000 km [9,942 miles] in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries,” and that it covered an area of 6,500 square kilometers (2,510 square miles). This grand project is thought to have been carried out completely by the Edo people, and it took an estimated total of 150 million hours to complete.
(Representational image, not the actual walls of Benin) Before the earthwork and stone walls of Benin the ancient city was still walled off using wood and brush. ( Nigerian Embassy )
Trade Begins with Portugal and the Stories of Benin Begin
Although the Walls of Benin are certainly monumental achievements, much more can be said about the urban nature of Benin City as well. Around 1485, shortly after the end of Ewuare’s reign, the Kingdom of Benin had its first contact with Europe. It was the Portuguese, who were sailing along the coast of Africa, who first encountered the Kingdom of Benin. Consequently, trade between the Portuguese and the Edo people developed. In exchange for tropical goods and slaves later on, the Portuguese provided their African counterparts with European products and guns.
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It is also from these Portuguese explorers and merchants that descriptions of Benin City were brought back to Europe. For instance, the Portuguese were surprised to find a great kingdom in the middle of the African jungle and called the kingdom’s capital the Great City of Benin. Additionally, the Portuguese considered Benin City as one of the best-planned and most beautiful cities in the world.
To put this into perspective, at that time, the Portuguese, and other Europeans, by extension, regarded few settlements in Africa as cities. A more detailed description of the city is provided by a Portuguese ship captain by the name of Lourenco Pinto in 1691, and is as follows:
“Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”
Another 17th century account, this time by a Dutch visitor named Olfert Dapper, describes the houses at Benin City like this:
“Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other,… Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected.”
Dapper goes on to note that the wealthy inhabitants of the city would keep these walls “as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper storeys are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water”.
Apart from these accounts by early European travelers, the planning and design of Benin City has also been a subject of investigation by modern scholars. It has been argued by Ron Eglash, an ethno-mathematician, that Benin City was planned according to fractal design. This means that the planning of the city involved “careful rules of symmetry, proportionality and repetition.” Eglash pointed out that “the city and its surrounding villages were purposely laid out to form perfect fractals, with similar shapes repeated in the rooms of each house, and the house itself, and the clusters of houses in the village in mathematically predictable patterns.”
At the very center of Benin City was the court of the oba king, from which the city’s main streets radiated. There were 30 of these streets, each being about 37 meters (120 feet) wide. The streets ran at right angles to each other and were equipped with an underground drainage system that served to channel storm water away from the city. Many side streets extended from these 30 main streets.
Benin City was divided into 11 divisions. Since the city was planned according to fractal design, each of these divisions was a small replication of the oba’s court at the center of Benin City. These divisions consisted of several compounds containing houses, workshops, and public buildings. Indeed, during its heyday, Benin City was a highly sophisticated urban center.
One of the earliest photographs of the Wall of Benin earthworks in present-day Nigeria. ( Nigerian Embassy )
The Slave Trade Made Benin Very Rich!
The Kingdom of Benin continued to flourish in the centuries after its first contact with the Europeans. In particular, the slave trade with Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries brought immense wealth to the kingdom. During the 19th century, however, the Kingdom of Benin began to decline. The kingdom’s fortunes were revived in the following century. In addition to slaves, palm oil and textiles became the kingdom’s main trade products.
During the 1880s and 1890s, the British were trying to turn the Kingdom of Benin into a protectorate. They were, however, unsuccessful, as the kingdom managed to resist these attempts, thereby maintaining its independence.
In January 1897, a British force was ambushed whilst on the road to Benin City, resulting in the deaths of eight Britons. Consequently, the British sent a punitive expedition in the following month. The expedition was led by Sir Harry Rawson, and involved 1,200 British soldiers, several hundred locally recruited African troops, and thousands of African porters from the British military base at Sierra Leone.
A three-pronged attack was launched by Rawson on Benin City. On each front, the people of the city offered fierce resistance. But the British persisted and Benin City fell on 18 February 1897. Having captured Benin City, the British began looting, and set fire to the city. This resulted in the destruction of much of the city. Particularly lamentable is the destruction of the city’s beautiful carved woodwork. A group of artefacts known as the Benin Bronzes, however, were seized by the British, and therefore was spared from this destruction.
Despite its name, not all the Benin Bronzes are made of bronze. Some of them, for instance, are made of brass, whilst others are not metal at all. The Benin Bronzes number in the thousands (estimated to be over 3000), though the exact total is unknown. This group of artefacts include plaques, figurines, and sculptures of the obas. After Rawson’s punitive expedition, 900 of the Benin Bronzes found their way into the British Museum. Others were sold to different European museums, supposedly to defray the cost of the expedition.
A display of Benin Bronzes at the British Museum. (Joyofmuseums / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
From the Walls of Benin to the Benin Bronzes
The Benin Bronzes have become a hot topic in recent times, due to growing calls for their repatriation. The British Museum, which houses the largest collection of the Benin Bronzes, however, is still resisting these calls for repatriation. Nevertheless, some of the artefacts are being returned.
All the returned Benin Bronzes will be housed in Nigeria’s Edo Museum of West African Art. This proposed museum is to be designed by David Adjaye, a famous British-Ghanaian architect, and its construction is estimated to take five years to complete.
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Whilst the Benin Bronzes have garnered a lot of attention, other aspects of Benin City have not had so much coverage. This is noticeable, for instance in the Walls of Benin City. Although the walls were damaged by the British, they were not completely destroyed.
Though, the influences of modernization have caused portions of the walls to disappear over time some significant stretches of the walls have remained. The Walls of Benin have been protected by law since 1961. Nevertheless, a management plan and public awareness campaign was only put in place in 2002, after the walls were included in the World Monuments Watch. According to the World Monuments Fund, “Emergency conservation work is still desperately needed.”
Top image: (Representational image, not the actual walls of Benin). This image of the ancient City of Baghdad is similar to how the Walls of Benin would have been designed. Source: Nigerian Embassy
By Wu Mingren
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