THE STORY OF THE ANCIENT BENIN KINGDOM

Edo Kingdom, also known as the Benin Empire is a kingdom in the southwestern part of Nigeria.

The Kingdom of Benin’s capital was Edo, now known as Benin City in Edo State, Nigeria. The Benin Kingdom was “one of the oldest and most developed states in the Southwest of Nigeria”.

It is said to have originated from the previous Edo Kingdom of Igodomigodo around the 11th century AD, and lasted until it was burnt by the British Empire in 1897.

EARLY HISYORY OF THE BENIN KINGDOM

Benin City (formerly Edo) sprang up by around 1000, in a forest that could be easily defended. The dense vegetation and narrow paths made the city easy to defend against attacks. The rainforest, it situated in, helped in the development of the city because of its vast resources fish from rivers and creeks, animals to hunt, leaves for roofing, plants for medicine, ivory for carving and trading, and wood for boat building – that could be exploited.

However, domesticated animals, from the forest and surrounding areas, could not survive, due to a disease spread by tsetse flies; after centuries of exposure, some animals, such as cattle and goats, developed a resistance to the disease.

The original name of the kingdom of Benin, at its creation some time in the first millennium CE, was Igodomigodo, as its inhabitants called it. Their ruler was called Ogiso – the ruler of the sky.

Ancestral head of an oba (a king), part of an exhibition on empire and museum holdings

Nearly 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of this initial incarnation of the state.

ARRCHITECTURE OF THE BENIN KINGDOM

The Walls of Benin are a series of earthworks made up of banks and ditches, called Iya in the Edo language in the area around present-day Benin City, the capital of present-day Edo, Nigeria.

They consist of 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) of city iya and an estimated 16,000 kilometres (9,900 miles) in the rural area around Benin.

Some estimates suggest that the walls of Benin may have been constructed between the thirteenth and mid-fifteenth century CE and others suggest that the walls of Benin (in the Esan region) may have been constructed during the first millennium AD.

The walls were built of a ditch and dike structure; the ditch dug to form an inner moat with the excavated earth used to form the exterior rampart.

They extend for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They cover 2,510 sq. miles (6,500 square kilometres) and were all dug by the Edo people.

In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.

DIVINITY OF THE OBA
In Benin, the Oba was seen as divine. The Oba’s divinity and sacredness was the focal point of the kingship. The Oba was shrouded in mystery; he only left his palace on ceremonial occasions.

It was previously punishable by death to assert that the Oba performed human acts, such as eating, sleeping, dying or washing. The Oba was also credited with having magical powers.

THE GOLDEN AGE
The Oba had become the mount of power within the region. Oba Ewuare, the first Golden Age Oba, is credited with turning Benin City into a city-state from a military fortress built by the Ogisos, protected by moats and walls.

It was from this bastion that he launched his military campaigns and began the expansion of the kingdom from the Edo-speaking heartlands.

Artists of the Benin Kingdom were well known for working in many materials, particularly brass, wood, and ivory. They were famous for their bas-relief sculptures, particularly plaques, and life-size head sculptures.

The plaques typically portrayed historical events, and the heads were often naturalistic and life size. Artisans also carved many different ivory objects, including masks and, for their European trade partners, salt cellars.

Ancestral head of an oba (a king), part of an exhibition on empire and museum holdings

The success of Benin was fueled by its lively trade. Tradesmen and artisans from Benin developed relationships with the Portuguese, who sought after the kingdom’s artwork, gold, ivory, and pepper.

In the early modern era, Benin was also heavily involved in the West African slave trade. They would capture men, women, and children from rival peoples and sell them into slavery to European and American buyers. This trade provided a significant source of wealth for the kingdom.

Benin began to lose power during the 1800s, as royal family members fought for power and control of the throne. Civil wars broke out, dealing a significant blow to both Benin’s administration as well as its economy.

In its weakened state, Benin struggled to resist foreign interference in its trading network, particularly by the British. A desire for control over West African trade and territory ultimately led to a British invasion of Benin in 1897.

Benin City was burned by the British, who then made the kingdom part of British Nigeria (which became Nigeria after the country gained independence in 1960). After that time, the kingdom no longer played a governing role in West Africa.

However, even today, the oba still serves in Benin City as a government advisor.

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