Walls and bronzes of Benin

The kingdom of Benin was one of the city-states in the delta created by the Niger river in today’s Nigeria. The people of Benin grew rich from trade, not least in slaves, which they were happy to sell to the Europeans who began arriving in the sixteenth-century.

The state of Benin was surrounded by an enormous set of walls and moats, known as iya, constructed between the ninth and the fifteenth-centuries CE. The walls could be as high as ten meters and the moats just as deep. They had a combined length of some 16,000 kilometers, making it one of the largest construction projects on earth. Other city-states embarked on similar constructions. In the kingdom of Ijebu, for example, a noblewoman, Sungbo, commissioned a wall/moat construction which bears her name to this day. Archaeologists have compared the walls of Benin to the Great Wall of China and complained that the former construction has received none of the attention lavished on the latter. [Read more:The Great Wall of China does not exist“]

It is not quite clear why the walls and moats were built. A project of this scale is difficult to explain as purely a military arrangement. Perhaps it was rather a question of politics — of establishing the oba’s claims to a land and demonstrating to others the extent of his power. In the competitive environment formed by the Yoruba city-states, wall/moat constructions may have been one of the ways in which an oba establish his status.

There is a remarkable collection of bronze sculptures and plaques — altogether some one thousand objects — cast in Benin from the thirteenth century onward. The metal was actually imported from Europe but they were made by local craftsmen using local techniques. The bronzes, which used to decorate the oba’s palace, show the life of the court and the opulent lifestyle of its rulers, but they also portray European merchants. The Europeans appear as small figures in the background, wearing odd-looking hats. The bronzes were looted by the British when they occupied Benin in 1897 and were later sold to museums around the world. Many of them are now on display in the British Museum.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Oba with Europeans”

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Ife head”