Looking at Africa today, it’s plain to see the damage that colonialism wrought upon the continent. Many people (particularly those of European/colonialist descent) like to think that before the white people arrived, Africa was nothing more than a thinly-populated, muddy patch of land floating in the ocean. Well we’re here today to learn just how misguided that notion is. Sit back and get comfy, reader, and let’s go back in time to one of the greatest (now lost) medieval cities you’ve probably never heard of. Let’s go back to Benin City in the 1100s.
If there was anywhere that had the potential to turn into a real-life Wakanda, it was the Kingdom of Benin. What is now the capital city of Edo state, in Southern Nigeria was, back then, the highly-developed and wealthy capital of a pre-colonial African empire.
The city was probably the first to implement street lighting –Tall metal lamps were placed around the city and lit using palm oil. Before you pipe up and argue that street lighting doesn’t make one technologically advanced, keep in mind that while Benin was illuminated through the night, allowing traffic in the city to continue, most European cities were still covered in darkness.
According to Mawuna Koutonin for The Guardian, “when the Portuguese first ‘discovered’ the city in 1485, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle. Indeed, they classified Benin City as one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world”.
It was safe, too, as a Portuguese ship captain observed when he wrote, “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.”
The city was described as being exceptionally clean, and void of crime and hunger, and run by a sophisticated bureaucracy.
To give you some idea of what Europe looked like at the same time, London was described as a city of “thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market made the medieval city ripe for exploitation by those with a skill for the quick blade or picking a pocket”.
The Kingdom of Benin was surrounded by massive walls that the Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the era of mechanics. According to New Scientist‘s Fred Pearce, in their heyday, Benin City’s walls were “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.
In fact, Pearce writes that the walls of Benin were not the only African megastructure that now lies destroyed and forgotten. “Tropical landscapes are littered with ancient earthworks that dwarf more famous ancient mega-structures such as the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa or the pyramids of Egypt, and even compare with the Great Wall of China”.
These gigantic walls enclosed the city. Beyond the walls of the capital, numerous others enclosed the surroundings, separating them in 500 distinct villages. Altogether, they extended about 16,000 km, covering 6500 square km, and took an estimated 150 million hours of digging –all done by the Edo people who lived there – to construct. According to Pearce, this monumental construction “perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.
They were laid out according to the careful rules of fractal design, which focus meticulously on symmetry, repetition. These patterns were echoed in the layout of the surrounding villages, and then again in the placement of rooms in individual houses. Every building was constructed and designed accounting to mathematical patterns, and each one spoke to the design of the others around it.
wealthy residents lived in homes with smooth, shiny walls, described by a 17-century Dutch visitor as being “like mirrors”.
“Moreover,” he added, “every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water”.
The entire city was covered in art, particularly bronze sculptures, and European travellers were blown away by its magnificence and visitors began flocking in as news of it spread. Koutonin writes that “Immediately European nations saw the opportunity to develop trade with the wealthy kingdom, importing ivory, palm oil and pepper – and exporting guns.”
Where is this city today?
Despite the European visitors being in awe of Ancient Benin City, they went and ruined it all, and this is why we can’t have nice things.
According to Koutonin “its decline began in the 15th century, sparked by internal conflicts linked to the increasing European intrusion and slavery trade at the borders of the Benin empire”. The British were also eager to get their pale hands on the palm oil and rubber in the region. When the Kingdom decided to cease trade with Britain, the British insisted on their right to trade.
In February 1897, British soldiers decided that they hadn’t done enough damage, and a thousand of them blew up, looted, and burnt down what was left of the once-thriving metropolis. The entire, magnificent city, so much more advanced that even Europe at the time, fell within a day. The kingdom of Benin then became part of the British Empire, and it’s famous bronze sculptures – so coveted by European visitors in the 1800s and considered amongst the finest artworks ever produced in Africa – are still kept in the British Museum. A reminder of their barbarism.
Very little remains of the original city, and even visitors to the modern-day Benin City that emerged after would be hard-pressed to try find evidence of the kingdom that once was.
This is just one of many stories of how colonialism destroyed histories and cultures across the globe. The ancestors of those societies who plundered and razed African societies now lament the “loss” of their own culture as migrants are forced to leave their homes across Africa and the middle east and move into the spaces of the people who, arguably, went and ruined everything in the first place.
The history of Ancient Benin City is tragic, and mind-blowing, and yet – except for in the minds of a handful of its descendants – almost completely forgotten. Even in Nigeria today, this history isn’t included in the school curriculum.
Koutonin writes: Curious tourists visiting Edo state in Nigeria are often shown places that might once have been part of the ancient city – but its walls and moats are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps a section of the great city wall, one of the world’s largest man-made monuments, now lies bruised and battered, neglected and forgotten in the Nigerian bush”.
But there, you go. Now you, reader, are one of the people who know about Ancient Benin City and its history. You know a little more than when you knew when you started reading this article. Perhaps, if we all strive to know just a little more about the histories of other people, we can avoid making the same mistakes that were made in the past. And, I don’t know about you, reader, but I’d really like to know when all that stolen African art that’s been hoarded in the British museum is going to be returned to its rightful owners.
- Benin City, the mighty medieval capital now lost without trace
- Fractal Geometry in Indigenous Yoruba and Benin, Nigerian Architecture.
- The kingdom of Benin – BBC
- The Kingdom Of Benin – NatGeo
- The Oba of Benin Kingdom: A history of the monarchy
- The Kingdom of Benin – Ancient History Encyclopedia