The chances are you have probably never heard of the ancient walls of Benin.
The location of the old Benin city is still the present-day location of Benin city in Edo state, south-west Nigeria.When the Europeans first arrived at the Benin kingdom in the late 15th Century, they were astonished by the wealth, quality of life and the organization. This was at a time when London was a city awash with thievery, murder, prostitution, Bribery and a thriving black market. London had a population of 50,000 in 1500 compared to Benin’s 80,000-100,000 (Bondarenko 2001: 123–125).
The Dutch writer Olfert Dapper wrote the following in Dutch, translated into English, collected the accounts of merchants who had seen Benin:
“Benin City is at least four miles wide. The city has wide, straight roads, lined by houses. The houses are large and handsome with walls made from clay. The people are very friendly and there seems to be no stealing.
Inside the city is the king’s court. It is large and square and surrounded by a wall. The court is divided into many palaces with separate houses and apartments for courtiers.
The court has many galleries flanked by wooden pillars. Fixed to these pillars are shining metal plaques showing battle scenes and deeds of courage. The roofs of the palace have pointed turrets and on top of each turret there is a copper bird without spread wings.
The king shows himself just once a year to his people, riding out of his court on horseback. He is beautifully dressed with all sorts of royal ornaments. Three or four hundred noblemen accompany their king, some on horseback and some on foot. And a great number of musicians walk before and behind him, playing merry tunes on all sorts of musical instruments.
The king doesn’t ride very far from the court, but soon returns after a little tour. Then he orders some tame leopards that he keeps, to be led about the city in chains.”
The Portuguese were stunned at this paradise in the middle of the African jungle made up of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages; they named it The Great City of Benin, this was a period when there was hardly any other place in Africa the Europeans acknowledged as a city. According to a Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto in 1691 he noted that Benin was larger than Lisbon, was wealthy, industrious and well governed to the extent that there was no theft, he observed that the level of security was such that the people had no doors in their houses.
Benin city was enclosed by massive walls and deep ditches or moats, and beyond the city walls, there were other numerous walls, moats, and ramparts that separate its surroundings into about 5oo settlements.
Houses and streets were highly organized in a mathematical pattern unknown to Europeans at the time. Initially, they thought it was disorganized and the streets were very broad and ran straight as further as the eye can see. Benin was one of the first ancient cities to have some kind of street light. These were high huge metal lamps placed around the city with a wick fuelled by palm oil to provide illumination at night.
The kingdom quickly established trade relations with the Europeans and soon word began to spread around Europe of the magnificent kingdom in the African forests. Trouble started in the 19th century due to increased European interference. Great Britain sought control over the kingdom’s rich resources and trade. Hostilities kept rising and ultimately climaxed to the destruction and looting of the Kingdom in 1897 by the British with their superior firepower, in a retaliatory attack after eight members of a British entourage were killed by Benin warriors.
STRUCTURE AND FUNCTIONALITY
This enormous earthwork known to be the lengthiest in the world was constructed by the Edo people of the defunct Great Kingdom of Benin. An ancient marvel on par with world wonders like the Taj Mahal of India or the Great Wall of China, it was constructed to secure and protect the kingdom from invaders.
Work first began around 800 AD and continued up until around 1460. The structure upon completion comprised of moats and ramparts, covered a border distance of about 16,000 kilometres, the 16,000 sq. kilometres and enclosed about 6,500 square kilometres of community land in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlements. Altogether this was double the length of the Ming Great Wall of China, which measured 8,851 kilometres. The new official length of 21,196 kilometres was announced on June 5th 2012, after the discovery of the Walls of Benin displaced the Great Wall of China, under its old measurements.
The Benin wall sharply defined boundaries, restricted access to the kingdom especially the capital Benin City and provided security. In the late 13th century Oba Oguola (1274-1287) completed the first and second moats and ordered the construction of 20 more moats around essential towns and villages; during this period the kingdom was near its peak and was engaged in many wars. The moats were therefore built as a defensive fortification. In the late 16th Century Oba Ewuare The Great (1440-1473) further fortified and extended the moats by about 3200 kilometres, erected Nine fortified gates and put up thoroughfares.
The materials for the construction as widely reported by most researchers was over a hundred times more than the materials used to build the great pyramid of Cheops and was estimated to have taken at least 150 million man hours of digging and hundreds of years to build. Its construction method predates the use of earth moving equipment or technology. The earth from the dug moat was used to construct the rampart; these ramparts are steep banks of earth and any invader trying to climb over them could be buried in a sand avalanche. The rampart varied in size, from shallow traces to as high as 66 feet. The moats were guarded round the clock, and any invader that was trying to get through could be seen and killed or captured by Benin soldiers. The very high walls were a nightmare to scale through. Attackers and invaders trying to climb over were target practice for Benin soldiers with their spears and poisoned arrows. The Outer walls formed a thick shield around the city, and its nine gates restricted access. It was heavily guarded round the clock and shut at night.
The heart of Benin city – the capital that housed very important abodes like the Royal Palace and chiefs houses – were enclosed by an inner wall about 10 kilometres long, that was as high and wide as a two-story building. Outside the wall was a deep ditch as deep and wide as the wall. The inner wall had a massive gateway made of wood and earth that was heavily fortified and had a heavy wooden door; travellers and merchants bringing goods into the city usually paid a toll before the gates were open and they were let in.
The upper parts of the city were where the Uzama chiefs and army commanders lived. They were surrounded by high dull red outer walls with roofed tops to prevent rain washing it away. It had a mighty thatched gate that was guarded by many soldiers and any traveller passing through this gate must identify himself before being let through. It is worth noting that passing through these gates (inner and outer) in those times was no mean feat. For most traders and merchants it was far easier to simply conduct their business outside of the capital. For many foreign visitors it took days before they were granted access and could see the king.
The walls to a great extent prevented the notorious European and African slavers from their routine raids on towns and villages in search of slaves, these raids were common at the time.
THE FORGOTTEN RUINS
These walls in 1974 made the Guinness Book Of World Records as the world’s largest earthworks before the mechanical era and in 1994 as the second largest man-made structure in the world after the Great Wall of China. In 1995 it was recognized in the cultural category of the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative list.
The walls of Benin Kingdom compared to the Great Wall of China is arguably a much grander project and strongly reflects the collective will of a people. This is because unlike the walls of China, the Great walls of Benin were started with a clear intention and goal from the onset. The Edo people had an unwavering focus; generations after generations worked on steadily for over 500 years and were goal oriented until the project was completed. This was no mean feat.
The china wall on the other hand was one half the length of the Benin walls and had no moats, although it was very much wider; wide enough to serve as a transportation corridor, was a combination of several walls built at different times by different groups of Chinese dynasties and nobles for different occasions. Between the 8th and 5th centuries BC, the Chinese were in a warring states period and the major states of Qin, Wei, Qi, Yan, and Zhongshan all built huge fortifications or walls to defend themselves and secure their borders. King Zheng of Qin conquered the other states, became the first emperor of China and was referred to as Emperor Quin Shin Huang. He united China and from BC220-206 connected all the walls and made them bigger and stronger. These newly built walls that connected the entire kingdom became very popular and is being referred to today as the Great Wall of China.
The Great China wall became famous when China opened its borders for merchants and foreigners after its defeat in the Opium wars. The wall became the main attraction for tourists, and its popularity was further magnified by the travelogues of the later 19th century.
The Great Wall of China in 2010 attracted an approximate 24 million people and generated about $3 billion in revenues. The Benin walls, on the other hand, had no such opportunity; rather sections of it were destroyed during the British punitive expedition. In present-day Benin, ruins of this grand structure remains scattered all over Edo Lands, locals use them as a source for obtaining building resources while some parts of it are gradually torn down by real estate developers. Today sadly, barely any trace of this structural phenomenon exists.
One can only imagine if this magnificent relic from such a rich history were in places like England, USA, Germany, or even India. It would have been the most visited place in the world and a tourist haven for many millions of people from all over the world. It would be a money spinner generating billions in annual tourist revenue. Sadly one would have to resort to a visit to the British Museum in London to get a glimpse and feel of this glorious past.
Fred Pearce. New Scientist.
Philip Effiong. “The Great Wall of the Ancient Benin Kingdom”
Mildred Europa Taylor. “Interesting facts about the Great Walls of Benin”