Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Like Scott Alexander, I’m confused why I never heard about the spectacular medieval African city of Benin before, when “even the people complaining about how neocolonialist society covers up the greatness of Africa only ever talk about Zimbabwe and Kilwa which are both way less impressive”:

The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.

Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.

Barely any trace of these walls exist today.

Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

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. They called it the “Great City of Benin”, at a time when there were hardly any other places in Africa the Europeans acknowledged as a city. Indeed, they classified Benin City as one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world.

In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed: “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.”


At the centre of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.

“Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other,” writes the 17th-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper. “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 adds that wealthy residents kept 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”.


  1. gaikokumaniakku says:

    From the sound of it, this was a low-density city equivalent to a square 80 km on a side.

    It’s interesting that the Portuguese were impressed, but aside from that, I don’t know that this was a spectacular medieval city.

    Certainly Africans engineered some outstanding buildings – there is an area that was frequently raided by light cavalry, so the African residents built skyscrapers that could resist cavalry raids. That sort of thing impresses me more than Benin.

  2. Charles W. Abbott says:

    African topics tend to be taught very poorly and haphazardly in the OECD countries. What topics do get covered often revolve around the Atlantic Slave Trade, colonialism, and the most sensational, grotesque, or comical aspects of post-colonial politics.

    The World History curriculum is supposed to improve Americans’ knowledge of the non-Western world–how much it helps is an empirical question.

    Benin City, the capital of Edo State, is a bit off the beaten path, though it’s by no means remote or hard to get to. The metro area probably has a population of 1 or 2 million people. Few foreigners end up in Benin City by accident.

    Many educated foreigners probably confuse the Republic of Benin (the old French colony of Dahomey) with Benin, the city, which is in Edo State (one of 36 states) in a different country, present day Nigeria–the mind just gives up. The world has moved on. Who cares about this stuff? And there aren’t even ruins — just stories of a past glory. Written by… the Portuguese?

    Much of what is written about Nigeria is “Wazobian” or dominated by the “big three groups” (Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa). The Bini people are not one of the big three.

    The Edo speaking people who live in the larger area around the area of Benin City are (it seems to me offhand) fragmented politically, and don’t all look warmly toward the glories of ancient Benin, just as the Celts would not glorify the Roman Empire. Many of the people in the larger area don’t identify as Bini but as Ishan, Urhobo, or something else. I think.

    So, I would hazard a guess that some of the neighbors of the Bini people view the ancient city as largely predatory rather than benign. Peter Ekeh (an Urhobo scholar) has written of this — and probably other scholars as well.

    And, Benin City was a shadow of itself when it was sacked by the British in the punitive expedition of 1897. The Europeans were startled and impressed by the bronzes, which ended up in European museums. And the accusations of human sacrifice did not give the Kingdom a good name.

    People do hear about the Benin bronzes in a good art curriculum that covers sculpture and pre-industrial crafts. A good exhibit of them was at the Chicago Art Institute sometime in the last ten years (2008?).

    Much of the art came on loan from museums in Central Europe. The exhibit had a some decent ethnographic information on kingship and tradition, including commemorative cloth featuring the installation of 20th century obas (monarchs), etc.

    As the article notes, the walls were mud. It rains a lot. Most mud walls wash away in the heavy rains of Southern Nigeria unless they are continually maintained. If you have no walls, you have no present awe-inspiring sight.

    Similarly, Old Oyo (of the Oyo Empire in Yorubland) is ruins. The new city, Oyo town, is a relocation. Old Oyo is mostly ruins within a forest reserve away from the main roads. And the press of old Oyo is uneven as well–consult Reverend Samuel Johnson’s _History of the Yoruba_ and judge for yourself.

    P.S.: Connah’s African Civilizations is not a bad place to start for information on the urban traditions of West Africa and the archeological studies thereof. Sorry to be prolix.

  3. Abelard Lindsey says:

    My understanding is that the Africans are the only people who successfully smelted iron without going through the Bronze age. I have also heard that much of African architecture has not survived long term because Africans rarely built what Ayn Rand called “monuments”. They simply traded with each other and built cities for this purpose.

    Unlike the rest of the world, Africans never experienced the Malthusian limits because they were always in competition with mega-fauna (e.g. elephants, lions, leopards, etc.).

  4. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Some parts of the world have cities that have been in the roughly the same place for several thousand years: Paris, London, Constantinople/Istanbul.

    For what it’s worth, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has claimed that Beirut has probably been destroyed and rebuilt about six times over the last 5,000 years or more but is still basically in the same place. (I would verify this, but you see his point).

    Most of Sub-Saharan Africa seems different in this way. The Yoruba are famous for their urbanism, yet the urban system now is different from what it was 200 years ago — basically shifted south during the Yoruba Wars and reached its current arrangement by the time the British Protectorate was fully established.

    African cities seem to have existed based on long-distance trade, more so than the existence of “durable cultural hearths” of intense settled agriculture. When the long distance trade networks shift, the cities move.

    Land tended to be less valuable than people, in general. “Property” and “resource control” focus on people (slavery, serfdom, kinship) not ownership of land.

    Jeffrey Herbst’s book is still worth reading, especially the literature review in early chapters: States and power in Africa, now in a 2d edition.

    The late Colin McEvedy’s last book [Cities of the Classical World] was a gazetteer of ancient cities. It would be interesting to see a comparable work on Sub-Saharan Africa. I think there would more sites, percentage wise, that are abandoned and about which little is known. McEvedy (I think) relied in part on literary sources. And we don’t have literary sources on Sub-Saharan Africa for 2,000 years ago.

    Consider Mesopotamia as a counterexample to Africa. Nineveh was destroyed, a pile of ruins, by the time Xenophon’s expedition moved past it, chronicled in Anabasis. Yet we know a lot about Nineveh now, mostly based on archeology done in the last 150 years. Clay tablets, often kiln fired by destruction, buried under sand for 2000 + years, then made to yield information.

Leave a Reply