The Benin Empire was one of the oldest and most highly developed states in west Africa, dating back to the 11th century. The walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom were a man-made marvel described as “the world’s largest earthworks prior to the mechanical era”.
The Walls of Benin, one of Africa’s ancient architectural marvels, were destroyed by the British in 1897 during what has become known as the Punitive Expedition. This shocking act destroyed more than a thousand years of Benin history and some of the earliest evidence of rich African civilisations.
The astounding city was a series of earthworks made up of banks and ditches, called “Iya” in the Edo language, in the area around present-day Benin City. They consist of 15 kilometers of city Iya and an estimated 16 000 kilometers in the rural area around Benin. The walls stood for over 400 years, protecting the inhabitants of the kingdom, as well as the traditions and civilisation of the Edo people.
Fred Pearce wrote the following about the city in the science magazine New Scientist: “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.”
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”. It was one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting with huge metal lamps, many feet high, built and placed around the city.
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.”
In his personal account, 17th-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper wrote, “Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other. 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.”
“[The walls are] 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,” he continued.
A mathematical quandary
Benin City’s planning and design was done according to careful rules of symmetry, proportionality and repetition now known as “fractal design”.
Ethnomathematician (the study of the relationship between mathematics and culture) Ron Eglash has discussed the planned layout of the city, commenting that “When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture disorganised and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”
“When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture disorganised and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics they hadn’t even discovered yet.” – Ron Eglash
A lost city
The great Benin City is lost to history after its decline began in the 15th century. This decline was sparked by internal conflicts linked to the increasing European intrusion and slavery trade at the borders of the Benin empire. It was then completely ruined in the British Punitive expedition in the 1890s, when the city was looted, blown up and razed to the ground by British troops.
Furthermore, the remaining ruins have not been preserved or restored. The only remaining vestige is a house consisting of a courtyard in Obasagbon, known as Chief Enogie Aikoriogie’s house. The house possesses features that match the horizontally fluted walls, pillars, central impluvium and carved decorations observed in the architecture of ancient Benin. It is rumoured, however, that a section of the great city wall, one of the world’s largest man-made monuments ever, may be lying neglected and forgotten in the Nigerian bush.