Founded around the 11th century AD, the Kingdom of Benin, in present day Nigeria, was one of the oldest and most highly developed states in West Africa, and lasted until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897.
The word Benin was corrupted from Ubini by the Portuguese explorer meaning “a place of heavenly pageantry and prosperity.”
Igodomigodo (as the inhabitants called it) had, under a monarchy headed by the Ogiso (Ruler of the sky), built a strong and vibrant economy and resilient administration, having gained political strength and ascendancy through conquests and territorial expansionist policies.
During the Golden Age of Benin, beginning with Oba Ewuare, Benin City transformed into a city-state and a military fortress built by the Ogisos, protected by walls and moats.
It was from this foundation that the Empire launched military campaigns and began the incremental expansion and growth of the empire beyond the Edo speaking heartlands.
At its zenith, the Benin Empire dominated trade along the entire coastline from the Western Niger Delta, through Lagos to the kingdom of Great Accra (today’s Ghana).
It is for this reason that the coastline is currently known as the Bight of Benin.
Under the reigns of various Obas, the Benin Kingdom attained great glory and recorded sterling social, political and economic advancements. During the reign of Oba Esigie in the 16th century, the Kingdom of Benin established the first known embassy in Nigeria.
The oldest church in West-Africa was established in Great Benin Empire by the earliest Portuguese missionaries in the 16th Century. It is today known as the Holy Aruosa (Benin National Church). Pope Pius XII visited Benin and handed the church to the Oba of Benin, Oba Oreoghene in 1692AD.
Oduduwa, the exiled crowned prince from Benin known, also known as Ekaladerhan, is purported to be the progenitor of the Yoruba race.
Oba Orhogbua founded Lagos and planted a dukedom, the Obaship of Lagos (Eko). All Obas in Lagos (Eko) were buried in their ancestral home (Benin City) until late 19th century. To lend credence to that, Oba Osemwende in 1834 instructed Idewu Ojulari, the Oba of Lagos to zegbele (kill himself). The instruction was, expectedly, complied with, as the Lagos Oba killed himself by taking poison.
The first ever recorded bank (Owigho) in present day West-Africa was built in Benin kingdom by Oba Eresoyen, construction started in the year 1740AD and was completed in the year 1743AD.
The Ga tribe of present day Ghana migrated from Benin during Oba Udagbedo’s reign (1299-1334).
The Benin kingdom commanded legendary military power. The King of Benin can in a single day make 20,000 men ready for war, and, if need be, 180, 000, and because of this he had great influence among all the surrounding peoples.
Benin City was surrounded by massive walls, the Great Wall of Benin, dug by Oba Oguola in 13th century and Oba Ewuare I in the 15th century.
Recognized as the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet, and the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era, the Great Wall of Benin took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct. The walls were at one point said to be “four times longer than the great wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.”
The Great Wall of Benin extended for some 16,000km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500sq km and were all dug by the Edo people.
The Benin Empire served as a cradle for the civilization of most African societies and ethnic nationalities which constitute present-day West Africa, from Warri to Ondo to the west, and to the Abor Kingdom to the east, and stretching as far as the present Ghana.
The Kingdom of Warri is an offshoot of the Benin Empire, being founded by Prince Iginuwa, son of Oba Olua, in the 15th century.
The title of “Osemawe” of Ondo is corrupted from “Osemwughe,” the Benin warrior who deserted Udo town, when there was war between Benin City and Udo town. The word Ondo was corrupted from the town “Emwan N’Udo” (people of Udo town).
Benin City is the first city in the world to have a semblance of street lighting. In fact, the Portuguese were the people who called the land “Great City of Benin,” because they were astonished with what they saw that the Edo people achieved centuries before any major cities in the world.
1n 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 eyes can see.
The first storey building in Nigeria was built at Ughoton by the Dutch in the year 1718, and it was called “The Factory”. The said building was destroyed by the British during the war against the Benin Empire in 1897. The site of the building is still intact.
Benin attained great advancement in technology, arts and artifacts, particularly in carvings and works in bronze, iron and ivory. The culture is one of the most unique in Africa. The Binis are, to date, the best bronze casters (Igun – Eronmwon) in the world.
The world’s most famous mask, Queen Idia, the face of ‘FESTAC 77’, which held in Lagos, is a memorial of Queen Idia, the first mother of a Benin Oba to witness her son’s coronation.
Beyond the entertainment value, music served to express religious fervor. Voodoo religion was an important part of Benin culture, and remains till today.