Benin City and Edo culture, pure Nigerian history

In the Africa Overland expedition we did in Kumakonda between March and April 2023, we knew that Nigeria was not going to make it easy for us, but we also knew that this is a very interesting destination. So much so that it has left us with the desire to repeat and go deeper. For example, what we were able to learn about Benin City and the Edo Culture.

Benin City is the centre of the Edo Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Benin, and we arrived here after crossing the mythical Niger River at Onitsha from the stunning mountains of Nigeria.

Yes, we are in Nigeria and Benin City has nothing to do with the current state of Benin, which takes its name from the Gulf of Benin and more or less corresponds to the former Dahomey kingdom. Join us to discover its history and attractions.

Who are the Edo people?

The history of the Edo dates back to the 12th century, but it was in the 15th century that the kingdom of Benin flourished thanks to the trade in palm seeds, ivory and slaves. An exclusive trade controlled by the Oba, the Yoruba word for king.

Thanks to this trade, the Oba or King, always a man, attained a not inconsiderable power, came to be considered a demigod, and could afford to negotiate with the Portuguese traders who came in search of these treasures in the 15th century. In fact, the kingdom of Benin is the first state visited by the Portuguese on this coast, being the first European power to establish diplomatic and commercial relations with the Edo.

Over the following centuries the warlords and secret societies of the region gained an increasing share of power, and the Oba was relegated to the role of spiritual leader. Even so, the kingdom survived until the 18th century, but by then civil wars had greatly weakened it, and in 1897 the British took advantage of its situation to conquer it. For a more detailed account of its history, we recommend this article.

However, this monarchy has not disappeared. Some kings have lived in exile perpetuating the lineage, and the current Oba lives in the Royal Palace in Benin City. His name is Oba Ewuare II Ogidigan and he holds a degree in economics from the University of Wales, among other academic qualifications. He is the 39th Oba or king, a number that gives us a clue to the very long dynasty he represents.

Today, the Oba of Benin City has a representative function, although he retains some influence over the Nigerian state authorities by acting as an advisor or counsellor on the affairs of the region. It also has the power to confer titles of nobility on its subjects, and maintains its spiritual importance.

symbol of the edo kingdom in benin city
The symbol of the Edo kingdom is the Ibea, a kind of crossed swords representing the king’s authority.

The Royal Palace of Benin City

Whether the king is at home or not, the Royal Palace can be seen, and although the visit consists of a conversation with the Royal Librarian and a short stroll through the outer courtyard, it is still a curious entry into Edo history.

As soon as we arrive, we are warned that we are not allowed to wear completely black clothes. Either we wear another garment of a different colour over it, or we must leave the enclosure (a scarf is enough). On the other hand, the Royal Librarian forces us to stay together and, in addition to the explanations, tells us what we can photograph. There is no doubt that he sets the tone and exercises his authority, although he always does so with a smile on his face.

The present palace is a rather new building and stands on the grounds of the traditional palace. This was once a complex of several adobe buildings with defensive walls and moat, of which only one building remains at the bottom of the garden. It looks a bit nondescript to our eyes, and we are not allowed to get too close, but as I understood it is the place where ceremonial sacrifices were and still are performed.

Once we have done the walk, it takes us to the palace library, which is a room full of cabinets of books, some statues that coexist with old-fashioned air conditioners, and many photographs of both the current Oba and previous kings. There is also a lot of dust. In fact, as you walk in, the enclosed atmosphere hits you in the face. It has the atmosphere of a slightly decrepit historical place, and is certainly the perfect setting for learning about the Edo monarchy and Benin City.

library of the royal palace of benin city
Benin City Royal Palace Library

“In the early 17th century Dutch merchants described Benin as a city with streets seven or eight times as wide as Amsterdam’s Warmoes Street running in a straight line as far as the eye could see. Only the king’s palace occupied as much space as the city of Haarlem, and it is walled with fine galleries, most of which are as large as those of the Lonja in Amsterdam. They are supported by wooden columns inlaid with bronze, on which his victories are depicted, and are kept scrupulously clean” (The Kingdoms of Africa vol. I, Folio Editions).

It was the British who destroyed most of the palace and town, after looting it, and this brings us to the next section.

The Benin Bronzes, Picasso’s inspiration

A visit to the Benin City Palace may not be much to look forward to, but who can resist stepping foot in the place where the famous collection of Benin Bronzes was found, now spread among more than 100 museums around the world, and said to have inspired Picasso? (Between you and me, I think Picasso and other modern artists have been inspired by various currents of African art, and they did so not by travelling, but in the European museums where the fruits of the plunder of the colonies were exhibited).

The Benin Bronzes collection consists of more than 3,000 pieces found in the Royal Palace in Benin City, and is said to be the best example of the refined art developed by some African societies in the Middle Ages.

The spoliation by the British went down very badly. These figures and artefacts hold great symbolic power for the Edo kingdom, and today they remain an open wound. The British Museum alone holds some 900 pieces. Of course, they have been reclaiming them for years.

Archaeologists such as Leo Frobenius point out that it was the Ife, another Nigerian kingdom further west dating back to the 11th century, who began to master metalworking. They produced highly realistic sculptures, most notably the figures of the Oni, or religious leaders, found in their tombs. This was an ancestor cult that later moved to the Edo or Benin kingdom. An art to perpetuate the memory of “those who always watch over the living”.

statue of chief obasogie on horseback in benin city
Statue of Chief Obasogie, who played an important role in helping the Oba when the British conquered Benin City – Photo by Austerio Alonso

Legend has it that it was King Ife (a Yoruba kingdom in the northwest) who sent a master blacksmith to Benin City at the end of the 13th century to spread the technique of bronze casting or the lost wax technique.

Oral tradition also has it that the Edo people asked King Ife to send them a prince to throw off the tyrannical yoke of the Ogisos, and his son Eweka came and married an Edo princess, thus becoming the first monarch of the kingdom.

In any case, the Edo developed an entire industry with the work of iron, wood and ivory craftsmen, dedicated to meeting the needs of the kingdom. Domestic, agricultural and decorative needs. They created figures and objects full of details, and reached a much higher artistic level than the neighbouring Islamised kingdoms, bearing in mind that Islam forbids figurative art of living beings.

piece of benin bronzes showing ritual slaughtering of a cow
Plaque depicting the ritual sacrifice of a cow – Benin Bronzes Collection on display at the National Museum of Benin City

They were also in charge of manufacturing weapons for the defence of the kingdom and wars against enemies. In fact, they took over the manufacture of firearms when the Portuguese brought them over for trade, although they did not know how to make gunpowder because Europe kept the secret of chemistry to itself.

They also made plaques to cover the walls and doors of the palace with scenes that are a perfect chronicle of the period. In them you can see sacrifices, battles, hunting scenes, court meetings… and also the first Europeans who traded with them, the Portuguese. Really fascinating.

But perhaps the most striking and admired objects of this craft tradition are the busts, and again it is the oral tradition that explains why it occurred to them to create them.

The kingdom of Benin beheaded the defeated kings. Their heads were offered to the Oba, who entrusted them to artisans. These made two copies of the head: one was kept by the Oba, and the other was sent to the defeated tribe as a reminder that they had been defeated.

Whether this was its origin or not, this art was used to commemorate the important figures of the kingdom (again, we are talking about ancestors). Thus, many kings, queens and princesses had their own bust or even sculpture, always life-size. In these figures we can see in detail the hairstyle and aesthetics of these personages, consisting of large necklaces, crown or different hats and a carved baton. The current Oba and the royal family continue to wear the same traditional dress and grooming for audiences, events and official photographs.

You can still see them at work in some of Benin City’s workshops, and the city is full of examples of their art.

The National Museum of Benin City

Where are the Benin Bronzes today? As we have said, this find is scattered among more than 100 museums around the world, but it is possible to see some specimens in the National Museum of Benin City, located in the centre of the city.

old photo of British with collection of benin city bronzes
Photograph exhibited at the National Museum in Benin City, a shocking one: the British pose with part of the Benin Bronzes collection.

This museum is modest but quite reliable, and you can learn more about this fascinating history and art, while looking at some of the original pieces. Seeing this art in its place of origin adds to the feeling of being in front of something extraordinary, don’t you think?

National Museum Benin City
National Museum Benin City

The Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) is scheduled to open in Benin City itself in 2025. A place designed and created to exhibit the Benin Bronzes collection, among other wonders. This will boost the demand for the return of the stolen pieces scattered around the world. In fact, Germany is already working on the return of its pieces. You can read this article about the architectural project here. It looks very good!

After the king, the Edogun and Obasogie. Benin City is a box of surprises

During the visit to the Royal Palace, we are invited to meet a local chief who is called Edogun, although I am not sure if this is the title, because the organisation of the nobles and chiefs below the Oba is really complex.

Despite being a totally improvised visit, Chief Bright Osaro, as this authority is called, welcomes us, attends us and answers our questions with great kindness, smiles and good humour. We have been in Nigeria for several days now and we continue to be surprised by the warm welcome of its people.

He is sitting on the sofa in one of the rooms of his house, a 1934-36 building with some rooms dating back more than 200 years, as he himself explains, which is saying a lot in this part of Africa. He wears a white robe with embroidery on which stand out some red stone necklaces that remind us of those of the Oba. We ask him about them and he tells us that only chiefs and high-ranking priests are allowed to wear them.

Once again we are dealing with a hereditary position and to prove it he shows us a photo of his great-grandfather in 1914, and another of his grandfather in 1938.

The Edogun is a kind of district chief and his function is similar to that of a judge representing the Ebo or King. As such, he is in charge of resolving community conflicts, for example if there is a dispute over property.

In addition, it has a kind of army or royal guard, once used to defend the fortress from enemies, today with a rather “decorative” function because they are not part of the police force (we are told that there are 40 or 50 soldiers). But their functions do not end there. Perhaps the most important is that he is a spiritual leader, which is why he shows us the altars in the house where we are.

We talk to him about his duties in the room he calls the “chapel”, where there are benches made of masonry and on them a kind of altar with staffs of command, busts representing the dead Oba (kings), coats of arms of the royal palace and the swords symbolising the kingdom. Under our feet, in front of the altar, his ancestors are buried. He will also be buried there.

edogun of benin city
The Edogun who attended us sitting in the chapel with the busts of the ancient kings and other elements – Benin City

People go to the Edogun when they have a problem to ask the spirits of the ancestors, and the Edogun communicates with the ancestors by calling them with specific bells, each with a different sound. However, the difference between the ancestor spirits and the Edo gods themselves, who in any case are the creators of the Edo people, the monarchic dynasty, etc., is not very clear to me. The truth is that it is difficult to follow his stories, but it is also fascinating to hear them from his mouth.

In addition to this chief or judge, there are the Obasogie, the heads of the craft guilds. Since the construction of the palace and the city in the Middle Ages, Benin City has been divided into guild districts: blacksmiths, wood and ivory craftsmen.

benin city igun of the blacksmiths
Igun Ugboha of the Blacksmiths in Benin City – Photo by Austerio Alonso

A stroll through the centre is enough to see its presence. Large brass statues representing the first Obasogie or guild chiefs, gates and buildings full of symbolic decoration…

benin city blacksmiths' guild

One of the most striking is the Igun Ugboha, the blacksmiths’ guild. There is no doubt that it is a surprising city with a lot of cultural and traditional content to discover.

A fragment of animism in the Edo Kingdom: how the dead are honoured

Despite the presence and influence of all kinds of Christian and Muslim sects, animism is still very present in the daily life of the Edo kingdom. They speak of the Edo religion, whose gods evoke nature: the god of wind, the god of fire, etc., and has strong similarities with the voodoo religion of the neighbouring states of Benin and Togo.

In addition to the gods there are the masks, which are kept by secret societies and are representations of the spirits of the ancestors. They are not easy to see. Especially not in Benin City. The king is the one who authorises them to go out on the streets because they can be dangerous. After all, they are spirits. If they touch you, they can put a curse on you, which in a city with thousands of people can be quite dramatic.

In other places such regulation is not so strict and is left to local decision-makers. That is why we moved a few kilometres north of Benin City, to the region where, incidentally, the minerals needed to make Edo art were mined.

Our objective is to witness an Elimi mask ceremony, which is the responsibility of the Ifufe or Efofe family, a hereditary position in a kind of secret society or confraternity, like the Dozo hunters we told you about in this article.

The masks are the vehicle of communication with the gods. Whatever you want, whatever you need in life, if you have a problem… you have to ask them or ask them: health, protection, fertility, economic prosperity. For that you call the Ifufe and they ask the right mask. Because the Elimi are many and each one has its own character and function.

edo masks in nigeria
Elimi Masks in the Edo Kingdom

We arrived at the village. The day has turned dark and grey. The journey is punctuated (never better said) by a torrential rain that delays our march to the place. The atmosphere is a bit gloomy, let’s not deny it. People are slowly coming out of their houses as we are led to the Ifufe’s house.

We go to meet the Omotomoto, a sort of consort of the gods. A retinue forms behind us. They follow us, serious and expectant, not very noisy, except for the children who look at us with amusement.

chief edo near benin city
The Omotomoto, responsible for the masks, member of the Ifue family

We had to wait on the porch of the house for the masks to be prepared. Of course we have gone there with a contact and an arrangement. This is not the time when the masks go out on the streets, but it is the first time they do it “for the tourists”. And they have their doubts because the rain is threatening again. They don’t know if that could have consequences. It could backfire. It could be that the masks will get angry and bad times will come for the community.

We are surrounded by a hundred, two hundred people, I can’t say, but they are all looking at us or watching us. We take some photos, they take photos of us with their mobiles, we play with the little ones, we answer the questions of the older ones and their welcomes.

After an hour and a half, one of our cicerones tells us that they are already making the relevant sacrifices before the masks go out onto the streets. Some chickens, perhaps a goat, will give their lives and above all their blood. They do it behind closed doors, in a courtyard that we cannot access because it is a secret ritual.

The Elimi festival is a kind of “All Souls’ Day” or Halloween that is celebrated in June or July. In this festival, the dead are honoured and the young people are initiated, something that we will not see in this recreation. Among other things because initiations are usually secret.

Finally the first mask comes out. It looks like it comes from the forest and it is impressive. He wears a very tall hat full of felt dolls representing different spirits and their powers: fertility, health, security, prosperity…. He also carries a snake, which, we are told, is the symbol of peace. However, I find the face of this mask with its teeth and fangs a bit frightening. Everyone runs away when it approaches. Between jumps, with the percussion in the background, he approaches us defiantly. The costume he wears is full of embroidery.

edo masks from nigeria

Little by little more masks are coming out from different places. One is very funny, he looks like a scarecrow and behaves like a clown. He dances and moves in a comical way, making fun of everyone. Everyone laughs around him.

Suddenly, another mask appears whose head is very reminiscent of a Japanese figure. We find it almost unbelievable, but there it is, and we are told that it represents beauty. The most disturbing is a figure that has no face and moves sinuously.

edo masks from nigeria
The Jester Mask
edo mask symbolising beauty
The mask of beauty
edo mask in nigeria
A disturbing mask…

After a few hours spent with the people of this Nigerian village, we leave with the feeling of having seen and experienced something extraordinary. Could it be the power of the Edo masks? Without a doubt, spending a few days in Benin City has been a great experience. In Kumakonda we are already working to offer a new trip to Nigeria in which we will be able to go deeper into this incredible country.

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