THE ANCIENT CITY OF BENIN
Benin is the capital city of Edo state, located in mid-western Nigeria. It is bordered on the west by the sunshine city, Akure and to the east by Agbor.
The city is generally regarded as one of the richest source of cultural heritage in Africa because of its long standing history and the conservative attitude of the people of Benin towards their cultural heritage. Popularly known as the Ancient city of Benin the city has been in existence since as far back as the 12th century. And since then, have fought several wars, had 66 kings in the Pre imperial, Imperial and Post imperial eras, faced countless adversaries as it evolved into what it has become today. The name of the first ever Oba to rule over the kingdom is said to be Oba Eweka who is believed to have reigned in a period between 1180-1240 or thereabouts. Many landmarks have been achieved by various Obas from this kingdom. The first Nigerian to speak a foreign language in Nigeria is said to be Oba Esigie, who spoke Portuguese in the 16th century. History also has it that this city had one of the earliest contact with the European explorers because of the great cultural artifacts born from the dexterity of their great sculptors and blacksmiths.
The language spoken by indigenes of Benin is the Edo language. This language has 36 letters (15vowels and 21 consonants). A rich language that evolved with the people alongside their culture of reverence. One notable observation is that this language of theirs is very useful to the Edo people in praise singing. In their cultural dressing, beads are a very prominent feature. They usually are adorned with beads on their hands and necks and for their women, the beads are even use to construct a net cap of sorts. Blessed with many artistic geniuses, this city is packed with wonderful artifacts. Ranging from the clay sculptures, the bronze statues, wooden images, their artful ingenuity is almost unparalleled in the world. The Early Europeans who visited this city knew this and are said to have seriously been in the business of buying these artifacts which were then taken to their museums in Europe. Some of them were said to have been either taken forcefully or stolen, especially during the British invasion of the kingdom in 1887. The people of Benin have a practice of preserving their stories in their arts by creating statues and images of great people or things that are symbolic of their culture. One of the most popular wood carved images I know, that of Queen Idia which is imitated all over the world originated from Benin as a commemoration of one of their greatest queens. Also, a ride through this city convinces one about this culture because there are a lot of sculptures along the roads to show for it.
The Oba’s palace is located in the city centre, along ring road. A compound that covers a fairly large amount of large space, it is the home to the traditional ruler commonly known as the Oba. He is held in great reverence by the people who usually greet him by chanting Oba gha to kpere which roughly translates into “long live the king” and replying, “isee!” an equivalent of the phrase, “so shall it be. The king is seen by the general public only once a year, at the Igue festival—a very important annual festival marked by the people of Benin between Christmas and New year, to bless the land and renew the Oba’s magical power— as he dances, throwing up and catching the royal handfan-like object known as ada v’eben, escorted by his cohorts. The present Oba of Benin is Oba Ewuare Ogidigan II who was preceeded by his father, Omo n’oba n’edo uku akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa. The Oba rules the kingdom with the help of certain big chief known as Enogies . These chiefs play administrative roles and control certain districts of the kingdom and they report to the Oba. These chiefs are usually of blue blood from certain royal families in the kingdom. They are usually seen with him, dressed in their white robes, their necks adorned with beads, they usually barber a uniform hairstyle where some amount of hair is left in the front and the rest is barbered bare. During the festival, cultural music is performed by cultural singers and dancers in which they sing the praise of their kingdom, their past heroes and their kings. Then the Oba blesses the people. The Oba also visits the shrines of their ancestors to pray for the progress of the kingdom.
One is easily awed by the various stories that are told about this great kingdom. Some are however regarded by modern anthropologists as myths because of their unbelievable nature. An example is the legend of Aroan. Aroan was a massive giant said to have been born into the royal family of Benin by one of the wives of the Oba. And being the first son of the king, should have been the heir to the throne. But because he had not cried at birth, the announcement of his birth was delayed. And it happened that on the same day he was born, another brother of his was born by another of his father’s wives shortly after him and cried immediately and so his birth was announced before his and so he was taken as the first son and therefore the heir apparent. Aroan is said to have been so massive that he pulled a whole palm tree from the earth and used it as a broom to sweep his father’s house every morning. The moats around Benin are said by some accounts to have been dug by his hands and by some others to have been dug by his legs during his fits of rage. There are other stories too like that of Madam Emotan, a brave woman who lived in the 15th century who had risked her life to save the Oba from his jealous brother who had wanted to kill him. Also, there is the Ikoka story of the Queen Idia who sacrificed her life so that her husband could remain king and for the land to be cleansed of an ancient curse. She has since been venerated by the people of Benin and her sacrifice has been a symbolism of a story of selfless sacrifice to which she has been exalted to a deity among the people.
This city is so rich in cultural heritage—ranging from their dexterous arts, skillful storytelling and conservative nature—that stories about it is widespread and has continually piqued the interest of people from near, far and beyond. An exploration of the riches of Benin is a venture always worth the time.