The Benin Moat: Largest Man Made Earthworks

The Benin Moat was built in 1280-1295 to serve as a protection against invaders. It is notable as a cultural and historical edifice for the Benin people. The site was added to the World Heritage list on November 1, 1995. The first Benin Moat was Built by Oba Oguola in 1280-1295.

Traditionally called Iya, the Benin moat is one of the largest man-made earthworks. Built before the advent of modern equipment, the wall served as protection for the city against invaders especially the European imperial invaders who were notorious slave hunters.

The Guinness Book of World Records describes the walls of Benin City as the world’s second-largest man-made structure after China’s Great Wall, in terms of length, and the series of earthen ramparts as the most extensive earthwork in the world.

Benin Moat 2

Oba Oguola further announced that important towns and Villages should build similar moats as defence systems around their communities. This gave rise to twenty of such moats around Benin City and its environs.

An extension of the moat was constructed in the 15th century during the reign of Oba Ewuare.
During the second half of the 15th century, Oba Ewuare the Great (ruled 1440-1473 AD) ordered a moat to be dug in the heart of the city. The earthworks served as a bastion and also afforded control of access to the capital which had nine gates that were shut at night.

Moats and walls, which surrounded the old Benin Empire, were kept very clean in those days. It was strictly forbidden to dump refuse inside the moat or round the vicinity. In those days, the Oba, as a supreme and absolute monarch, was
the custodian of the moat and nobody dares defy his
decree as regards the maintenance of the moat.

Specifications of the Benin Moat

  • The Benin moat is over 3200 kilometers long,
  • Enclosing a 4000 square kilometre (2485.5 miles) of community lands.
  • In total, the Benin wall system encompasses over 10,000 kilometers (6213.7 miles) of earth boundaries.
  • Patrick Darling, an archaeologist, estimates that the complex was built between 800 and 1000 up to the late fifteenth century.
  • The moats were dug in such a manner that earthen banks provided outer walls that complemented deep ditches.
  • The ramparts range in size from shallow traces to the immense 20-meter-high (66 feet) around Benin City.

Since the 1970’s it has been partially surveyed and analyzed by famous archaeologists including Graham Connah (“The Archaeology of Benin”, Oxford University Press, 1975) and Patrick Darling (“The Ancient Linear Earthworks of Benin and Ishan”, Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology, 1984).

It is obvious that the Moat is the single greatest physical endeavor known in our part of the world, as well as being the clearest evidence for the antiquity and greatness of the civilization currently known as Benin Kingdom the most stable and respected monarchy in Africa today, and which continues to play a commendably progressive role in our political and civic life.

Benin moat

But sadly today, significant portions of this great heritage have been destroyed by urban expansion resulting from increased socio-economic and demographic activities. The moats and walls, widely described as one of the world’s largest ancient earthworks, have fallen on bad times. In fact, they face extinction unless something urgent is done. These extensive earthworks must be preserved for its educational, historical, cultural and tourism potential.

However, after the fall of the Benin kingdom in 1894 and the advent of modernity in the 20th century, there was no longer need for the moat as protective shield round the kingdom. However, the moat became a reference point to the ingenuity and engineering acumen of the old Benin Kingdom in their effort to protect themselves and make their kingdom impregnable.

Modernization did not only render the moat useless, but also led to the expansion of the town, leading to the encroachment of the moat. Apart from building houses close to the moat, the red sand was dug and used to build houses by indigenes of the town. A part of it was also covered to make way for roads.

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