The Oba of Benin Palace is the most prestigious sites in Benin.
The Oba of Benin Palace is one of the top places to see when you visit Benin. It is one of the most famous Royal Houses in the whole of Africa. The Oba Palace was built by Oba Ewedo (1255AD – 1280AD), and it is situated at the heart of the ancient City of Benin.
Oba Palace was rebuilt by Oba Eweka II (1914 – 1932) after the 1897 war during which it was destroyed by the British. The palace was declared a UNESCO Listed Heritage Site in 1999. How the British desptroyed the Benin Kingdom can be found in the last heading of this article.
The Oba of Benin’s Palace is a cultural centre located in the heart of Benin, Edo State. The Oba of Benin Palace is notably home to the Benin Oba and other royal rulers. The royal palace of the Oba of Benin was made a UNESCO heritage site in 1999.
The title of Oba was used after the Ogiso title and was created by Oranmiyan, Benin Empire’s first “Oba“. Oba Eweka I, Oranmiyan’s son, is said to have ascended to power at some time between 1280 and 1300.
Ewuare II. Ewuare II (born October 20, 1953) was crowned the Oba of Benin on 20 October 2016. He is the 40th Oba, a title created for the Head of State (Emperor) of the Benin Empire at some time between 1180 and 1300.
The rulers in Bini kingdom during the first dynasty were called “Ogiso”. The first ever “Ogiso” was “Igodo”. He named the kingdom “Igodomigodo”. The Kings of the second Dynasty were known as “Oba”.
The first dynasty’s monarchs, known as the Ogiso, resided elsewhere in town (its location disputed). When the present Oranmiyan dynasty was initially established, the first few monarchs had their palace at Usama, in that sector of the city where the Usama chiefs who invited them lived.
It was not until the reign of Oba Ewedo in the 14th century that the inner section of the town was breached. Ewedo built his palace where the royal residence still stands: land the indigenes had used as a cemetery. This ensured that the dynasty, which had entered Benin from the Yoruba city of Ile-Ife, had suzerainty over the ancestral forces that owned the land.
While the palace’s structures have changed significantly over time, what little archaeology has occurred took place on what were once palace grounds—small areas on the Benin Museum grounds and the site of the former Clerk’s Quarters.
Extensive decoration marked palace structures. In the 16th century, Oba Esigie constructed a reception hall whose wooden verandah supports were decorated by over 800 brass plaques depicting court officials, animals, Portuguese visitors, and other subjects. Royal ancestral altars bore cast metal heads, carved ivory tusks, brass figures, wooden staffs and other decorations.
Walls included patterns beyond fluting and sometimes incorporated modelled clay tableaux. Wooden lintels decorated with interlace motifs or carved figurative scenes were visible in passageways, and patterned brass sheets decorated some lintels and doors. Cowrie shells, a pre-colonial currency, were pressed into some clay flooring in the form of animals or courtiers, a practice that flaunted the Oba’s wealth.
The palace was once considerably larger than it is today. Seventeenth-century visitors remarked on its many galleries and courts, as well as the reflective surfaces of its burnished red earthen walls, described by the 17th-century author Dapper as “as shining as a looking glass.” Towers topped by brass birds standing over snakes were visible over the perimeter walls, making the Oba’s home larger, taller, and far more imposing than any other city buildings.
Like many African households, space within the palace moved inward, from public to private. Large-scale activities took place in the open areas and forecourts, while reception areas ranged from royal encounters with chiefs, subjects, and visitors to more intimate ones.
Despite its size and costly decorations, the palace’s basic design-rooms arranged around open courtyards with impluvia, bordered by shaded galleries with a compluvium opening in at the centre-was aligned with that of chiefs and other citizens. When an Oba joined his ancestors, he was buried in the courtyard that held his suite of personal rooms, and the altar erected over his grave served as a focus for sacrifice and ritual. When his successor took the throne, he had new personal quarters erected.
In 1914, after the death of his father, Oba Eweka II took the throne and began reconstructing both structures and altars. He created a large freestanding courtyard, the ugha, that included both a joint altar for all prior monarchs, whose quadrangles had been destroyed and individual altars to his father Oba Ovoranmwen and his grandfather Oba Adolor.
This quadrangle is the site of some of the ceremonies held during the December/January festival period, including Ugie Erhoba, which honours the current monarch’s father, and Ugie Iron, which recreates a 16th-century power struggle.
His son Oba Akenzua II ‘s innovations included a billiards room and air conditioning. Akenzua’s palace commissions to the artist Ovia Idah included an enshrined cement and clay figure of late 15th-century/early 16th century Oba Ozolua (made ca. 1947-50). Erected in the open area in front of the present palace, its position marks where his courtyard once stood.
This open area hosts palace ceremonies such as Igu’Oba, which honors the monarch’s head and destiny, and Ugi’Ewere, the celebration that closes the festival season. Idah also produced cement and clay portraits of royals that were part the palace’s façade at that time.
In the 1960s, he replaced these deteriorated palace decorations with five reliefs of monarchs and two of royal wives, the effect recalling both the clay reliefs on former palace pillars and the hundreds of 16th-century brass plaques Oba Esigie had cast and nailed to the wooden supports of his reception court.
Some of Oba Erediauwa’s subjects urged him to create a palace in contemporary style like those of certain of his Yoruba counterparts, but he was uninterested. At the time of his installation he did, however, replace the earthen palace entry with a steel gate, and introduced other innovations that were less noticeable.
Oba Ewuare II completely revamped the palace’s public face before his installation in October of 2016, although he retained most of the structures behind the façade, as well as the courtyard with ancestral altars. Colour integrates old and new: the red roofs of the new structures harmonize with the palace’s earthen walls and a small section of the newly paved forecourt, while new white structures match the repainted cement sections of old buildings, the front fencing, and the bulk of the forecourt.
The palace’s new entry building is a sizable two-story streamlined Neoclassical mansion, its entrance marked with a columned portico. The emphasis on red and white reflects these colors’ symbolic importance: white stands for purity and peace, and is the color associated with Olokun, the deity of the sea whose palace the monarch’s is said to imitate; red, on the other hand, is associated with power.
Today’s palace compound still includes a sacred grove, as well as a school for male pages, the Oba’s secretary’s office, a library, and the Benin Traditional Council’s suite, as well as the royal ancestral shrines, shrines to other deities, meeting and reception rooms, and the private quarters of the Oba and his wives.
As residence, ritual and administrative center, and site of annual celebrations, the palace was and is physically the centre of the Benin Kingdom’s capital, with the main market located nearby. Through the centuries, its days were filled by chiefs, priests, citizens, and visitors, but at night it housed only the monarch, his wives, infant children, and male and female pages. Older royal children lived outside the palace and were raised by various chiefs.
Many parts of the palace are off-limits to most people. Chiefs belonging to the Eghaevbo n’Ogbe category are affiliated with one of three palace societies and have access only to general spaces and those quadrangles reserved for their specific group: Iwebo, the largest group, concerned mostly with administrative duties, public functions, and royal objects and dress; Iweguae, which cares for the Oba’s ancestors and his royal person; and Ibiwe, which looks after the harem and children.
Courtyards have particular functions, as Dmochowski noted; one is devoted to the storage of state drums, another is earmarked for the enisen wardrobe officials. Many of the courtyards are site of altars to various deities, and include visible protective medicines. It is likely that the walls themselves contain amulets and other devices, for the British discovered certain bronzes within the walls, invisible to passers-by.
Even on a quiet day, the palace hosts numerous chiefs, pages, and visitors both lofty and humble. At times of royal ceremonies, its grounds flood with people. As an Edo proverb has it, “The palace full to capacity is the Oba’s happiness.”
In the Benin Kingdom, they have some important personalities who join the Oba in the day to day running of the affairs of the kingdom. They are:
1. Omo N’ Oba N’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo (the King, the supreme)
2. Uzama Nihiron (the king makers as well as the elders of the state) are seven in number,
- Eholo Nire and
3. Eghaevbo N’ Ore (They function as the state councillors) this group comprises of four senior chiefs,
- Eson and
- Osuma”. T
They are the political leaders, this group was instituted by “Oba Ewuare”.
4. Eghaevbo N’ Ogbe (These chiefs are made up of officials from the council of state of the monarch and they are selected from the three special palace societies, “Iwebo, Iwegbuae and Ibiwe). This group includes among others, the title “Edogun”(the leader), “Oza”, “Arak”, “Edaze” and “Edamaza”.
5. The “Iwebo” society has “Uwangue” as its leader. They are the makers and caretakers of the Oba’s regalia, wardrobe and paraphernalia. The “Iwebo” ranks as the foremost of the three royal societies in the palace.
6. The “Iweguae” has “Esere” as their leader, they specifically run errands for the Oba.
7. The “Ibiwe” society is headed by “Osodin”. This group is the one responsible for the kings harem.
8. Other positions whithin the Benin kingdom are:
- The “Efa” (The sanctifiers of the palace) headed by “Ogiefa”.
- The “Ihogbe” (Worshippers and recorders of the departed Obas of Benin ) headed by “Ihama”
- The “Igun-eronmwom” (Makers of the royal Brass) headed by “Inenigun”
- The “Igun-ematon” (The royal blacksmiths) headed by “Inenigunnekhua
- The “Ikpema” (The royal drummers) headed by “Omuemu”
- The “Iwoki” (Royal astrologers) headed by “odinwere-iwoki”
- The “Ukhegie” (the medical doctors and surgeons) headed by “Imogun”
- The “Emezi” (the caretakers of the Oba”s children) headed by “Iyase”
- The “Iwaranmwen” (the butchers, who kill the sacrificial victims) headed by “Ehondo”
- The “Ewa” (the royal cocks who wake the Oba from sleep) headed by “Ohuoba”
The overall political and social structure of the Benin kingdom makes it a well organised ancient African kingdom.
Some of the things you can do at the Oba of Benin’s Palace;
- Learn about the rich history of the Royal Palace of Oba of Benin, built by Oba Ewedo in 1255AD – 1280AD and how it was demolished in 1897 during the British expedition.
- Take a tour of the palace.
- Appreciate and take pictures of the unique architectural palace design.
- Learn about the history of Benin Kingdom and the cultural representation of the Oba’s palace.
Things you should not Do in Oba of Benin’s Palace
- Do not whistle
- Do not point fingers
- Don’t use umbrellas, only the Oba is allowed to use Umbrellas during festivals no matter the weather.
- Don’t wear back to Oba’s Palace
- Don’t carry palm fruits.
- Don’t take dogs to Oba Palace; they will be killed.
- The only males allowed where the queen and other Oba’s women dwell are males with royal blood.
- There are a number of restricted areas within the Oba’s Palace like the royal women’s quarters and the Ehengbuda shrine. Therefore, visitors are advised to get a guide who is familiar with the Oba of Benin’s palace when visiting.
- Visitors are advised to take note of the various taboos at the Oba of Benin’s palace like the wearing of black apparels is forbidden, pointing fingers is seen as a sign of disrespect and whistling is prohibited.
Anyone wearing a black attire is not allowed entrance into the palace because black is seen as a symbol for mourning. It is a taboo for the oba to set his eyes on the colour black.
Other Roles of Oba in Benin Kingdom
The Oba settles disputes and is a peacemaker. The Oba has some authority over land issues, when it concerns land owned by indigenes in the south of Edo State, and his decisions are quoted in regular court. To many Nigerians, property is a matter of life and death: land equals wealth and the possession of it is often their only pension plan. In addition to that, the Oba’s subjects consult him about family feuds and community disputes.
How The British Destroyed Benin Kingdom
On February 17, 1897, Benin City fell to the British. On that fateful day in history, the city of Benin lost its independence, its sovereignty, its Oba (king), its beauty, and its control of trade. The city was looted and burnt to the ground.
The ivory at the palace was seized. Nearly 3000 of the famous Benin Bronzes and other valuable works of art, including the magnificently carved palace doors, were carried back to Europe. The Oba was exiled to Calabar with his two wives and subsequently died there. Today, every museum in Europe possesses art treasures from Benin.
Benin was burnt to the ground by the British who were amazed by its beauty and wealth. After the British began interacting with the Benin kingdom, they sought raw materials which the kingdom could provide (such as palm oil for soap making), and went into an agreement with the Oba of Benin for trade.
After a while however, the British noticed that the kingdom of Benin was not sending any goods and a British government official was sent to meet with the oba (1897).
The problem is that the time the official was going to Benin, a certain ceremony was being held, which involved human sacrifices and dark incantations. And he didn’t want the British official to come just yet. He sent multiple messengers and even the local people kept warning them that the oba would not be willing to see them at this time. But this British party pressed on.
Seeing their persistence, some local chiefs set up an ambush and attacked their party (without the knowledge of the oba). They killed British (save for two), and all the Africans with them (who were carrying their luggage).
News of the attack soon reached London and the British rallied their troops and stormed the city of Benin. The siege lasted a couple of days, however, with their vast technological superiority they were eventually victorious.
They went into the palace of the oba, where they found numerous treasures which had been passed on over the ages to the rulers of the great kingdom. The oba had to live in exile, while the British carted of the treasures of the ancient kingdom to London, where they lie in British museums to this day. A token of their victory.