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Learning from the 16th century urbanists

Mapping of the pre-1897 heritage sites in Benin City, Copyright: Edo Museum of West African Art, 2022

Benin City was one of the great pre-colonial urban centres of sub-Saharan Africa, and the capital city of an empire which stretched from the borders of modern day Ghana to parts of Cameroon at its height. Describing the city in 1691, the captain of a Portuguese ship, 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 houses are large, especially that of the king which is richly decorated and has Fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such Security that they have no door to their houses'.

The fulcrum of the Benin Empire that held sway across a large portion of West Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the city’s origins date back at least 1,000 years. Today very little of the ancient city is visible to the visitor after it was largely destroyed by fire following the British invasion of 1897. This tore through the wood and thatch roofs of the city, leaving only a handful of surviving historic structures.

We know from oral history, historic maps and depictions of the city that the historic urban core covered at least seven square kilometres, sitting inside monumental walls or moats that still survive in many places today. Today, the streets of the modern city radiate out from the ‘Ring Road’ – the large roundabout within which the existing National Benin Museum stands. Although no trace of it is visible above ground today, this ceremonial core was located at the south-western corner of the inner circuit of city walls, said to have been built by Oba Eware in the fifteenth century. The palaces of the senior Bini chiefs – the Uzama Nihinron – stood outside these defences to the west.

EMOWAA is using a wide variety of sources to reconstruct a map of the ancient city, to understand how the historic streets and houses relate to those of the modern city.

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