Many centuries ago, (about 800 A.D.) the geographical area now known as Benin, was called Igodomingodo. It was the hob of a conglomeration of little towns that developed into modern Mid-West Region and later Bendel State. Throughout that period, Igodomingodo made steady progress especially in the area of spirituality, philosophy, craftsmanship and administrative development.
The focus of Igodomingodo was largely concentrated on the arrangement of human order so that by the advent of the Europeans in 15th century, the people had already established an administrative system which baffled the Europeans and earned for the capital the appellation ‘City’.
The nucleus of this great civilisation was the monarchy which the Binis perfected steadily from the 12th century, after a series of experimentation with the Ogisos and Ogiso-Obas. They also introduced a monarchical system based on the principle of primogeniture.
This system of direct ascension has endured making the Benin Royal Family one of the oldest families in Africa. Its history spans more than 1400 years. The present Oba of Benin, Omon’Oba N’Edo Uku-Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediawa, who is 30 years on the throne, is the 38th Oba in the line of succession from Oba Eweka I who reigned in 12th century A.D. Before Eweka I however, 31 Ogisos and Prince Oronmiyan, a grand son to the last (Ogiso Owodo) reigned. In all, 70 Kings have sat on the Benin Throne.
A mention of Benin City, to many, brings to mind the Benin-British war of 1897 popularly known as the Benin Massacre and Expedition. At the end of it all, Oba Ovonramwen was deported to Calabar on September 13, 1897.
Before Oba Ovonramwen (1888 – 1914), the people of Benin had an organized society vast in the Act of War, Astronomy, Medicine, Travels and Craftsmanship. Among the many crafts, Bronze Casting was paramount.
It is said that a man called Iguerra, who came from a Nubian City on the River Nile in Egypt introduced the art to Benin in AD 900. The Bronze Casting Families have preserved the art and have today formed themselves into a guild which is based on Igun Street, Benin City.
Through the First Dynasty, (the Ogiso era) casting was done solely to create jewelleries and other ornamentals. However by the Second Dynasty, beginning with the reigns of Oba Eweka I (1200 A.D.), more serious casting was done for the royal house. Further progress and development was made during the reign of Oba Oguola about 1280 A.D. At this point, tin took the place of zinc in the copper mixture to give a dark reddish brown metal called Bronze.
In the quest to protect the city, and her treasures, Oba Oguola ordered the digging of the first Benin Moat.
The return of Prince Esigie from Portugal, where he studied Arts and Crafts, to become king about 1504 A.D., brought about the formal institutionalization of the various crafts known to the kingdom. Besides being a great craftsman, Esigie was an astrologist and linguist. He spoke Portuguese fluently.
After becoming King, Oba Esigie set up schools of Astronomy (Iwoki), and of Arts and Crafts. The crafts school had several departments called Ugha. Some of them were, Working Tools, Bronze Casting, Carving and Weaving. The Oba appointed Chiefs to head the departments.
The Bronze Casting Department had seven chiefs appointed to oversee its activities. They were led by Chief Inenigun assisted by Chiefs Ihamanigun, Ehanire, Akenuwa, Olague, Obazogie and Chief Obadolayi.
From this point, bronze casting became a full time occupation to the appointed families and they were called sons of Iguerra after the initiating craftsman from Nubia. This period also witnessed the casting of three-quarter head figure of past Obas of the kingdom in solid bronze.
Furthermore, major events were now cast in bronze, which now became a medium of documenting the history of the people. The Eguerra Chiefs who witnessed all major events were given charge to carry out this documentation through bronze casts. Their descendants are still in the business today on Igun Street.
Even the art of Bronze Casting had some administration segmentation as the responsibility for sourcing the raw material, copper, tin and zinc was carried out by the Owinas who were expert miners.
By the reign of Oba Akenzua 1 in 1713 AD, the documentation of past Obas and events during their reign was being executed in bronze. This was however truncated by the British in 1897 who waged war on the Benin Kingdom and looted treasures surpassing the hieroglyphics found in tombs below the Egyptian Pyramids. To this date, this documentation of events in bronze can be executed by the guild of artists now led by Chief Ine, a direct descendant of Chief Inenigun circa 1504 AD.
The Bronze Institution was reconstituted by Oba Eweka II (1914 – 1933) who was himself an expert carver in Ivory and wood and also a clever blacksmith. He was the father of Oba Akenzua II (1933 – 1978).
The era of Oba Akenzua II witnessed intellectual, cultural, social and economic development. Benin Divisional Council Museum opened in 1947 and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II visited Benin on 9th February, 1956. He was appointed Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria on 9th March, 1966. His son Oba Erediawa ascended the throne in 1978 and is the Monarch to this day.
Benin as conservative as it appears today, actually fathered many cities and town across its borders. Prominent amongst these are Eko (Lagos) and several towns in Dahomey and Ga which now are in Benin Republic and Ghana respectively. This expansion took place in 1299 AD during the reign of Oba Udagbedo.
The Urhobos migrated from Benin about 1370 A.D. during the reign of Oba Ogbeka. Hence, they refer to Benin as Ikhuo’roka (the people of Eka after the King). Another nation that traces its origin to Benin is Itsekiri. Iginuan, the son of Oba Olua (about 1473 A.D.) left Benin to settle at Ode-Itsekiri and later became the Olu of Itsekiri.
About 1481 A.D. during the reign of Oba Ozolua, some of his sons left to become Kings in other lands. These include, Alani of Idoani, Olokpe of Okpe, Olowo of Owo, Eze of Aboh and Uguan of Ora. Legend has it that a camp called Eko now Lagos was created by Oba Orhogbua about 1550 A.D. and one of his grand sons was made the Eleko of Eko. More recently, about 1713 A.D. the son of Oba Akenzua I became the Obi of Issele-Uku.
The unique geographic position Benin found herself by occupying mid-way between what the early Europeans referred to as the ‘Yoruba Country’ and the ‘Igbo Country’, no doubt broadened the outlook of the Binis.
After about 800 years of interacting with the Yorubas, the Binis accepted many Yoruba gods like Sango and Olokun while the Yorubas accepted several socio-cultural reforms introduced by the Binis. These include a monarchical system based on primogeniture and an organised traditional ruling council.
Contact with the Yoruba people was first made by Ekaladerhan the son of the last Ogiso (Owodo) who was banished from Benin. He got to Uhe (Ife) and changed his name to Izoduwa. A name which means, ‘I have chosen the path to prosperity’. He is said to be the legendary ancestral hero of the Yoruba race – Oduduwa. He is the father of Oronmiyan, who is the father of Oba Eweka I.
About 1440 A.D. a great warrior, traveller, craftsman and physician rose to the throne. He was Oba Ewuare the Great. He was the first to come in contact with the Europeans and renamed the land EDO.
Today, there is a slight dialectal change among the Edos which identifies them and the major dialects are; Edo, Esan, Etsako and Owan. There is so much to learn about Benin or Edo land but a visit to the Ancient City tells it better. A personal experience of the rich culture of the Edos will definitely amaze you.
Various forms of cultural events and festivals exist in Edo, each with several unique dances. Edo North treats you to spectacular tunes and dances with great agility. The harmony produced by a combination of great Altos, Sopranos and male voices is most remarkable. The echoes remain a long time in the mind after the performance. And also in this part are mountainous land forms and caves all with great historic significance. At the top of one of the mountains in Ososo, Akoko-Edo Local Government Area is the Ososo Resort Centre where the weather can only be compared to that of Jos in Plateau State.
In Edo Central, among the Esan speaking people, a series of New Yam Festivals from one community to the other will thrill visitors from September to early December. Amidst the celebrations, guests are treated to traditional dances which include the Atilogun or Asonogun dance, Igbabonelimhin dance, Kokoma, Kpegbegbe and a host of others. Among these, the Igbabonelimhin masquerade dance is exceptional for the masquerades in their unique and beautiful costumes treat guests to various forms of Acrobatic steps. Their gymnastic display is unparallel and unsurpassable anywhere in the world not even in the Olympics.
From the swift steps in the central region, the spotlight falls on the slow but calculated steps of royal dancers in the south. Benin City has the Igue Festival ceremonies which begin in early December and runs through to the first week of January. Chiefs in their royal regalia come to the Oba’s palace in their numbers to pay homage and celebrate Igue with the Oba.
In their colourful aggregate, they dance the Ugie-Oba dance. It’s a sight to behold! Kings in all the affiliate towns and villages also come in their royal convoy to pay homage and celebrate Igue with the Oba who is the head of the traditional ruling council in Edo land. The entire event is so colourful that you can never be satisfied with a single experience.
Much of the Benin story is told in Bronze and these you can find at Igun Street, home to the Benin Bronze Casters and their families. Past Obas of the kingdoms are well represented in bronze statues both at Igun and the Royal Palace.
The legendary Benin Moat is still in place, visitors can access it from various point within the city as it is no longer outside the city wall but in the heart of modern Benin. The various War Lords and prominent battles are well represented in sculptures at strategic locations all over the city.
Benin also boasts of a wild life sanctuary at the Okomu National Park which holds various species of animals with most of them on the endangered species list. Animals found in the forest include Elephants, Lions, Tigers, Leopards, Buffalos, Apes, Gazelles, Reptiles and countless others with different species of birds. There are tree houses within the sanctuary where guests can quietly observe these animals in-situ.
The history of the Benin people is so long and impossible to abbreviate. The people are proud of their heritage and are always willing to recount to anyone who wishes to hear, but the story is never ending… YOU HAVE TO EXPERIENCE BENIN TO KNOW BENIN.
OBA KHA TO’KPERE... ISE!
This article as written by Godwin Eigbe was first published in Executive travels Nigeria (ETN) magazine Edition 18 (2009)