Kingdom of Benin
What was Benin c 900 CE?
The Benin Empire made great achievements in science, administration, technology, architecture, astronomy and town-planning, but it is most famous for its amazing artworks.
The period from 900-1200 AD (or CE) saw the Edo people lay the foundations for what would become the African kingdom of Benin in an area located near modern southern Nigeria. The period covers the first dynasty of the Edo under their rulers the Ogisos.
Many of the features that would characterise the later kingdom (reverence for the ruler, a guild system of labour and superb craftsmanship and artistry), were set in place during this period.
The Benin Empire was at its height between 1300 and 1700.
Top 10 facts
- The ancient kingdom of Benin was situated in the South East Coast of West Africa, an area forming part of modern Nigeria.
- The people did not write down their history but transmitted it through their oral (spoken) culture, their art and their legends.
- It is thought that the Edo people first lived in villages which were governed by elders. For reasons of trade or security the villages came together to form larger settlements which eventually grew into the city state. The name they gave their territory was Igodomigodo.
- By c900 CE the people were smelting copper and zinc ores and casting brass to produce a range of fine metal work.
- The earliest rulers of Benin were called Ogisos. The first Ogiso King was Ogiso Igodo who ruled from c40 BC to 16 CE.
- The Ogisos were believed to be descended from Pa Idu, the youngest son of Osanobua (God). They were thought to have God-like qualities and were worshipped by their people.
- The Ogisos ruled with the assistance of a council of elders called the Edionisen or King makers. This was comprised of four elders of good reputation.
- The people of Benin were animists. This means that they believed that non-human objects and animals had souls and spirits. They also practised human sacrifice.
- The were famed for their skilled craftsmanship. The second Ogiso, Ogiso Ere, introduced a guild system to ensure the high quality of goods.
- The Ogiso or first dynasty of Benin was succeeded by the second dynasty, ruled by the Obas. It was under the Obas that Benin civilisation reached its height.
- c 871-917 CEReign of 27th Ogiso, Ohuede – a time of rapid inflation (rising prices) and sickness.
- c 917-967 CEReign of Ogisu Oduwa – a chaotic time.
- c 967-1012 CEOgisa Obioye undertakes reform of the currency to control price rises.
- c 1012-1059 CEOgisa Arigbo introduces slave workers and is a great merchant.
- c 1059-1100 CEOwadu is the 31st and last Ogiso of Igodomigodo. His only son Ekaladerhan escapes when Owadu attempts to have him killed in fulfilment of a prediction of the oracle. Owadu is himself banished.
- c1170 CEOranmiyan founds second dynasty of Benin. He is the son of Ekaladerhan.
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Did you know?
- To solve their problems the people of ancient Benin consulted an oracle.
- The cowrie shell was used as currency (money).
- The defensive walls of Benin city were built between c800 and 1500 CE. They are built of earth and at over 1000 km in length, are the largest such structure in the world.
- The modern African nation of Benin is not the same as the ancient kingdom, which is actually in modern Nigeria.
Look through the gallery below and see if you can spot the following:
- An imaginary portrait of Prince Ekaladerhan
- Remains of Benin earthen walls
- A flooring design made from cowrie shells
- Brass Head of an Oba from the 16th century
- Photograph of Eweka II, an Oba of Benin
- One of the Benin plaques shows a girl with a leopard
Although no written histories exist, the people of Benin had a rich oral tradition of histories, myths and legends. Contact with Europeans means that encounters with the Edo, descriptions of of Benin City and of the Obas are recorded in European and colonial history. In addition treasures of wood, ivory and metal made their way into Europe through trade or plunder and astounded observers with their high degree of artistry and craftsmanship.
Although the Edo have a number of legends concerning their origins, it seems likely that their ancestors have lived in the vicinity of Benin for thousands of years. Their civilisation can be seen as gradually evolving from rural settlements into larger communities, culminating in the flourishing Benin City of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries.
The royal dynasties of the Ogiso and later Obas are central to the culture of Benin. Royals were believed to rule by divine right and lots of royal ceremonies and rituals were celebrated.
Benin’s contact and trade with Mediterranean countries long predates European exploration of West Africa. Exports from Africa included slaves, gold, ivory, pepper and exotic animals. Imports included metals, often in the form of manillas or bangles, which were then melted down and recast or used as a form of currency.
The main crop of ancient Benin was the yam. Other crops included palm oil, beans, okra, melons and peppers. People supplemented their diet with bush meat and fish.
Just for fun...
- Make your own thumb piano, the kind of instrument used by traditional societies in West Africa
- Complete a BBC Bitesize quiz about ancient Benin to show how much you've learned
Best children's books about Ancient Benin
Find out more
- Life in the Kingdom of Benin is described in the BBC Bitesize guide, then find out about Oba life, what we can learn from the art of Benin and the history of other West African kingdoms
- Learn about the cast brass and ivory royal art of Benin, made to glorify the divine king, or Oba
- A brilliant Horniman Museum guide to the kingdom of Benin from the time of the Obas, packed with information and pictures
- Plan a visit to the Benin section of the Africa gallery at the British Museum in London, with activities for before, during and after a visit
- Look at Oba brass commermorative heads in different museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Windsor Castle, RAMM in Exeter
- Read about the famous Benin Bronzes in the British Museum
- Find out how the people of the Kingdom of Benin believed the world began
- Should the Benin Bronzes be returned to Nigeria? Examine the arguments nad have a debate using the resources on Sources for Primary History
- In 2018 it was announced that some of the Benin Bronzes are going home to Benin City, Nigeria
See for yourself
- Visit the British Museum to see the famous Benin plaques, or look at the Benin plaques online
- See artwork and artefacts in the African Worlds gallery at the Horniman Museum in south London
- The Liverpool Slavery Museum has a gallery about life in West Africa before the arrival of the European slavers