The great walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom were a man-made marvel described as “the world’s largest earthworks prior to the mechanical era”.
The great Benin Empire was one of the oldest and most highly developed states in west Africa, dating back to the 11th century.
The great Walls of Benin, is one of Africa’s ancient architectural marvels, it was destroyed by the British in 1897 during what has become known as the Punitive Expedition and more than a thousand years of Benin history and some of the earliest evidence of rich African civilisations were lost during this period.
The great Walls of Benin are a series of earthworks made up of banks and ditches, called Iya in the Edo language in the area around present-day Benin City, the capital of present-day Edo, Nigeria.
They consist of 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) of city iya and an estimated 16,000 kilometres (9,900 miles) in the rural area around Benin.
Some estimates suggest that the walls of Benin may have been constructed between the thirteenth and mid-fifteenth century CE and others suggest that the walls of Benin (in the Esan region) may have been constructed during the first millennium CE.
The walls stood for over 400 years, protecting the inhabitants of the kingdom, as well as the traditions and civilisation of the Edo people.
Fred Pearce wrote the following about the city in the science magazine New Scientist: “In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
It took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.”
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The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as “the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era”. It was one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting with huge metal lamps, many feet high, built and placed around the city.
In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed: “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon. All the streets run straight and as far as the eye 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 doors to their houses.”
In his personal account, 17th-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper wrote, “Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other. Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected.”
“[The walls are] as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper storeys are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water,” he continued.
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ong>Great Walls of Benin Construction
Estimates for the initial construction of the walls range from the first millennium CE to the mid-fifteenth century CE.
According to Connah, oral tradition and travelers’ accounts suggest a construction date of 1450-1500 CE.
It has been estimated that, assuming a 10 hour work day, a labour force of 5,000 men could have completed the walls within 97 days, or by 2,421 men in 200 days.
However, these estimates have been criticized for not taking into account the time it would have taken to extract earth from an ever deepening hole and the time it would have taken to heap the earth into a high bank.
It is unknown whether slavery or some other type of labour was used in the construction of the great walls of Benin.
￼Description and mathematical quandary
Benin City’s planning and design was done according to careful rules of symmetry, proportionality and repetition now known as “fractal design”.
The great walls of Benin were built of a ditch and dike structure; the ditch dug to form an inner moat with the excavated earth used to form the exterior rampart.
The great walls of Benin were ravaged by the British in 1897 during what has come to be called the Punitive expedition.
Scattered pieces of the structure remain in Edo, with the vast majority of them being used by the locals for building purposes.
What remains of the great walls of Benin itself continues to be torn down for real estate developments. Fred Pearce wrote in New Scientist:
They extend for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They cover 2,510 sq. miles (6,500 square kilometres) and were all dug by the Edo people.
In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.
Ethnomathematician Ron Eglash has discussed the planned layout of the city using fractals as the basis, not only in the city itself and the villages but even in the rooms of houses.
He commented that “When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganised and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”