Cultural And Historic Complex Of Great Benin
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Written Ambrose Ekhosuehi  {Last Update August 2, 2022}

GREAT Benin Kingdom has been known to be one of the oldest and most stable of the larger political entities and a well-established King-list of ruler. Great Benin Kingdom was ruled from the very beginning by series of kings who were called Ogiso. The Ogiso period was essentially methodological, but the Oba period which began from the second dynasty was founded on innovations of nearly every Oba are remembered in details. The east is the cardinal direction associated with the creator God Almighty — Osanobua, and with the creation of the land, which first rose out of the primordial water-Okun or cretaceous period and Olokun is identified with chalk. All the sites where the Ogisio built their palaces and ancient quarters are on the eastern side of the present Benin City. The establishment of Oba dynasty brought Benin into a wider cultural orbit and redirected its spatial orientation from east to west.

The king lives in a vast palatial compound covering several acres of land. This complex included meeting chambers for various groups of chiefs, storehouses, shrine compounds, one areas for specialists and royal craftsmen. In the Oba palace there are expression — an adage which expresses the hustle and bustle of activities carried out there by a multitude of officials, attendants, family members and chiefs “Eguae-Ogie ei divbie”. The king is worshiped by subjects, who believe that the King is divine and speak of him always with great reverence at a distance and on bended knees. The Oba power were extensive and the ideology of divine kingship remain central to the people.

The palace chiefs were a kind of old aristocracy, made up of members of good urban families, concerned with the administration of the palace and belonged to important palace associations. In contrast to the palace chiefs, are the town chiefs who rose to power by their own efforts and are responsible for the administration of the various territories of the kingdom. There are numerous palace officials, and members of guilds. Each guild was located in a special ward and have specific service to perform for the king. Among these guilds were the craftsmen who produce brass, ivory, wood sculpture, embroidered cloths, beads and leather fans.

These craftsmen constituted a kind of artisan class, for they live in wards clustered in the same area. They preferred their children to learn the skill, for in Edo adage “Eson I gbe owinna” — “craftsmen never suffer from poverty” creative art of religious objects-called “Omebo” were chosen by divine inspiration and often acquired reputations over a wide area of the kingdom. The brasses, ivories and other art works by the guild’s craftsmen and to a lesser extent the wood, ceramic and mud sculpture or chalk art have attracted much attention.

The Edo view of the history and meaning of their art in a society as complex as Benin, there are many different oral traditions about art, some are of general view, others held within special groups such as craft guilds. These traditions when compared with European visitor’s accounts and archaeological and ethnographic reports can provide a framework of understanding the broad historical content in which Benin art and culture were created. In a like manner too, the meaning of Benin art and culture can be found in the proverbs, tales, legend, folklore and artistic commentaries of the Edo people themselves, as well as the description and analysis of the various contexts-domestic as well as royal, rural as well as urban, in which these forms are used.

Great Benin Kingdom and its centuries of Contact with the European nations held a considerable body of archival materials waiting to be brought to light.

Great Benin art in existence is usually narrative in character and thanks to the imperishable nature of covers for a very long span of time. “Enonmwon .1. keke, Oze I gue ehun”.

Great Benin Occupies a geographical position between the non- centralized groups though structurally complex which is clearly reflected in its own social and cultural forms and in the influence and cultural dominance has itself exerted on its neighbours both East and West, North and south, up to Senegal and across to the Congo basin.

Dutch descriptions of the Benin Royal palace and its art works are of particular interest because this important edifice was destroyed by the British in 1897 and thus we can only know about it indirectly through these European accounts and artistic description. In the writings of offert Dapper who used early seventeenth century A.D reports, has these to say: “The King’s court is square and stands at the right hand side when entering the town by the gate of Golton-(Ughoton) and is certainly as large as the town of Harlem, and entirely surrounded by a special wall like that which encircled the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses and apartment of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles and are kept very clean. Most palaces and the houses of the king are covered with palm leaves instead of square pieces of wood and every roof is decorated with a small turret ending in a point on which birds are standing, birds cast in copper with outspread wings, cleverly made after living models”.

Some sixty years later, a Dutch visitor, David van Nyandael, saw the same complex of apartments and galleries. His description of a royal ancestral altar ‘was much the same form as of nowadays. He pointed out the cast snakes that ran along the turrets- “on top of the last gate is a wooden turret, like a chimney, about sixty or seventy foot high. A large copper snake is attached to its top, its head dangling downwards. This snake is so neatly cast with all its curves and everything that I can say “this is the finest thing I have seen in Benin...” In another gallery one sees behind a white carpet eleven human heads cast in copper, upon each of these is an elephants tooth, these being some of the king’s goods”.

In looking at the history of Great Benin in the seventeenth century, there was a curious contrast between an abundance of Dutch and other written descriptions and a paucity of Local Oral traditions.

“The Portuguese escorted into the palace. The palace was enormous, as large as a small European town. Not only was it the Oba dwelling place it was the centre of government, a military headquarters and barracks, and a cathedral. According to one visitor you had to pass through four separate gates, each with a great empty space in front of it, before you came to the centre where the Oba himself live. There to begin with, three separate sections of the place, in each of which live an association of men and their families and servants whose duty and honour it was to serve the Oba. Each of these parts of the palaces was jealously guarded sentries were placed to prevent any of the Oba servants moving into a part f the palace that did not belong to his association. As they pass through the series of heavily guarded gates, the visitors realized that everywhere there were shrines. Each shrine had its own courtyard and in some way or other each was dedicated to worship the ancestors. Head to represent them had been cast in bronze.

On the mud platforms of the shrines are bronze status and bells. Carved ivory tusks are supported by elaborate bronze heads. On the centre shrine one can see the lattice-like carving of the eben, the ceremonial swords; as well as bronze head, bronze bells and clappers, sacred utensils, swords, spear, clubs and wands of office lay on the altars, huge elephant tusks, leaned with the points towards the wall, carved from end to end with human and anima figures.

On either side of the last set of gates was a long gallery ported by wooden pillars. Through these last gates the Portuguese came into the central building. On the walls of the heavy pillars that supported the galleries were the plagues on which the smiths of Benin recorded events and history of the kingdom.
On these plagues soldiers were leading their captives home, Oba receiving ambassadors, noblemen taking part in processions and the Portuguese depicted in their national dress with their swords, their armour and their guns; This was one way in which a people who did not have the skills of reading and writing could keep a record of their past.

The sea route and harbour to this ancient kingdom was via ughoton, a town on the bank of Benin River that empty its water into the Atlantic Ocean at Bright of Benin sea shoresrUghoton had been in existence since Ogiso era. The myth about this first gate way was in folksong. Indeed every person in the kingdom had some part to play in the worship of the Oba. As his subjects, all could claim membership of one of the palace association in the hope that one day they might be promoted to one of the leading positions in the palace association.

The Oba in his palace is the centre of the Kingdom and today the Benin influence still reign among diverse cultures.

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