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Written by Ekhaguosa Aisien (Last Update April 5, 2022)

The EGEDEGE NOKARO, the first storey edifice built in Benin.Architecturally Edo land was on the same footing with the ancient Roman world, with its tropicalised mode of house-building as represented by the basic building unit which the Romans called the ATRIUM and the Edos the IKUN. The Atrium or lkun consisted of a rectangular edifice with its centre open to the skies. Running along the inner sides of the four walls of this rectangle were the rooms in which the members of the household lived. The household members would come out of their rooms and appear under their
Egedege Nokaro
private sky in the centre of the rectangle. This open space, this bit of sky trapped within the house was the Oteghodo which the Romans called the IMPLUVIUM. A home consisted of a number of Ikun strung together in series, one lkun linked to the next one by an internal corridor. The ultimate in exaggeration of the size of a large household in old Benin was the claim that the particular edifice consisted of:

Ikun okpa yan Uri.

“Two hundred and one atria “.

Most citizens made do with houses which were composites of two or three atria the forecourt Ikun usually provided living quarters for the young-men of the household The rear ikun was invariably the harem of the household A smaller side Ikun recessed provided the living quarters for the lord of the home.

The Oba palace remains the best existing example of the Ikun system of the architecture in Benin today. The palace is younger than the EGEDEGE NOKARO. Its construction was begun in 1914 while the EGEDEGE NOKARO was built eight years earlier in 1906.

The EGEDEGE NOKARO belongs to Chief Osayande Izevbizua Iyamu the incumbent ESOGBAN of Benin as the Odionwere of Benin City the Chief is the Priest of the EDION-EDO Shrine, the first Station in the Pilgrimage circuit as mentioned earlier .The storey building was certainly the first house of layered floors of one floor suspended above the other, ever built in Benin City But It was not the first ever built in the Kingdom. UGHOTON Village steals the lime-light here on Benin City because the first documented storey building built on Benin land was constructed in that water-side village three hundred years ago as engagingly told by Professor Alan Ryder in his book. Benin and the Europeans 1485-1897 page 160. Ughoton was the entre-port for the Kingdom of the Benin overseas trade, through which the Benin Kingdom the northern Yoruba-land and Benue land obtained European goods.

The Ughoton edifice was also single-storey structure. It was built in 1718 nearly two hundred years before the construction of the Erhie Street EGEDEGE NOKARO. It was built by Herr Van NAERSSEN the resident Manager of the UGHOTON Trading Station of the Dutch Trading Company which West African Headquarters was at Elmina Castle now in modern Ghana. When Van Naerssen completed the building he pronounced it to be the finest Company residence on the West African Coast. The upper floor of the building served as the living quarters for the resident Dutchmen The ground floor was both the shop and storehouse where merchandise was sold, and the export purchases from the Edos stored until the arrival of ships from Elmina Castle which was about twice a year The ships brought fresh trade goods from Europe and evacuated the exports accumulated in the interval.

The artisans, especially the carpenters, who helped to build this first storey edifice on Benin land nearly three hundred years ago, were obtained from Benin City by the Dutch, with the cooperation of the Oba who almost certainly was AKENZUA the FIRST. The artisans must have come from OWINA Street off Sokponba Road They must have been  under the general supervision of Chief ASUEN the palace  official who was in charge  of the forests of the kingdom and who controlled the Owina Guilds which obtained from these forests the hardwood and other resources they needed in their service to the palace

Timber was felled and sawn and the planks obtained were used for the flooring of the upper story. The artisans probably used planks obtained from the Iroko tree for this crucial aspect of the construction as well as for the building of the staircase. But in order to do this Chief Asuen must have obtained clearance from the Oba because timber from Iroko trees of the forests was reserved exclusively for the construction in the Oba palace. Other hardwoods serviced the chiefs and people.

The doors and windows were probably obtained from the timber of the lighter hardwoods.
Each plank obtained for this story building cost the Dutch one hundred cowries reports Alan Ryder.
The Blacksmith guilds of the city the Adaha the brought into the enterprise to make the iron nail long and short with which the constituents of the building were riveted together under the direction of the Dutch. Each nail brought from Benin cost the Dutch eight to ten cowries depending presumably on the size and length.

This picture of a European country depending matter-o-factly on the technology of Benin three hundred years ago for her base needs in the construction of an edifice. had been radically altered two hundred years later when the first Benin City Storey building was constructed. The Overseas Slave Trade of the intervening two centuries had like the on-going Overseas Petroleum Oil trade so sapped the energies the inventiveness and the self-dependability of this portion of the continent that much of the material which was used for the construction of the 1906 edifice was imposed including the treated timber for the floor of the upper storey.

The artisans were also imported from outside Benin, mainly from the Gold Coast.
The builder of the Egedege Nokaro was Chief IYAMU son of Chief OSAWE who was the Inneh N’lbiwe of Oba Ovonranmwen. OSAWE was the grandson of the Iyase N’Ohenmwen, the famous premier chief of Obi Osemwende Osawe’s father Chief IDOVA the Uso of Benin was the second surviving son of the Iyase N’Ohenmwen.

Iyamu’s mother was equally a well-known personality in her own night. She was Madam UKPENBO a daughter of the Isienmwenro Guild. She so shimmered with beauty when young that she was given the sobriquet Ukpenbo ‘European Cloth’ or ‘Velveteen”

The Erhie Street property was one of three principal properties developed in the City in the earlier decades of the Nineteenth Century by Ohenmwen the Iyase of Benin. He called the property Eti ii mu Uloko ”Thickets Do Not Stunt the Growth of the Iroko Sapling”. During his time and for some generations after him this property served as the burial ground for deceased members of the large Ohenmwen clan. The property was of a large extent, and was at that time on the outskirts of the built-up area of the city. Those of the clan who lived in the OGBE property of the clan had to be mandatorily brought across to the Ore-Nokhua half of the town at death for interment And the UGBAGUE premises the seat of the clan was unsuitable to receive the dead because of its centrality and built-up nature the Erhie Street property accommodated them all when they died.
Iyamu and son of Madam Ukpenbo inherited the property when his father Osawe the Inneh died. He later also acceded to his father’s non-hereditary title as the Inneh n’ Ibiwa at the restoration of the Obaship in Benin in 1914

When Iyamu decided to break with Benin traditional architecture and build the first Storey building in the City there were factors present which gave encouragement to the dream. The first factors were the recent availability of a new building material in Benin which could support such construction. This was the burnt brick. The building block which was manufactured at the banks of the Ikpoba River in a kiln built there by the new colonial authority .This kiln exploited the rich clay deposits found along the Ikpoba river valley. With the burnt bricks the colonial authorities were building their own private construction.

The second factor was that Chief Iyamu received private encouragement for the venture from official sources. He was one of the prominent Benin Chiefs deployed by the colonial administration in the effective governance of the Benin territories and he was in good standing with the local Head of the Administration District Commissioner Offley Stuart CREWE-READ who helped in procuring the foreign artisans who carried out the project. Some of the artisans were obtained mainly from the Gold coast (now Ghana), but some of them probably also came from Calabar and Abeokuta the only centres in the territory which ultimately became Nigeria where the Missionaries had at that time established Technical and Trade Schools. These Technical Schools produced artisans in various trades ranging from building carpentry to printing and plumbing Chief NANA of the Itsekiris had arrived back from exile in the same year but his children who were trained in the Gold Coast during their father’s exile there were principally furniture makers. In any case the family had not sufficiently settled down in KOKO their new home to be available for any construction assignments outside their village at that point in time

The traditional artisan Guild in Benin played no roles in the construction of this Twentieth century edifice as they had usefully done in the building of the Eighteeth Century Ughoton Storey building.
District Commissioner CREWE READ met his death in that same year of 1906 at the hands of the OWA people near AGBOR. He lies peacefully in his grave in the little European Cemetery in the premises of the State Health Management Board at Benin City centre. This Colonial Officer was said to have espied in Chief Iyamu’s household Mademoiselle EVBOKUNRU the beautiful daughter of Chief OSAWE. She was under the guardianship of Iyamu her elder brother.

The little European Cemetery in Benin City located in the premises of the State Health management Board at the City centre is unique. Since the time that Oba Ewedo actualised the Benin ambition of prince Oronmiyan his great- grandfather at the beginning of the Thirteenth Century when he succeeded in moving into Benin City proper from suburban Usama and thereafter proceeded to build himself a palace in one half of the town the whole of that half on the south side of the Utantan High Street became the OGBE the king’s Half Benin City. Facing the OGBA, across the Utantan was the OPE NOKHUA the people’s half of the City.

And as it was in Ancient Rome, the Rome of the Caesars where a law forbade the burying of corpses within the confines of the imperial City a law in Benin City prohibited the burying of the dead anywhere in Ogbe the royal half of the City. This half provided the resting place for the remains of only one personage the Oba of Benin Say the Edos:

Ai gu Oba vbie ogbe:
“Nobody “sleeps” in Ogbe with the Oba”

For seven hundred years until the conquest of Benin by Britain at the end of the Nineteenth Century this law remained inviolate. The only instance when it was challenged was at the beginning of the fourteenth Century when one citizen Agbodo when lived in Ogbe insisted on being buried in his own home when he died. Attempts by Oba Udagbedo to exhume Agbodo corpse led to the formation of the ditch which became the Agbodo pond situated just outside the palace walls in old Benin
With the conquest of Benin a century ago the British Colonial Officials created for themselves a European Cemetery in the heart of the grounds of the royal palace. Those amongst them who died in Benin were buried there.

At the same time the new  Government created a Native Cemetery for the dead of their Benin City subjects and strictly forbade the further enjoyment of the hallowed right of the Edo man to be buried in his own home at death.

The location of the native cemetery violated no local taboos. The cemetery was outside the City walls outside the Inner Ring of the Moats just beyond the Uzebu Moat opposite the present YANGA Fish Market. All the citizens who died in Benin City between 1897 and the Restoration o0f the Monarchy in 1914 including all the high Chiefs who died during that period lie buried there. Death certificates were written and permits issued for every interment which was carried out there.

But the location of the European Cemetery severely savaged the taboos of the land located as it was not only in OGBE half of Benin City but also in the ground of the Oba palace itself. The bodies which lie in the graves in that cemetery all twenty four of them are the only bodies with the exception of that of citizen Agbodo that have slept with those of the Obas of Benin in the OGBE half of the Inner Benin City since about AD 1200.

A part from the building blocks obtained from the brick works at the Ikpoba River and also some timber for the non-critical area of the edifice all the other building materials for the construction of the Egedege were imported into Benin. This was no mean feat in the early days of the Twentieth Century .There were no roads in the Benin  territories at that period save the ancient forest tracks which the young colonial administration was widening manually using the conscripted and unpaid labour of the villages though which the forest tracks passed. The only vehicle seen in Benin in those days was the bicycle of the Colonial Officers.

The “highways” which were available and in use in those days were the many rivers of the territory. These rivers were the only roadstead though which any freight heavier than that which human head could carry got to Benin City The railway project which had already been surveyed and costed for Benin by the Calabar Government at the turn of the century had been cancelled when the Lagos government took over the administration of both Benin and Calabar in 1906 The road from Warri to Sapele which was already in existence was instead extended to Benin in place of the proposed railway leaving the waterway as the only arteries of meaningful commerce in the land River-craft both engine and paddle-propelled arrived from Lagos. Warri and Calabar through the Benin River at the various river beaches in Benin land, carrying passengers and freight. Some of the famous river beaches of the Benin territories were OGBAHU near Igbanke, IKPEKELE, near Iguelaba, OLOGBO, IKPE,SILUKO, GELE GELE near Ughoton  OGBA N’ EKI Okoo village , and IKPOBA Waterside in Benin City The last two river beaches served Benin City directly. They were also the points of embarkation for the Benin City citizen who needed to travel to the outside world of Warri, Sapele, Forcados and Calabar Lagos, Ibadan and Oyo. Crown Prince AIGUOBASINMWIN later EWEKA the Second embarked in a canoe at the Ogba n’eki Beach en route Calabar in December 1913 on the receipt of a telegram notifying him of his father Oba Ovonranmwen’s last illness in Calabar.

A market sprang up at each of these river beaches The Edos called the markets:
Eki egbame: ‘riverside market.

Invariably an Itsekiri settlement also sprang up at these riverside beaches These Itsekiri were the transport owners who owned the canoes and the other river craft and who paddled the passengers and their freight to and from their far-flung destinations.
Much of the imported material needed for the construction of the Egedege Nokaro came through the Ogba N’Eki Beach. From there the freight was lugged by head into town by the numerous servants of the lyamu family. The freight included the specially treated timber used for the upper flooring of the edifice.

The building was completed in 1906 the year the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria was created. It at once became the spot which every villager who came to town must visit to see how a house with a suspended floor looked like. Soon a song was elaborated latterly popularised by Victor Uwaifo, the singer which suggested that a visit to Benin City which did not include a tour of Erhie Street should be regarded as defective, because the City premier Storey Building was located there and was deserving of the attentions of the visitor

Chief Iyamu the Inneh n’ Ibiwe died in 1922 and the Egedege Nokaro was inherited by his son Chief Izevbizua the Obahiagbon of Benin, who was succeeded by the current landlord of the premises Chief Osayande the Esogban of Benin. The ninety-two year old edifice remains essentially in its original state rehabilitated periodically with fresh coats of paint.

The building is officially not one of the Pilgrimage Stations which must be visited by the newly ennobled. But quite a number of the new chiefs call at the same at the premises on their way to the Ezomo Agban Shrine The Esogban would sometime offer hospitality to the pilgrim, after which the new chief would resume his arduous trek through the City Streets.

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