The Benin Moats - Iya 
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Last Update (July 1, 2021)

The Iya or moat or the earth work of Benin as seen by writers, the origin is as confusing as well as the origin and the dating of Benin history.

As important as Iya or Moats aspect is the history of Benin, this has drawn our attention to reconstruct its various characteristics and lay it out to our readers what eminent historians writers, ethnographers, archaeologists or linguistics, and above all, oral traditionalists had helped us ¡o know about the Iya or the great moats of Benin Kingdom.

Writing sometime after 1520, of his visit to Benin in around 1510, Duarte Pacheco Pereira was among the first several visitors to note the massive earthworks surrounding Benin City. (Roth 1903) (Connah: 1975) Roese (1981) .In 1778, Landolphe recorded that the corpses or poor men were thrown outside the village into the ditches to be devoured by vultures (Roth: 1903).

Later Captain Bacon recorded an inexplicable ‘ravine’ near the large village of ‘Aduaho’ which is ‘Urhoho’ 12-15 miles from Benin along Sapele Road, and he considered the large trees growing in the curious ravine indicated that it was of great age (Bacon 1897).
Other moats sightings, were noted three miles south of Benin between Benin and Ugbine to the south-west and a large one on the Ifon road to the North (Roth 1930).

In 1920’s Talbot P.A. collected tradition which indicated the presence of earth works in both Benin and Ishan (Esan areas, as well as the presence of many ‘walled’ settlements between Benin and Agbor (1926: Vol. 1.154 vol. III 885) Egharevba, collected Benin oral tradition from 1930’s onwards and noted that every large towns and villages in Benin kingdom had built Moats - Iya and his main texts recorded as follows:

About 1280- 1290 A.D. respectively to serve as barrier to keep off the invaders in the time of war, especially against Akpanigiakon the Duke of Udo who was then harassing the City. By order of Oba Oguola, all the important towns and villages in Benin copied the examples and dug similar moats or ditches round their villages as ramparts against enemies.

The third moat which is in the heart of the city was dug by Oba Ewuare about (1460) A.D. when the city was depopulated as a result the inhuman mourning law over the deaths of his two sons Kuoboyuwa, the Edaiken (Crown Prince) and Ezuwarha, the Enogie or Duke of Iyowa who poisoned each other and both died on the same day Egharevba (1934), Macral Simson (1936)

Bradbury’s intensive collections of Benin village traditions during 1950’s mentioned sightings at only Benin, Udo, Ekae, Idu, Iguohan. Igieduma, and Uzalla Bradbury 1958).

In early (1960’s) Connaha’s archaeological fieldwork revealed an intensive network of the moat near Benin (see map..) he also noted Rees’s report of the Moat at N.1.F.O.R as well as other unspecified sightings on Benin Asaba road Connah (1975).

Map of the Benin Moats
Map of the Benin Moats

The greatest of them all, if one may say, is P.J. Darling. Whose sketches and written materials one could rely upon about moats-Iya, recently in Benin, (1985). Darling traced very many sightings in many towns and villages. He tried to know their origin, and social political life in Iya. On Cannah’s and Darling’s works on Benin Moats archaeologists could now carry out more research works on dating and origin.

Despite the uncertainty about the origin of Iya or Moats in Benin Kingdom, the existing evidence makes it clear that from the very early times, Benin City developed from village or ward level to the present day.

When one looks at the network of moats in Benin City one would agree that they were not dug during Oguola alone, because it served each ward or village that latter emerged as the city and still retain some of the features of Iya as a boundary between each village then

It is also believed that some of the moats or Iya may have been dug before the coming of Ogiso kings and that the Ogiso and the present dynasty (Obas) continued that culture of digging until Oba Ewuare’s reign (1440 A.D)

But again Egharevba by personal contact admitted that some Iya or Moats would have been constructed over much longer periods than just one reign and maintained that digging continued in some villages until Oba Ehengbunda’s reign in the late 16th century Egharevba (1975).

Whether this was so, or not from our research there is little ground for the argument to be correct and to pin the origin of moats in Benin to the reign of the Oba Oguola in (1280 A.D) and Oba Ewuare (1440 A.D) because most village have affirmed that though Oba Oguola and Oba Ewuare made their moat- Iya around the city, the moats had been there before the arrive of the Oromiyan (1170 A.D) and Oba Eweka (1200 A.D) The only truth was that Oba Oguola Oba Ewuare even Oba Ozolua, all re-dig the moats and deepened them for the protection of the people at their periods of reign

We may believe this fact, because from the research so far carried out in the various villages far away from the city of Benin, numerous moats were said to have been dug before Ogiso periods. Also some of the villages and the wards living in Iya moats enclosure today, said that they have been living there before the coming of Ogiso see map ) by Darling showing settlements during Ogiso eras.

Even though Egharevba’s interpretation had affected the origin of moats phenomenon and tradition. yet he agreed that some highly developed towns and villages during the Ogiso periods had their claims that they had their Iya during Ogiso periods They believed in this fact, because their settlements had been there within the enclosure of their forefathers dug the Iya or moats not because of war but because of boundary. They also said that the moats in the villages became rampart, after the creation of enigie/Dukes by Ogiso in the villages. This was done lo demarcate their boundary and to prevent any boundary disputes which may lead to war if it is not prevented. One is not saying entirely that moats were not dug to prevent wars, but the more accurate speculations or considerations and explanations were that they were made to prevent both wars and boundary conflicts.

But the conclusion arising from the existence of moats in Benin Kingdom today is that. There can be many villages existing within one enclosure. Such village or villages would be seen as movements from other parts of the kingdom or one village breaking into two because of overpopulation or quarrelling in a clan.

The Moats and Oba Ewedo 1255 A.D
Oba Ewedo was the fourth Oba of Benin. The first Oba was Eweka I (1200 A. D) - followed by Uwakhuahen 1235, and Ehemihen 1243 A.D. Oba Eweka, Oba Uwakhuahen and Oba Eheminhen reined at Usama before Oba Ewedo came to the throne in 1255 A.D. But Oba Ewedo moved the palace from Usama to the present place in 1255 A.D. His entering into Benin City from Usama in 1255 A.D posed a problem. He was countered at the moat at Isekherhe by Ogieamien who was already controlling the kingdom tried to stop the Oba not to enter into his territory. Ogieamien cuts from his neck the chicken which Oba Ewedo explained that he was going to make sacrifices. They then promised to fight on the seventh day after which Ogieamien then submitted at the battle of Ekiokpagha. Ogieamien then handed over the land to Oba Ewedo. It was the moat or Iya at lsekherhe that Oba Ewedo crossed before he met Ogieamien although tradition also said that it was River Oteghele and Omi that Ewedo crossed before he met Ogieamien. This was also explained when he carried paddles for crossing the River. Was the present moat at Isekherhe a River? This is another problematic question.

The Uzama kingmakers do not cross the moat with the Oba during coronation. All the Oba of Benin has to cross the moat or Iya at Isekherhe since then it is now a living tradition. Oba Ewedo was the father of Oba Oguola who has been said to dig the very moat that his father crossed before encountering Ogieamien.

Oguola himself performed that tradition of crossing the moat, and fought with Ogieamen. Yet oral tradition told us that Oba Oguola dug the moat originally. He would not had dug it before his father and himself. If there was no moat or Iya, at lsekherhe, where accession Ritual is performed during coronation in the presence of Edogun the warrior, which indicates the boundary between Ogieamien and the Oba, there would not have been that ‘Great Crossing’ of the River Rubicon.

From Oba Ewedo, the father of Oba Oguola till date, the ritual of crossing the moat at Isekherhe is performed by all Obas and the mock battle is now being fought with Ogieamen

Oba Oguola therefore may not have been the Oba who dug the moat as we have earlier argued, but he dug it again and deepened it for the purpose of defence. He would not have been digging ‘River’ if it were to be River as a part of the tradition had told us. Did the River dried up

Observations of Moats:
During coronation, the people of Uselu usually led Edaiken, the crowned Prince to lya-Akpan at the five junction of the N.T.A Benin, and hands him over to Urubi Chiefs, who will lead the Edaiken to Iya- Ero and also hands him over lo the Benin Chiefs These handing over of Edaiken all different Iya or moats, started during Oba Ezoti (1473 A.D) Oba Olua (1473 A.D). These were the children of Oba Ewuare who started the rule of Edaiken it was after Oba Ewuare’s death before Edaiken came to be. But Oba Ewuare dug only the Iya-Ero.

It is also observed that Oba Oguola (1280 A.D) dug the outer moat that we call Iyakpan at Urubi between Uselu and Urubi and passing through the N.T.A., West Circular, Oliha Quarters, across Erhunmwusee Street, and near Bins Hotel al Ekehuan Road. But the Inner Iya which the Obas cross during coronation was dug by Oba Ewuare which is known as Iya Ero at Urubi, passes through Iguisi Street, Isekherhe Oba Market Road by Yanga Market, Adesogbe Road, Airport near the Observer News Papers down to Sapele Road and the Third junction near Edo College to Ikpoba River. What we are trying to prove is that the moats were there before Oba Oguola dug it and made it deeper. Oguola dug the outer lya while Oba Ewuare dug the innermost deeper than what is has been. The Iyas or moats were dug during Ogiso era before the coming of the Oba’s, but they were not as deep. We have seen that Oba Oguola dug the outer Iya and Oba Ewuare, the inner Iya, but it is the inner Iya that all the Obas crossed in coronation Oba Oguola 1280 A.D., Oba Ewuare 1440 A.D. also crossed it. The moats have been there before the Obas came to the throne.

Iya-Akpan is the boundary between Urubi Quarters and the Northern side with Uselu. The moat at Isekherhe is the boundary between Isekherhe quarters and Ugbague quarters near the Oba Market. Chief Edogun had been at this side of Ughague before Oromiyan (1170 A.D) was brought from his (Uhe) by the Uzama Chiefs Oromiyan was not allowed to cross the moat at Isekherhe and Ugbague boundaries Oba Ewedo used tactics and force to cross it and he fought with Ogieamien. These moats had been there before the coming of these Obas. Each Quarter had to defend their boundaries.

It was said that Oba Ewedo paid certain amount to Edogun and Isekherhe before he was allowed to cross the moat. There is a song which goes like this

“Oliha ne Ogele, Tama Edogun muu asa hin ode rre”

Meaning “Oliha the Ogele. Tell Edogun to remove his shield from the road”

All these facts are revealed and discussed so that one may know that the origin of Iya or Moats in Benin started and developed probably in three phases. These are: (a) pre-Ogiso periods, (2) Ogiso periods and (3) Oba’s periods respectively. The moats were made at different times for socio-political organization, economic and trades, defence and boundary purposes. From the sketches and Maps of moats shown, made by Connah and Darling, one could observe that many towns and villages in the old Benin Kingdom had Iya or Moats. The question is that who dug the moats in villages and when were they dug?

EKAE SECTOR: These are Ugbor, Aruogba, Ugiokhuen, lrhirhi, Ohoghobi, Obe, Evbukhu, Amagba, Evbuomoma and Ekae. The Ekae Ugbor and Obe had the same boundaries.

THE URHOHO SECTOR: comprising Urhoho 1, 2 and 3 connecting Obe the Iyanomo, Evhorikho, Obayanto and OIogbo moats at their end.


THE IYEKUSELU SECTOR: There are many moats in this section, but many of them had not been discovered due to some problems of movement during the research. However the largest in the sector is the Okhumwun (see map ...) with the adjoining villages the Iwu moat, Isihukhu, Oluku, Iyowa, Utekon, down to Iguikhinmwin and Ora village.

The Eghaen moat meets Okhumwun in its northern length and Utekon in the South East. Moving to the South West in this sector are the moats at Omi, Ogheghe, Uhogua, Ite, Ughoton, Ikoka and Utoka.

THE UDO SECTOR: The moat at Udo stands unique. It is alone in this sector

THE AHO SECTOR: These are moats at Aho, Ayen, Evbiekoi, ldumwowina. Orrio, Azagba Ohovbe, Irighon, Ekhua and Egba.

THE UGHA SECTOR: There are moats at Ugha, Errua, Uhi, Okhuo, Orhua, Irhuekpen, Irhue, Ugieghudu, Udeni Umokpe and Ugianmwen

THE ISI SECTOR: There are moats at Eguaholo, Oza, Izikhirhi, Issua, Uvbe, lrokhi, Ebue, lguogbe, Oghada, Egbede, Ekhor and Evbuohen

THE IDOGBO SECTOR: The Idogho sector has many moats. The net work here is very confusing indeed because many moats ran into one another. These are ldogbo, Obah otherwise known as lya-Ewuare, Egba, ObadoIovbiyeyi, Obazagbon and Ulegun.

Here Connah (1975) did a lot of works (see map). We strongly believe that the moats started here in the ancient times. All the tribal societies are shown although most of the moat had been covered recently for development. The former villages are Uzebu, Ugbekun, Use, and Uselu, Ego, Okhorho, Ihinrnwinrin, Oliha, Ugbowo, Urubi, Uwelu, lguikpe, Okhokhugbo Elete. Evborhiarhia, Benin City, Evbogida.

THE OKA SECTOR: These are Oka, Oka-Useni. Egun, Uwusan, Umoguehen Oka-bere, Oka-Evbuogo.

THE OREGBENI SECTOR: These are Orebeni, Orrio, Ute, Urora, Ohovbe, Ikokhan, Ogbeson, Uzalla, lwogban and others.

IYOKORHIONMWON SECTOR: Idu, Iguohan, Iguosia, Iguemokhua, Ugo, Orogho, Evbuesi, Ugbokhirhima, Ogan and Umughumwun.

map of Benin moats

Most of the Iya or moats surrounding all the towns and villages stated above, formed boundaries between them, in most cases there are more than one to five or ten villages nowadays within one Iya enclosure. This has created a lot of confusion in a place like Benin City where expansion and development has taken place and is still expanding for house building and industrial estates, Some of these villages now lay right of ownership to the part of the moats enclosure or the whole. Because, according to them, they had been on the spot for hundreds of years undermining the original people they may have met in the enclosure. This type of claim of right of ownership has caused a lot of damages in the Benin Metropolis where some original settlers had been suppressed and oppressed by a more powerful over populated new settlers in the land.

Many land cases in the courts are between original owners of Iya or moats enclosures and the new settlers who now struggle to displace the aboriginals. The new settlers, as the case may be, claim that they had been there for thousands of years and therefore they have a right of ownership too. There have been clashes or fights between two villages or wards in Benin over boundary of moats. The Palace of the Oba often sends the Avbiogbe - Town Chiefs to settle Iya boundary disputes.

There are some Iya or moats sightings where the original people had moved out entirely from the original houses, or villages. There are features in which such sites could still be known. This is very common in Orhionmwon such moats could not be named against any village, they are in the tick forest reserves.

Our conclusion in such sites is that human beings were living there before, for we strongly believe that Iya or moats were made or dug by human beings for protection and boundary. Also these people may have been forced out from their towns as a result of diseases, war, and famine.

One believes that the Ogiso-kings and the Oba of Benin dug Iya or Moats in the ancient times that the Binis made clay pots. iron, furnaces, brass or bronze works, traded on some forms of money such as (iron. fruits, seeds, cowries, brass and lead), that they contributed powerfully to the social economic history and economic development so that the place would be better off for them to live in, and today one is proud to have records of our ancestors to lay hands upon and say that they were great men.

Iya - moats enclosure as we come to know them traditionally. Served as social political organization, economy and trades, for defence and boundary purposes, relations promoted by trade intergroup, religions social and cultural institutions and inter-practice.

Iya - moats in old Benin kingdom with references to Pre-Ogiso, Ogiso periods (40 B.C. -1100 A.D) essentially stood the test of time at that early period. The moats were dug by the people even before the coming of the Ogiso to know their different boundaries. Since at the early times, there was no central government as earlier discussed, the Odionwere system of government was natural but the ¡installation ceremonies were, seem to be fairly developed and by making the heads of any Edo community within respective moats.

The political unit was the village, either enclosed by moats at the periphery. At the pre-Ogiso period, there were no hereditary chieftaincy titles. There was age grade system as a cultural political unit that cut across the entire moat’s enclosure. The age grade ceremony Independent of others was divided into three age groups. Where one has to be promoted from one group to another. These were lroghae who were 15 to 25 years old, the Ighele, 25 - 50 years old and the Edion 50 - 100 years and above.

Among the Edion, the most senior person was chosen to become Odionwere who was the head of each village within the Iya or moat’s enclosure. Each group were politically and culturally assigned with responsibility. They were initiated into these groups in every five years or more intervals depending on each community on the moats level. As earlier written, the Odionwere was supported by the ‘Edion-Nene’ meaning the ‘four elders’ in the council of elders in the village. The four elder’s position was also based on seniority.

There were no hereditary chieftaincy titles but there were chief priests who were in charge of their various deities and some of them occupied a hereditary status depending on the origin of such deity.

Politically, the chief-priests of deities had dual position or offices because they served the gods on behalf of the people and had power to take certain decision that bordered on the people politically and religiously, particularly on oaths taking.

The Odionwere was the chief priest of the ancestor’s shrine – Aro Edion, supported by the four elders - ‘Edion Nene’ who were also subordinated to Odionwere of the village in the moat’s enclosures. (Okaegbee), the chief priest of the elders or the ancestors of the whole village and the head of the whole village or town.

In a large Iya enclosure there could be many villages each with Odionwere and such Odionwere was subordinate to the general Odionwere of the whole enclosure. Such town likes Okhunmwun Udo, lwu, Utekon, Egor, Evbohighae, Eghokor, Ugo, Oka, Isi, Ogbese, Uhen, Orogho, Oben, Umohunmwun and many others had more than one, four or eight Odionwere in their various enclosures.

The principal political duty of Odionwere was to look after the performance of every rite in the village for ensuring bumper harvest. On his executive power, Odionwere was the commander of Iroghae. ¡ghele and the edion groups. The Ighele groups were the town or village warriors.

The Edo Society at this time was democratic in nature; it was a small scale organization which permits efficient democratic practices, because everybody was involved in the governmental process through the family representatives in the village elder’ council, through the clan meeting and the various age grade in the villages or larger societies.

At this early period various social units based on kinship existed. The smallest unit was the family unit made up of a man, his wives, brothers, unmarried sisters and married brothers or sisters and other children in the house hold.

It was a lineage of expanded families. It was also a village made up of numbers of lineages which claimed common ancestors within a moat and sometime, its periphery when such Iya enclosure was grown and populated beyond the moat’s boundary, If was a social unit or a clan which made up of numbers village of moats, but claiming the same or common ancestor.

On this social relationship, they were kept together in the same religious system, same marriage system, secret societies and age groups. They were brought together during religious festivals as there were many chief priests of various divinities who also enjoyed special respects and privileges as earlier observed. Marriage at this period was not exagomous but endagamous. Exagamous is a system of only marrying from outside one’s own group. This enjoyed a prominent place in the ancient history of Benin.

Edogamous marriage on the other hand, is the system of marrying from a close kin or sib. This was not paramount in the ancient Edo societies. They go outside their village or moat which was based on family unit or clan with the same ancestor and many from another group. The marriage system had been verilocal or partrilocal where the married women packed to the husband’s house and live with him.

It is not the custom of the man to go to the wives’ village and live. But a man can only go to the mother’s village and settle down probably with his wife. The relation or maternal parents are always prepared to aid their relations in such situations. With the growing of the system of exogamy, two clans or villages could be merged as a result of population and expansion.

The political organization was very much related to social structures based at the early periods on social units which gave rise to the digging of the moats. Kinship was also an important factor in the political system or organization.

However, as earlier pointed out, elders at all levels played a prominent role as holders of authority and also the Odionwere, the highest in their various villages or the moat’s enclosures. All adult male took active part in decision making process of the society. Women in these early periods were allowed to have a say particularly those things that concerned the women folk, although women were not given prominent role to play neither were they given neither chieftaincy title nor Odionwere position. There were senior women representing various societies. Such a woman could be told to pass words to other women on what the community wanted them to do.

Women play prominent role in the worship of the gods and various festivals such as Omeho, Olokun and Obiemwen gods. These were mostly gods of fertility. It was the coming of the king that women were seriously relegated to the background as it has been in Edo society. But today things are changing Women are building houses, taking part in politics and other social activities.

Man was usually the head of the family. It was and still a patrilenean and not matrilenean system. At the extended family level there was the Okaegbee who is the head of all the family house hold. He took decisions in consultation with other senior members of the family the worshipped and offered sacrifices to the ancestors on behalf of the lineages He also represented the unit in the general meeting with other extended family, was the keeper of the ‘Ukhurhe’ the family’s staff which was always kept at the altar or the ancestral shrine to commune with the ancestors for an effective communication with other dead members of lineages or sub-lineage.

The highest level of political organization was the village or the moats grouping or the clan assembly. In such general meetings known as ikogbakhaa, only the representatives of such villages attended and took decisions on matters affecting the society.

One of the most striking features among the people in the moats or Iya enclosure or villages during Ogiso kings was the similarity or uniformity when handling crimes The type of punishments melted out to offenders were also very similar all Over the communities even where there was no Iya the distribution of Iya into primary settlement and non primary by (Darling 1985).

There were also remarked punishments with seriousness of the crime Committed. They strictly enforced it no matter who was involved. The decision of the Edonwere or the council of elders, or the chief priests in judgment involving capital punishment Ohien uwu) were strictly enforced according to the law of the land In these early periods, the punishment could even be extended sometimes to the members of the families of an accused or the offender it’ found guilty.

Although traditionally in pre-Ogiso and throughout Ogiso period no major conflict leading to war were actually reported between two groups but it was known that when one group killed a member of the other that was regarded as a crime to which it immediate action was not taken, it may result in a bloody feud, revenge and counter revenge. This might lead to wars.

Wars were prevented between two groups because of kingship system in these periods; serious matters were often reported to the Ogiso. Enogie, Okaevbo, Edion-evbo or even the Odionwere.

Other crime beside murder, manslaughter, arson, theft and adultery which could be atoned for with money and fines were proportioned to the offences- If an offender had no money, he must satisfy the fine by corporal punishment. Robbery, rape, seduction, abortion were all punishable by flogging or whipping.

Witchcraft, murder, piracy, conspiracy highway and death were treated accordingly, but treason and spying were offences punishable by death or committing suicide. There was no prison where prisoners or offenders found guilty could be kept for a long time. Oba Ewedo in 1255 A.D. was known to be the first king of Benin to build a prison where criminals were kept. But in Ogiso periods, crimes were dealt with immediately and summarily to avoid long terms of imprisonment Fines charged on crimes were divided as follows:

First, the person injured was satisfied out of it; then the Odionwere, Enogie and the four elders (Edionene) such part that went to them was known as (Odion I ko kua) meaning “ the elders cannot meet and settle matters on empty stomach” The remaining part of the fine could go to the women and Ighele or Eroghae age groups. If a man committed rape, he was considered to have married the girl, if she were not a marriageable girl, the accused would be fined.

Ordeals were one of the greatest safe-guards of justice in the ancient Edo There was a time in the early times when liars were reluctant to expose themselves to what was done to accusers. In most cases, both the accuser and the accused were forced to undergo the same ordeal. The people believed that gods had power to come to justice. That was why the invocations of gods or juju were common features in ordeals. The appeal in gods or “juju” prevailed throughout the pre-Ogiso, the Ogiso periods, even to the I8th century. It had greater influence on committing crimes and hence crimes were lesser in their societies. The “juju” cursed by the chief priest or made on accuser to take oath on certain charms or gods were sometimes very effective indeed and served as a deterrent to others.

Trial by ordeals oath by making criminals to drink some concoctions such as the sasswood (iyin) was common features. This was always meted on witch craft which were very rampart, but difficult to prove, trial by ordeal or oath taking was universal in those early periods.

There were others like the greasing of a cock’s Feather which was pierced through the tongue of an accuse, but if the quill remains slicking, he was pronounced guilty (Talbot, 1926).

It was however obvious that most of the forms of ordeals were dangerous and could not reveal the truth. But taking oaths on some charms or gods had been proved to be most effective, but very slow some took months or years before gods or charms could prove accusers’ innocence

Oaths on some gods or charms could kill a whole family, unless that family was bought by paying heavy sums of money to the priest of such god or charms. There was a change in later periods when Monarchy. (Ogiso) came into the scenes. Most communities moved towards political administration and centralization under the kings. The harshness of judicial system was reinforced, by the rulers who manipulated the administration of justice in the way they liked through judicial and religious instructions. Some of the kings established more centres for oaths taking and even controlled by them.

Some of them used these centres to suppress and control crimes in the society because if one lied when taken oaths, he could die instantly It also killed thieves when they are cursed for stolen properties.

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