One of the world’s largest cities in 1500 I’d never heard of

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Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.

…Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

That is Mawuna Koutonin in The Guardian. Hat tip to Amitis Oskoui.

All of this is now gone, in part due to European intrusions. He concludes:

Curious tourists visiting Edo state in Nigeria are often shown places that might once have been part of the ancient city – but its walls and moats are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps a section of the great city wall, one of the world’s largest man-made monuments, now lies bruised and battered, neglected and forgotten in the Nigerian bush.

A discontented Nigerian puts it this way: “Imagine if this monument was in England, USA, Germany, Canada or India? It would be the most visited place on earth, and a tourist mecca for millions of the world’s people. A money-spinner worth countless billions in annual tourist revenue.”

Instead, if you wish to get a glimpse into the glorious past of the ancient Benin kingdom – and a better understanding of this groundbreaking city – you are better off visiting the Benin Bronze Sculptures section of the British Museum in central London.

17 thoughts on “One of the world’s largest cities in 1500 I’d never heard of

  1. My wife’s uncle got his Ph.D. in African history. It was 1961, which just shows how late there was Western interest in this continent’s culture. But I’m not sure things have improved much since then. A current phone book in a retirement community lists residents by their country of origin–except for those from “Africa”. Police in Georgia recently investigated travelers returning from Zambia to see if they had Ebola; on the continent you can’t get much further away from West Africa. And when my wife and I came back from Tunisia people kept asking me if we’d gone on safari. I got tired of explaining we were on the wrong side of the Sahara. Oh well.

  2. “They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.”

    -LOL. Pyramids of Mexico and Egypt? Great Wall of China?

    “Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting.”

    -Doubt it.

  3. Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

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