The Royal Palaces of Abomey in the West African Republic of Benin (formerly the Kingdom of Dahomey), on the Gulf of Guinea, are a substantial reminder of a vanished kingdom. From 1625 to 1900 Abomey was ruled by a succession of twelve kings. With the exception of Akaba, who created a separate enclosure, each built a lavish cob-wall palace with a high, wide-eaved thatched roof in the 190-acre (44-hectare) royal grounds, surrounded by a wall about 20 feet (6 meters) high. There are fourteen palaces in all, standing in a series of defensible courtyards joined by what were once closely guarded passages. Over centuries, the complex—really a “a city within a city”—was filled with nearly 200 square or rectangular single-story houses, circular religious buildings, and auxiliary structures, all made of unbaked earth and decorated with colorful bas-reliefs, murals, and sculpture; it was a major and quite unexpected feat of contextual architecture in a preliterate society.
According to tradition, in the twelfth or thirteenth century a.d., Adja people migrated from near the Mono River in what is now Togo and founded a village that became the capital of Great Ardra, a kingdom that reached the zenith of its power about 400 years later. Around 1625 a dispute over which of three brothers should be king resulted in one, Kokpon, retaining Great Ardra. Another, Te-Agdanlin, founded Little Ardra (known to the Portuguese as Porto-Novo). The third, Do-Aklin, established his capital at Abomey and built a powerful centralized kingdom with a permanent army and a complex bureaucracy. Intermarriage with the local people gradually formed the largest of modern Benin’s ethnic groups, the Fon, or Dahomey, who occupy the southern coastal region. Abomey is their principal town.
The irresistible Fon armies—they included female warriors—carried out slave raids on their neighbors, setting up a trade with Europeans. By 1700 about 20,000 slaves were sold each year, and the trade became the kingdom’s main source of wealth. Despite British efforts to stamp it out, it persisted, and Dahomey continued to expand northward well into the nineteenth century. King Agadja (1708–1732) subjugated much of the south, provoking the neighboring Yoruba kingdom to a war, during which Abomey was captured. The Fon were under Yoruba domination for eighty years from 1738. In 1863, in a bid to balance Fon power, Little Ardra (the only southern town not annexed by Agadja) accepted a French protectorate. France, fearing other European imperialists, tried to secure its hold on the Dahomey coast. King Behanzin (1889–1893) resisted, but France established a protectorate over Abomey, exiled him, and made his brother, Agoli-Agbo, puppet king under a colonial government. By 1904 the
French had seized the rest of present-day Benin, absorbing it into French West Africa.
Tradition has it that the first palace was built for King Dakodonou in 1645 and that his successors followed with structures of the same materials and similar design—in architectural jargon, each palace was contextual. King Agadja was the first to incorporate 40-inch-square (1-meter) panels of brightly painted bas-relief in niches in his palace facade. After that they proliferated as an integral decorative device; for example, King Glélé’s (1858–1889) palace had fifty-six of them. As esthetically delightful as they were, the main purpose of the panels was not pleasure but propaganda. An important record of the preliterate Fon society, many documented key events in its rise to supremacy, rehearsing in images the (probably exaggerated) deeds of the kings. Just as history books might do in another society, they held for posterity the Fon’s cultural heritage, customs, mythology, and liturgy.
When French forces advanced on Abomey in 1892, King Behanzin commanded that the royal palaces were to be burned rather than fall into their hands. Under Agoli-Agbo I, the buildings were restored. Although contemporary documents describe the compound as a “vast camp of ruins,” the exact extent of both the damage and the reconstruction is unclear. The palace of King Glélé (known as the Hall of the Jewels) was among the buildings to survive. Although there are doubts about the age of the existing bas-reliefs, which may be reproductions, those from that palace are probably original and the oldest of the remaining works. In 1911 the French made an ill-informed attempt at architectural restoration, particularly in the palaces of Guezo and Glélé. Further inappropriate work in the early 1980s included replacing some of the thatched roofs with low-pitched corrugated steel. Denied the protection of the traditional wide eaves, the earthen bas-reliefs were badly damaged.
The palaces seem to have been under continual threat. After damage from torrential rain in April 1977, the Benin government sought UNESCO’s advice on conserving and restoring them. In 1984 the complex was inscribed on the World Heritage List and simultaneously on the List of the World Heritage in Danger because of the effects of a tornado. The royal compound, the Guezo Portico, King Glélé ’s tomb, and the Hall of the Jewels were badly damaged. Several conservation programs have been initiated subsequently. In 1988 fifty of the fragile reliefs from the latter building, battered by weather and insect attack, were removed before reconstruction was initiated. After removal, they were remounted as individual panels in stabilized earth casings, and between 1993 and 1997 an international team of experts from the Benin government and the Getty Conservation Institute worked on their conservation. The Italian government has financed other projects.
Today the glory of the royal city of Abomey has passed. Most of the palaces are gone; only those of Guezo (1818–1858) and Glélé tenuously stand. Their size gives a glimpse of their splendid past: together they cover 10 acres (4 hectares) and comprise 18 buildings. They were converted into a historical museum in 1944. Apart from them, the enclosure of the Royal Palaces is abandoned. Many buildings, including the Queen Mother’s palace, the royal tombs, and the so-called priestesses’ house remain in imminent danger of collapse.
Ben-Amos, Pauline G. 1999. Art, Innovation, and Politics in Eighteenth Century Benin. Blommington: Indiana University Press.
Piqué, Francesca, Leslie H. Rainer, et al. 1999. Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum.