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Abomey Royal Palaces

Benin, Africa

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