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.

Further reading

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.

The Acropolis

Athens, Greece

The Acropolis of Athens, as it was rebuilt in the fifth century b.c., is a wonderful example of unified civic design in a theocentric society. Under the general control of Pheidias, the greatest artist of his day, the popular strategos (elected general) Perikles (ca. 495–429 b.c.) initiated a fifty-year plan comprising architectural and artistic projects that included the Parthenon, the great western Propylaea, the precious little Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheion. The costly works were paid for by misappropriating