Once upon a time in medieval age, Benin City was regarded as one of the best-planned cities of the world
When Europeans first started exploring Africa in the age of great discoveries, one of the common attributes they used for describing their encounters with new places and new civilizations, was that these were all primitive. But when they ended up in front of the gates of the wondrous Benin City, feelings must have been mixed and impressions somewhat different.
In the times of pre-colonial Africa, Benin City, or back then also called Edo, resembled the power center of the now lost Benin Empire which thrived in what is nowadays southern Nigeria. If not the oldest, this empire appeared to be one of the most advanced ones on the territory of western Africa, and it flourished ever since the 11th century.
Benin City and its vibrant surrounding of urban areas and villages were protected by Great walls, or what historians have described to be one of the most significant earthworks completed before the existence of advanced mechanics. One source even claims that this wall was at one point allegedly “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramids of Cheops.” Today, there is hardly any trace left of it, neither from the wall nor old Benin.
And what did the walls protect? Likely an urban haven. The urban planning of this lost African city seemed to have been carried out in compliance with top-notch accuracy, symmetrically-proportional schemes said to have followed fractal patterns. Mathematicians Ron Eglash and also an author of the book African Fractals have conducted more research on such repetitive patterns found in architecture and design all across the world, but as he notes, it was only in Africa that patterns appeared fractal.
Eglash would note: “Mathematicians didn’t invent infinity until 1877. So they thought it was impossible that Africans could be using fractal geometry.” However, Benin City was designed in such a way that the interlocked urban areas and villages inside its boundaries were intentionally laid out to form fractals. Supposedly, even the rooms of the people’s houses matched the pattern of the city.
For the medieval European mind, it must have been unimaginable that such a city could have possibly existed in Africa, a realm of the world stereotypically noted by a vast European majority as disorganized. Benin City was a proof of everything opposite, lurking hidden in the heart of an African jungle. It was not only the perfect arrangement of settlements and dwellings but things like street lights — this was among the first cities in the world to have lightings installed. They were metal lamps scattered along different city zones, and especially near the prominent palace of its king. Palm oil was used to light them during the night, and their illumination eased the traffic.
The Portuguese were reportedly the first to discover Benin City, back in 1485 and they called it the “Great City of Benin.” While no other place in Africa was distinguished with such a compliment, suddenly Benin City was considered to even be one of the most beautiful and best-planned cities in the then-known world.
Compared to Lisbon, it was also way bigger and seemed much safer, or as one 17th century Portuguese captain had noted: “It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.” Not to mention, such description would have utterly contrasted depictions of other European cities, such as how Paris is repulsively depicted with all its odors and garbage in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.
As it appeared to be an extraordinary place, Benin City was, of course, very soon connected to European trade networks, but unfortunately, that was the beginning of the end. When more Europeans started arriving, the city started to face serious internal conflicts. Just across the borders of the empire, there was it, the slavery market, well grown, and European intruders just multiplied inside the city. The turmoils persisted through the following centuries, until 1897 when British soldiers decided to set the entire city on fire.
Today, there is a new Benin City, nestled in the same place where once its counterpart from history used to shine brightly. The new city is the capital of the Edo state in southern Nigeria and 320 kilometers (or 200 miles) away from the Nigerian capital of Lagos. It sustains on rubber and oil industries, and whether you wonder where are the ruins of the old city, there isn’t any. Nor there are replicas or much information shared around for visitors to learn the ancient history of the place. Luckily, there are still books to remind us of the grandiose past of this place.
We also though to remind you of the Incas and how they made use of the Quipu in absence of alphabetic writing system