Abomey Royal Palaces
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 complexreally aa city within a citywas 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 Benins ethnic groups, the Fon, or Dahomey, who occupy the southern coastal region.
Abomey is their principal town.
The irresistible Fon armiesthey included female warriorscarried 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 kingdoms 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 designin 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 Gleles 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 Fons cultural heritage, customs, mythology,
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 avast camp of ruins, the
exact extent of both the damage and the reconstruction is unclear. The palace of King Glele 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 Glele. 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 UNESCOs 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 Glele 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 Glele 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 Mothers palace, the royal tombs, and the so-called priestesses house
remain in imminent danger of collapse.