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Royal palaces of Abomey

The town was surrounded by a mud wall with a circumference estimated at six miles (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911), pierced by six gates, and protected by…

The town was surrounded by a mud wall with a circumference estimated at six miles (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911), pierced by six gates, and protected by a ditch five feet deep, filled with a dense growth of prickly acacia, the usual defence of West African strongholds. Within the walls were villages separated by fields, several royal palaces, a market-place and a large square containing the barracks. In November 1892, Behanzin, the last independent reigning king of Dahomey, being defeated by French colonial forces, set fire to Abomey and fled northward. The French colonial administration rebuilt the town and connected it with the coast by a railroad.

UNESCO designated the royal palaces of Abomey as a World Heritage Site in 1985.

From 1625 to 1900, twelve kings succeeded one another at the head of the powerful the kingdom. With the exception of King Akaba, who used a separate enclosure, they each had their palaces built within the same cob-wall area, in keeping with previous palaces as regards the use of space and materials. The royal palaces of Abomey are a unique reminder of this vanished kingdom.

From 1993, 50 of the 56 bas-reliefs that formerly decorated the walls of King Glèlè (now termed the ‘Salle des Bijoux’) have been located and replaced on the rebuilt structure. The bas-reliefs carry an iconographic program expressing the history and power of the Fon people.

Today, the city is of less importance, but is still popular with tourists and as a centre for crafts.

The Abomey Kingdom gradually developed into a very powerful military and commercial empire. Its significance was mainly gained through selling prisoners of war as slaves to European slave traders.  The growing wealth of each succeeding king is demonstrated on the number of grand palaces each one built to prove his authority.

What fascinates today’s archaeologists and historians is a series of 56 decorative earthen bas-reliefs. The society of the Fon people used no written documents and thus these bas-reliefs functioned as a unique way of recording the times. One may learn about the Fon people’s myths, customs, rituals, even famous won battles and the greatness of the kings of Abomey.

The unique structure of the main town is also striking. It was surrounded by a mud wall, which is estimated to have been 6 miles long. A protective ditch was running along these walls. Such elaborate defense system helped the kingdom survive for several centuries.

Throughout the 19th century, the first crisis came. European colonists started claiming more and more African land and gradually, the kingdom was facing severe conflicts with France. Finally, the last desperate gesture of Abomey King Behanzin was his order to destroy the city by fire. He would have rather seen the end of the empire than French dominion over it.

Nowadays, the once great city is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It badly suffers, however, due to the disadvantageous environmental factors.

Culled from: www.tourism-review.com