The Walls of Benin are a series of earthworks made up of banks and ditches, called Iya in the Edo language, in the area around present-day Benin City, the capital of present-day Edo, Nigeria. They consist of 15 km (9.3 mi) of city iya and an estimated 16,000 kilometres (9,900 miles) of rural iya in the area around Benin.


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The Benin Moat, also known as the Walls of Benin or locally as Iyanuwo, is an ancient engineering feat encircling Benin City in Nigeria's Edo State. These moats have deep historical roots, with evidence suggesting their existence before the establishment of the Oba monarchy. Villages and wards contributed to their construction for defensive, socio-political, and economic purposes.

Benin Moat
Native name
Edo language: Iyanuwo
Sketch of the Benin Moats
Map of the Benin Moats in Rural Areas
TypeDefensive fortification
LocationBenin City, Edo State, Nigeria
Nearest cityBenin City
Coordinates6°20′33″N 5°37′13″E / 6.3426°N 5.6204°E / 6.3426; 5.6204
Area814 acres (329 ha)
Elevation150 feet 1 inch (45.75 m)
HeightVaries (approximately 18 metres (59 ft))
LengthApproximately 16,000 kilometres (9,900 mi)
Built13th century
Built byEdo people
Criteriaii, iii, iv, v
Reference no.488
Benin Moat is located in Nigeria
Benin Moat
Location within Nigeria

Construction began around 800 AD and continued until 1460 AD, involving manual labour and the repurposing of earth from the inner moat to build towering outer walls. These earthworks spanned approximately 16,000 kilometres (9,900 mi), enclosing about 6,500 square kilometres (2,500 sq mi) of land.

The Benin Moat served as highly effective defensive structures, with steep banks and towering walls that deterred invaders. The outer walls provided an additional layer of protection, and access to the city was controlled through nine gates. Today, remnants of the moats can still be found in Benin City, although urbanisation and land disputes pose challenges to their preservation.

Recognised for their historical significance, the Benin Moat was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and were acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1974 as one of the world's largest man-made structures by length, second only to China's Great Wall. It was described by Olfert Dapper in his book Description of Africa in 1668 as the Great Walls of Benin.



The origins of the Benin Moats, also known as the Walls of Benin, cannot not be attributed to a single ruler or era.[1] While Oba Oguola played a role in expanding and deepening the moats, evidence suggests that these moats existed before his reign and even before the establishment of the Oba monarchy.[1] Various villages and wards that later coalesced into Benin City may have initially dug their moats for both defensive and boundary purposes.[2]

The moat is an example of ancient engineering that reflects the civilisation of the Benin Empire.[3] It consisted of a combination of ramparts and intricate moats that encircled the city of Benin City in present-day Edo State, Nigeria.[4]


The earliest phase of moat construction in the Benin Kingdom likely predates the Ogiso kings. Archaeological findings and oral traditions suggest that some moats were in existence before the arrival of the Ogiso rulers.[5] These early moats served various purposes, including socio-political organisation, economic activities, and defense.[6]

During the rule of the Ogiso kings, the culture of moat construction continued and likely expanded. Moats varied in their origins and purposes. Different villages and wards within the Benin Kingdom had their moats, often constructed for distinct reasons. The Ogiso kings contributed to the development of some of these moats, maintaining control and organisation within the kingdom.[6]

With the transition from the Ogiso kings to the Obas, the moat-building tradition persisted. Obas like Oba Oguola and Oba Ewuare re-dug and deepened some of these structures. The moats associated with the Benin Kingdom today, particularly the inner moat crossed during Obas' coronation, might have been deepened during Oba Ewuare's reign in 1440 A.D. Oba Oguola, who reigned around 1280 A.D, also played a role in moat construction.[6]

Construction of the Benin Moat itself began as early as 800 AD and continued until around 1460 AD.[7] This defensive system comprised inner moats and walls protecting Benin City, while outer walls extended to encompass numerous villages and communities.[7] In total, the moat system spanned about 16,000 kilometres (9,900 mi) and enclosed approximately 6,500 square kilometres (2,500 sq mi) of land.[7]

Manual labour was the sole means of construction, precluding the use of modern earth-moving equipment or technology. Earth excavated to create the inner moat was repurposed to build the external ramparts (outer walls). These walls varied in size, from shallow traces to towering structures reaching up to 20 metres (66 ft) in height. The sheer length of the Benin Moat ranks it among the most extensive earthworks in history.[8][9]

The defensive capabilities of the Benin Moat were evident in practice. The moats, vigilantly guarded, functioned as effective defensive lines. They exposed invaders attempting to breach the city, resulting in their capture or meeting fierce resistance by Benin soldiers.[10]

The steep earth banks posed an obstacle to invaders, who risked burial in sand avalanches. The towering walls discouraged climbing, making invaders targets for Benin soldiers armed with spears and poisoned arrows.[11]

The outer walls provided an additional layer of protection, effectively shielding the city. Strict access control was maintained through nine gates in the city walls.[12] The inner wall, approximately 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) long, encircled vital areas, including the Royal Palace and chiefs' residences.[12]

Beyond the inner wall lay a broad ditch, matching the wall's dimensions.[13] Access through this fortified earthwork required payment of a toll, contributing to the city's reputation for safety by subjecting visitors, including traders, to thorough scrutiny.[14][13]

In 1897, during the peak of colonialism, the British conducted a punitive expedition that heavily damaged the Benin Moat.[8]

Urban core and protective moats

The heart of Benin City's historical landscape covered an area exceeding 7 square kilometres (2.7 sq mi). It included the residences of the king, nobility, and indigenous inhabitants.[15] The city's layout revolved around two perpendicular streets: the principal sacred king's palace passage extending from the palace to the east, and a cross street connecting the King's Square to Oba Market, where slaves and ivory were traded.[16] The city's various communities extended along these streets and other minor ones.[17] The architectural feature was the Benin Moat, possibly originally over thirty-five feet in width, surrounding the city and acting as a protective barrier.[18] The moat maintained a consistent depth, an average width exceeding thirty-five to fifty feet, and a length over 13,000 miles (21,000 km).[19]

There were two distinct sections of the moat: the primary moat around the urban core and the sacred palace, and a secondary moat constructed later, encircling an area to the south.[20] These moats were complemented by a defensive wall constructed of limestone blocks. Together, the moats and walls constituted defenses.[19]

Current state

Objects looted by the British

The British punitive expedition in 1897 and the expansion of Benin City has encroached upon and obscured remnants of the rural earthworks. Additionally, some locals have repurposed these materials for construction purposes.[10][8] Traces of these ancient moats persist, visible as tree-lined embankments woven into the contemporary cityscape.[19][8]

One notable vestige of the past is Chief Enogie Aikoriogie's house in Obasagbon, which still exhibits architectural designs reminiscent of the Benin Empire.[8][21][22] There are rumours that sections of the Great Wall of Benin might be hidden and forgotten in the Nigerian bush, awaiting rediscovery.[23]

Ongoing disputes

The moats encircling various towns and villages in Benin Metropolis historically served as boundaries. In many cases, these moats now encompass multiple villages, leading to complexity in areas like Benin City due to urban expansion and ongoing development for housing and industrial purposes.[7] As a result, some villages assert ownership claims over parts or the entirety of the moat enclosures, citing their longstanding presence in the area, even if it means displacing the original inhabitants.[2] Such claims have sometimes resulted in conflicts and disruptions in the region, where the interests of long-standing settlers have clashed with those of newer, more populous arrivals.[1]

Land disputes in the courts often involve clashes between the original owners of Iya or moats enclosures and newer settlers claiming ancestral rights.[6]

Preservation and safeguarding

An urban street view captured within the Royal quarter of Benin City, in 1897, showcasing the local surroundings and architecture.[8]

Preserving the Benin Moats faces challenges due to urban expansion.[citation needed] Portions of these moats have yielded to residential and commercial development, experienced degradation from drainage projects, and been transformed into refuse disposal sites.[24]

Certain sections of the moats, such as the area near Ogba Road, have succumbed to pollution and serve as dumping grounds for waste.[25] Preserving these historical assets necessitates comprehensive programs encompassing documentation, preservation, and vigilant safeguarding.[26]


In 1668, Dutch physician and writer, Olfert Dapper in his book Description of Africa described the walls as the 'Great Walls of Benin'.[8][10]

European explorers first learned of the Benin Walls in the early 1472 AD when Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira made a brief mention of them during his travels, describing it as one of the world's largest earthworks:

Pereira's description portrayed the city as stretching a league from gate to gate, encircled not by walls but by a large, notably wide and deep moat that served as its defense.[27]

However, archaeologist Graham Connah later cast doubt on Pereira's depiction, suggesting that Pereira might not have considered an earthen bank as a wall within the context of his time.[28]

In the early 1600s, Dutch explorer Dierick Ruiters provided an alternative account:

Ruiters, upon his entry into the city on horseback, observed a substantial earth bulwark, thick and towering, alongside a deep, broad dry ditch filled with tall trees. He also made note of a well-constructed gate, fashioned in the local style and designed for closure with a constant guard presence.[29]


A depiction of the King's compound on fire during the attack on Benin City

Benin City holds historical significance as one of the pre-colonial urban centres in sub-Saharan Africa. It served as a central hub of the Benin Empire, which exerted influence over a significant portion of West Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries.[16] With roots extending over a millennium, the city's ancient charm has waned due to the extensive destruction caused by the British invasion of 1897.[30] This invasion led to a catastrophic fire that consumed the city, sparing only a few historic structures.[8][28]

The present-day city's layout radiates from the central 'Ring Road,' a circular junction that includes the Benin City National Museum. This location, once the primary entrance to the historical royal palace, also marks the site of the 'king's square,' extending before the palace walls.[23]


In 1974, the Guinness Book of World Records recognised the walls of Benin City as the world's second-largest man-made structure by length, following China's Great Wall. The series of earthen ramparts was acclaimed as the most extensive earthwork ever constructed.[8]

In 1995, the Benin Moat was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[31]


See also


  1. ^ a b c "Benin Moat: Amazing legacy of great people". The Nation Nigeria. 21 May 2013. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  2. ^ a b Ebegbulem, Simon (25 March 2011). "National monument,Benin moat...On the edge of extinction". Vanguard News. Retrieved 18 September 2023.
  3. ^ Onokerhoraye 1975, pp. 294–306.
  4. ^ Nevadomsky, Lawson & Hazlett 2014, pp. 59–85.
  5. ^ "The Great Wall of Benin — Giving Children a Fighting Chance". 28 February 2021. Retrieved 18 September 2023.
  6. ^ a b c d "The Benin Moats". your Guide To The Benin Kingdom & Edo State, Nigeria. 1 July 2021. Retrieved 18 September 2023.
  7. ^ a b c d Ogundiran, Akinwumi (June 2005). "Four Millennia of Cultural History in Nigeria (ca. 2000 B.C.–A.D. 1900): Archaeological Perspectives". Journal of World Prehistory. 19 (2): 133–168. doi:10.1007/s10963-006-9003-y. S2CID 144422848.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Koutonin, Mawuna (18 March 2016). "Story of cities #5: Benin City, the mighty medieval capital now lost without trace". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  9. ^ MacEachern, Scott (January 2005). "Two thousand years of West African history". African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. Academia: 18–23.
  10. ^ a b c Connah 1967, pp. 593–609.
  11. ^ Daerego, Mary M.K. (6 August 2020). "GRANDEUR OF THE BENIN MOAT (ancient Benin civilization)". Observe Nigeria. Retrieved 18 September 2023.
  12. ^ a b Graham 1965, pp. 317–334.
  13. ^ a b Reporter, Our (16 June 2021). "Benin's ancient moat wall turned dumpsite". Tribune Online. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  14. ^ Trammell, Victor (20 September 2020). "Pre-Colonial Africa's Benin Moat Was Much Wider & Longer Than China's Great Wall". Black Then. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  15. ^ "HOME – BENIN MOAT FOUNDATION". 25 July 2011. Archived from the original on 3 March 2012. Retrieved 8 September 2023.
  16. ^ a b Carvajal, Guillermo (17 October 2016). "Las murallas de Benin, la estructura más larga construída por el hombre, con 16.000 kilómetros de longitud". La Brújula Verde (in European Spanish). Retrieved 8 September 2023.
  17. ^ Readman, Kurt (17 January 2022). "Mysterious and Massive: Who Built the Walls of Benin?". Historic Mysteries. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  18. ^ @NatGeoUK (17 September 2022). "The story of Nigeria's stolen Benin Bronzes, and the London museum returning them". National Geographic. Retrieved 8 September 2023.
  19. ^ a b c Affairs, Edo (21 February 2023). "The Benin Moat – Largest Man Made Earthworks". Edoaffairs. Retrieved 8 September 2023.
  20. ^ Team, Editorial (19 November 2018). "The Ancient Walls of Benin: 16,000 Kilometres (800AD-14th Century)". Think Africa. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  21. ^ "7 Underrated African Art Cities That Should Definitely Be on Your Radar". The Folklore. 27 October 2020. Retrieved 18 September 2023.
  22. ^ a b Pearce, Fred (11 September 1999). "The African queen". New Scientist. Retrieved 18 September 2023.
  23. ^ Maduka 2014, pp. 83–106.
  24. ^ Adekola et al. 2021.
  25. ^ Onwuanyi, Nwodo & Chima 2021, pp. 21–39.
  26. ^ Hodgkin, Thomas (1960). Nigerian Perspectives: An Historical Anthology. Oxford University Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0192154347.
  27. ^ a b Connah 1972, pp. 25–38.
  28. ^ Hodgkin, Thomas (1960). Nigerian Perspectives: An Historical Anthology. Oxford University Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-0192154347.
  29. ^ Willett 1985, pp. 101–2.
  30. ^ Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. "Benin Iya / Sungbo' s Eredo". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  31. ^ "photographic print (black and white) | British Museum". The British Museum. Retrieved 8 September 2023.


Further reading

External links





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