Royal Palaces of Abomey
The Royal Palaces of Abomey consist of 12 former palaces within the same enclosure in the center of Abomey.
The site is a testimony to one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa, Dahomey. It was built by the Fon people between 1625 and 1900.
In 1985 it was inscribed simultaneously on the World Heritage List and on the List of the World Heritage in Danger, after a tornado struck Abomey in 1984 and damaged the royal structures and museum severely.
This site provides a sense of the scale and nature of some West African Kingdoms prior to colonial rule. Forget any Europe or Asia-based preconceptions about what the word “Palace” implies and you could find a visit an interesting entree to the region’s history.
What remains is a large complex of 2 palaces – those of the 19th century Kings Ghezo and Glélé who were the 9th and 10th kings of Dahomey (Another 10 palaces were destroyed during the French defeat of the monarchy in the 1890s). The complex consists of large interlinked courtyards each surrounded by rather ordinary single story mud-brick buildings with “tin roofs” (originally of course they would have been thatched) and contains also a few separated structures which were/are tombs and temples. The whole is contained within impressively high walls (legend has it that they were partly made from human blood). Many of the buildings now act as rooms for the National Museum and contain a reasonably interesting range of artefacts relating to the monarchy of Dahomey whose period of greatness spanned the 17th to the 19th centuries (A throne mounted on skulls is particularly memorable!).
The size and strength of the palaces reflects the fact that the Fon of Dahomey were powerful regionally and highly militaristic under an absolute monarchy which owned everything and everybody! The Kingdom had a regiment of all-female warriers – the “Dahomey Amazons”, whose supposed “savagery” was the stuff of French legend as partial justification for their African expansion. Their wealth originally derived significantly from the sale of slaves in which the Kingdom acted both as capturers (mainly, but not entirely from other tribes) and as middlemen for tribes further into the interior of Africa. These slaves were exported to the Americas (mainly Brazil in the 18th century) through nearby Ouidah (Itself a T List entry and well worth a visit). The African slave trade depended on a supply chain anchored by such willing local rulers who, given the opportunity of vast additional profits offered by trading with the relatively few Europeans present on the coast, extended the long-standing inter-African “slavery tradition”. The trade was gradually made illegal by the various European and American powers during the 19th century but continued in both local and overseas forms during the period represented by these palaces. King Glélé in fact favoured dealing with the French rather than the British (represented by Sir Richard Burton no less!) partly because they were less active in suppressing the slave trade and he maintained “traditional” slavery within his kingdom particularly to support the new source of wealth - palm oil production and trade which depended on slave labour .
In some respects the visit can be a bit disappointing. We were there on market day and discovered that the interior of King Glélé’s tomb was closed because a “current princess” comes on that day to clean it (some descendents of the royal dynasty still live in parts of the complex)! More annoyingly, NO photography of any kind is allowed inside the compound. Whilst this is perfectly reasonable for the museum room interiors, we were told by our guide that it was to protect the postcard rights and that UNESCO officials had indeed criticised the rule. Yet, when we reached the museum shop, there were NO postcards or brochures on sale – nor any sign that they had been in the recent past! This “shop area” also has a “working” blacksmith and weaving to contribute to the site’s “tourism credentials” – but there were very few other tourists around during our visit.
The main “glory” of the courtyards is a series of 50 polychrome bas-reliefs of traditional significance on the walls of the “Adjalala” of King Glélé. A few, less good (and entirely modern?), are available to be photographed on the exterior walls, but it is inside the complex where the finest ones have been recently restored with financial and technical help from the Getty Conservation Institute. Their site (http://www.getty.edu/conservation/field_projects/abomey/ ) contains a 4.5 minute video, and much else, on the palaces. However the complex itself remains on the list of UNESCO sites in danger. The ravages of time and lack of money, together with a disastrous cyclone in 1984 have all contributed. My “combined photo” is made up of one my own of a crumbling exterior wall and buildings, together with another of some of the bas-reliefs scanned from “Masterworks of Man and Nature – Preserving our World Heritage” (Harper-Macrae ISBN 0-646-05376-0).
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Full name: Royal Palaces of Abomey
2007 - Removed from Danger listCompleted almost all corrective measures
1985 - InscribedReasons for inscription
1985 - In Dangerconsiderable damage caused by the 1984 tornado
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- Dynastic Burial Places Includes the royal tcmbs of Tegbessou (1728-1774), Kpengla (1774-1789) and Agouglo (1789-1797)
- Slavery The Dahomey kings captured people both to sell on as to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and to keep as their own slaves
- Human Sacrifice Described in 1864 first-hand by Richard Burton in "A mission to Gelele King of Dahome with notices of the so called "Amazons", the grand customs, the yearly customs, the human sacrifices, the present state of the slave trade and the negro's place in nature.
- Built in the 19th Century Among the palaces surviving after the destruction of another 10 in the invasion of 1894 are those of Kings Ghezo (1818-58), Gl?l? (1858-89) and Behanzin (1889- 1894)
- First inscriptions Benin 1985
- Located in a Former Capital Abomey - Capital of the Dahomey Kingdom 1625-1892
- Preservation assisted by Getty Trust Palace Bas Reliefs (1992-7)
- Role of Women In the 18th century King Agadja of Abomey created a regiment of female guards. Later they became active warriers and fought the French who likened them to the "Amazons". They are portrayed on some of the palace bas-reliefs
- Swan songs Benin 1985