Benin Architecture






Some of the houses in Warri are described by Olfert Dapper in 1668 in this manner: “It has fine buildings, particularly the houses of the nobility, roofed with palm leaves, and like those in Benin, but made of grey earth while those in Benin are red. The court of the King is established in the manner of that in Benin but very much smaller.” The houses of Benin and Warri would have had some similarity so it was not that big a mistake on my part.


This painting of a compound somewhere in Benin was made by Egerton or one of his aides in 1897 after the fall of Benin. Captain George LeClerc Egerton, “King’s Palace, Benin,” 1897(?). Watercolor on paper, image 15cm x 32.5cm (5.9″ x 12.8″wink. Dumas Egerton Trust Benin Collection, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, PRM: 1991.13.29. Acquired on long-term loan in 1991.


This painting of a section of the Palace (occupied by British officers) was by Egerton after the fall of Benin either immediately after (in 1897) or shortly after from memory.



“Images of Benin at the Pitt Rivers Museum”

Author(s): Jeremy Coote and Elizabeth Edwards

Source: African Arts, Vol. 30, No. 4, Special Issue: The Benin Centenary, Part 2 (Autumn,1997), pp. 26-35+93

Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center

Stable URL:

A closer look (to show the building in the background) at the same photograph:


In the back you can see a building that was used as a temporary residence by the British invaders.

This is from the same article (“Images of Benin at the Pitt Rivers Museum”wink mentioned above.

Re: Benin Art And Architecture by PhysicsMHD(m): 1:13pm On Jun 24, 2011


A house in Benin city occupied by the British soldiers as a temporary residence.


A closer look at the same picture:


Note the beams, identical to those that can be seen in that 1897 photograph of one of the courtyards of the Benin palace.

Also note the impluvium.



I feel somewhat bad about posting this, especially since these are probably the great-grandfathers of people I might know, but since these men look very calm and composed and dignified, there can’t be that much harm in posting this :


An 1897 photograph of a Benin building.

This is not from that article (“Images of Benin at the Pitt Rivers Museum” by Coote and Edwards) above, for the record.


“The king’s wall in Benin City. Benin, Nigeria. Silver gelatin print, 10.2cm x 13.9cm (4″ x 5.5″wink. Photograph by J. H. Swainson, 1892. Macdonald Niger Coast Protectorate Album, A1996-190138.”

[It should be noted that the angle doesn’t give a good impression of the height of the wall:


“Legroing tells us : ” The city of Benin is situated in a plain surrounded by deep

ditches. Vestiges of an old earthen wall are to be seen ; the wall could hardly have

been built of any other material as we did not see a single stone in the whole journey

  1. The houses for the most part are covered with latanier leaves, and those of

the king with large shingles. In front of the king’s houses there were two thick

clumps of high trees, and these appeared to us to be the only trees planted by the

hand of man (Labarthe, p. 175).” From Landolphe we learn that a ” ditch more than

20 feet wide and as deep surrounds the town, and the soil taken out is made on the

city side into a talus, on which a thorny hedge has been planted so thick, that not

even an animal can get through. The height of this talus deprives one of a view of

the houses at a distance, and one does not see them until entering the town, the gates

of which are very far apart ” (II., 48). ” The streets are very broad ; in the middle

there is turf on which the kids and sheep feed ; about thirty feet from the houses

there is a level road, covered with sand for the inhabitants to walk on ” [ibid, II., 50).

He also mentions several spacious courts surrounded by earthen walls about sixteen

feet high. Along the inside of the walls there ran a gallery fifteen feet wide, thatched

with natanier. The thatching is done by overlapping the leaves which not

being pulled apart, fall one on top of another to a thickness of eighteen inches.

This roof is supported by large pieces of timber cut into the shape of pillars. They

are set up about eighteen feet apart, and carry stout horizontal planks on which

abut the sloping joists which carry the roof, which was an ingenious piece of work “

(ibid, I., 111-112). Of the apartments of the king’s wives he says the walls are twenty

feet high and five feet thick, solidly built of earth [ibid, I., 335).” – H. Ling Roth, Great Benin ]

Modern (recent) concept art by Stephen Hamilton giving his artistic interpretation:




“Palace of Benin”

I like how subdued and calm this is and his choice to opt for a straightforward nostalgic depiction of the city rather than flashy colors or grandiose scenes and poses.



He labeled this “palace of benin impluvial shrine”


I like how he incorporated


1) the impluvium

2) the thatch on the roof

3) the open roof courtyard

4) the Benin style of columns (note the difference between the bottom and top of the column) as seen in photographs

5) a known, but not yet seen (due to the destruction of the palace) historical fact that was attested to by Dapper’s informant and multiple other visitors to Benin:


“The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, “

   —Olfert Dapper, Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten


Although the type of columns may have been of earth, rather than wood in the case of the type of columns used for his artistic depiction. Still, there were certainly columns, whether earthen or wooden, on which art was displayed.


This one he labeled “benin palace: akoko tree gardens”


This one I find interesting. I like the strict adherence to the style of building seen in the brass plaques and the photographs. I like the incorporation of the bird of prophecy on the top of the turret as well.


And I don’t know if he already knew this, but the depiction of gardens is backed by historical sources:



“This compound consisted of about a hundred houses, whose roofs

made a good blaze. Behind the buildings there

was a huge garden, which we never had time to

explore, but it must have been quite a hundred

acres, surrounded by a high red wall. It is not

unlikely that it was the walking place of the King,

and formed part of his compound . . .” – Reginald H. Bacon, Benin (1897)


It would be interesting if this thread in some way gave him any ideas or help. grin   cool That’s probably just conceit on my part, though. He could have just found out about Benin architecture on his own. Either way, I’m impressed.


I really have to give this guy credit. These are some of the best architectural depictions of Benin seen.



One thought on “Benin Architecture

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