Royal Palaces of Abomey
From 1625 to 1900, 12 kings succeeded one another at the head of the powerful Kingdom of Abomey. With the exception of King Akaba, who had his own separate enclosure, they all 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.
Outstanding Universal Value
The Royal Palaces of Abomey are the major material testimony to the Kingdom of Dahomey which developed from the mid-17th century in accordance with the precept enunciated by its founder, Wegbaja, “that the kingdom shall always be made greater”. Under the twelve kings who succeeded from 1625 to 1900, the kingdom established itself as one of the most powerful of the western coast of Africa. The site of the Royal Palaces of Abomey covers an area of 47 ha, and consists of a set of ten palaces, some of which are built next to each other and others which are superimposed, according to the succession to the throne. These palaces obey the principles relating to the culture Aja-Fon, and constitute not only the decision-making centre of the kingdom, but also the centre for the development of craft techniques, and storage for the treasures of the kingdom. The site consists of two parts since the palace of King Akaba is separated from that of his father Wegbaja by one of the main roads of the city and some residential areas. These two areas are enclosed by partially preserved cob walls. The palaces have organizational constants because each is surrounded by walls and built around three courtyards (outer, inner, private). The use of traditional materials and polychrome bas-reliefs are important architectural features. Today, the palaces are no longer inhabited, but those of King Ghézo and King Glélé house the Historical Museum of Abomey, which illustrates the history of the kingdom and its symbolism through a desire for independence, resistance and fight against colonial occupation.
Criterion (iii): The Royal Palaces of Abomey are a group of monuments of great historical and cultural value because of the conditions that led to their erection and the events they have witnessed. They are the living expression of a culture and an organized power, testimony to the glorious past of the kings who ruled the Kingdom of Dahomey from 1620 to 1900.
Criterion (iv): Organised as a series of courtyards of increasing importance, the access to each being provided by portals built astride the walls of the main enclosure, the Royal Palaces of Abomey are a unique architectural ensemble. These complex fortified structures illustrate the ingenuity developed by the royal power, from the mid-17th century, to comply with the precept laid down by the founder of the kingdom Wegbaja “that the kingdom shall always be made greater”.
An inventory drawn up in 1995 with support from the World Heritage Centre identified and mapped 184 components. Similarly, the dimensions of the property were rectified from 44 to 47 ha, and its boundaries protected by a clearly defined buffer zone. Today, more than half of these components have been restored in accordance with accepted conservation standards and with the support of UNESCO and some partners of the State of Benin, including the royal families.
The authenticity of the site is based on the continuous functionality of the palaces. The more-or-less regular celebration of traditional ceremonies and the organization of rehabilitation work on the buildings for special events, respecting traditional know-how, strengthen the authenticity of the site. Furthermore, certain elements such as the Djexo (hut that houses the spirit of the king), Adoxo (tomb of the king) and other sacred places have always been given particular attention with regard to the respect of traditional materials. Laterite, water, wood, straw and traditional building techniques remain references for any intervention that should enable good transmission of this heritage to future generations. All in all, many initiatives have been taken in a dynamic perspective and with the logic of continuity of the tradition.
Protection and management requirements
The adoption and promulgation of Law No. 2007-20 of 23 August 2007 on the protection of cultural heritage and natural heritage of cultural significance in the Republic of Benin, and the decree on urban planning regulation of the buffer zone of the site listed by the City of Abomey in 2006, provide a secure framework for the protection of the property. In addition, the site of the Royal Palaces of Abomey has always included sacred spaces that are respected by the royal families and populations. The organisation of ritual ceremonies is another manner of appropriate safeguard.
The administrative, technical and participatory management of the site is regulated by decrees of the Minister of Culture. In addition to the existence of a technical structure of daily management directed by the Site Manager, a Management Board involving all the stakeholders (city hall, populations, royal families, heritage specialists, State), enables dynamic participatory management of this property. The activities undertaken on the site respect the provisions of the plan for the conservation, management and enhancement of the site. The precariousness of building materials used on the site, the human activities and the natural phenomena that might threaten the conservation status of the property are all elements that receive special attention through a risk management plan and a monitoring mechanism, with regard to both management issues and different means of intervention on the site.
The Royal Palaces of Abomey bear exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition that has become vulnerable under the impact of time. Still used regularly for traditional rituals and for royal ceremonies, the palace buildings are important not simply because of the past that they represent, but also for the tradition they help to sustain. For a society without written documents, the bas-reliefs (used as decorative features) serve as a unique record of the past, they represent the most significant events in the evolution of the Fon people and their empire, glorifying the military victories and power of each king and documenting the Fon people's myths, customs and rituals.
The West African Kingdom of Abomey (formerly Dahomey), founded in 1625 by the Fon people, developed into a powerful military and commercial empire. Under the twelve kings who succeeded one another from 1695 to 1900, the kingdom became one of the most powerful on the west coast of Africa. Until the late 19th century its primary source of wealth was from selling of prisoners of war as slaves to European slave traders for transport across the Atlantic to the New World.
Each of the twelve kings built a lavish palace on the royal grounds in Abomey, the capital city, all within the same cob-walled area, in keeping with previous palaces as regards the use of space and materials. They are all characterized by a number of structural constants: within the walled enceinte, each palace has its own walls and is also built around three courtyards. The exterior courtyard is the site of ritual ceremonies and military parade, the interior courtyard and the private courtyard afford access to the residence of the king and queens of two distinct zones, that of the palaces and that of the north-northwest, the zone of the Akaba Palace. Over the centuries, the palace complex came to be filled with dwellings, facilities, murals, sculptures, and a series of intricate bas-reliefs. Earthen bas-reliefs were used as an essential decorative feature in the facades of most of the palaces. The walls show that the military might of the Abomey kingdom was based, in part, on companies of female warriors who matched their male counterparts in fierceness and courage. They also portray mythical animals that symbolized the characteristics of the kings and their power as rulers.
In order to defy French occupation in 1892, Abomey King Behanzin ordered that the city (including the palaces) be burned. The Salle des Bijoux (Hall of Jewels), the palace of an earlier ruler, is thought to have been one of the few structures to survive the fire, making its bas-reliefs of particular importance as a historic record of the Fon's rich culture.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC