Royal Palaces of Abomey

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An example of the bas-reliefs decorating the palaces.

The Royal Palaces of Abomey consists of a 40-hectare site at the center of the town of Abomey, Benin, formerly the capital of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. Founded in 1625 by the Fon people, the kingdom developed into an extremely powerful military and commercial empire, which dominated trade with European slave traders on the Slave Coast until the late 19th century, to whom they sold their prisoners of war.[1]


Between 1695 and 1900, twelve kings successively ruled the kingdom, each of them constructing a lavish palace on the royal grounds in Abomey. These palace complexes came to be filled with dwellings, murals, sculptures and a series of bas-reliefs. As their society had no written documents, these bas-reliefs now serve as a unique record of the past, portraying significant events in the evolution of the Fon people and their empire, relating the military victories and power of each king and documenting the Fon people's myths, customs and rituals. The bas-reliefs show that the military strength of the kingdom was partly based on a contingent of female warriors who matched their male counterparts in fierceness and courage. The key event in the growth of the military and economic power of the kings of Abomey was the conquest of Ouidah by King Agadja (1708-1740), allowing this port to become the major trading hub for the kingdom, and the slave trading which took place there was run as a royal monopoly.

Archaeological site

In 1892, as a defiance to French occupation, King Behanzin (1889-1894) ordered that the city and the palaces were to be burned. The destruction was not complete, however, and much of the site is partially preserved, including the palace and myulti-storey dwellings of King Akaba (1685-1708), ruins of the palace and dwelling of King Agadja, the royal tombs of kings Tegbessou (1728-1774), Kpengla (1774-1789) and Agouglo (1789-1797), and part of the palace of King Behanzin. Within the area, there are still some dwellings occupied by descendents of the royal families, who undertake the upkeep of the tombs and sanctuaries. The palaces are all characterized by being constructed on three courtyards: an exterior courtyard(kopododji), used for ritual ceremonies and military parades, an interior courtyard, and the private courtyard used to access the monarch's private apartments.[2] The restored 19th century palaces of King Guezo and King Glélé today form the Musée Historique d'Abomey.

Damage caused by tornadoes in 1975, 1977 and 1984 further diminished the surviving ruins, and archaeologists raised serious concerns about modifications and restorations, including the replacement of straw roofing with corrugated metal sheets, reconstruction of walls using concrete, and painting over bas-reliefs, leading to UNESCO inscribing the site as a World Heritage Site in 1985. It was also placed immediately on the "List of World Heritage in Danger", and appropriate conservation measures were instigated. The conservation plan, partly financed by the World Heritage Fund, combined with an increase in resources allocated to the site's museums, improved management and staffing, led to the site being removed from the "in danger" list in 2007.


After visiting Abomey in 1993, a mission from the Getty Conservation Institute launched a campaign for the restoration of the bas-reliefs that once decorated the palaces. During this campaign, which lasted four years, fifty of the fifty-six bas-reliefs originally decorating the walls of one palace were located and members of the Benin Cultural Heritage staff were trained in the planning and practical aspects of the conservation programme.[3]

External links

Further reading


  1. Royal Palaces of Abomey, Benin Save Our History The History Channel. Accessed 14 January 2008
  2. Palais royaux d'Abomey Liste du Patrimoine Mondial (323) July 1985.
  3. Royal Palaces of Abomey UNESCO. Accessed 14 January 2008