Eredo: The Largest City in the Ancient World
by Robin Walker
On 23 May 1999, the Sunday Times carried an astonishing article entitled Jungle reveals traces of Sheba's fabled kingdom. Over the next few days many other papers followed suit. Even the Daily Mail one day later asked "Was the Queen of Sheba really a Black woman from Nigeria?" As the evidence emerged, however, the queen of Sheba link proved to be hype. The real Sheba was an Ethiopian queen who lived three thousand years ago. What was undeniable, however, was that the southern Nigerian rainforests had an even more amazing secret to tell. The secret was this. During the Middle Ages, Africans built by far the largest city the world had ever seen. In size, this city dwarfed Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba and Rome. The achievement was on a scale even bigger that that of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Africa's most celebrated monument.
At one time, scholars used to divide the three thousand-year history of southern Nigeria into four great cultural periods. They used to speak of the Nok Culture, the Igbo-Ukwu Culture, the Yoruba Kingdoms and the Benin Empire. This view was boldly challenged by the findings of a team of Bournemouth University scholars led by archaeologist Dr Patrick Darling. Since 1994, the team discovered and mapped the remains of yet another Nigerian kingdom, this time covered by centuries of forest overgrowth. Barnaby Phillips of the BBC described the discoveries as possibly "Africa's largest single monument." As we shall see, this is typical British understatement.
At Eredo, in south western Nigeria, Darling's team found a huge earthen wall with moated sections. This encircled an ancient kingdom or city. From the ditch to the summit of the rampart measured a towering 70 feet. According to Mark Macaskill of the Sunday Times, the rampart was "100 mile[s]" long and formed a rough circle, enclosing "more than 400 square miles." The building was on a truly epic scale. The builders shifted 3.5 million cubic metres of earth to build just the rampart alone. According to the BBC this is, incidentally, "one million cubic metres more than the amount of rock and earth used in the Great Pyramid at Giza." Therefore Eredo's construction is estimated to have "involved about one million more man-hours that were necessary to build the Great Pyramid." The ramparts may indicate the boundary of the original Ijebu kingdom that was ruled by a spiritual leader called the "Awujale". Macaskill, however, disagrees. He describes Eredo as a "city". If he is correct, this would make Eredo one of the very largest cities in all of human history. It was larger than modern London, and was definitely the largest city built in the ancient and mediaeval world.
Among the discoveries, a three-story ruin has been tentatively identified as the royal palace. It had living quarters, shrines and courtyards. It is possible that thousands of smaller buildings are still concealed by the forests. These will be mapped in time. Radiocarbon dating has so far established that the buildings and walls were more than 1,000 years old. Dates such as 800 AD have been given as a good ball-park figure.
People who live near the ruined kingdom or city today have traditions that a wealthy and childless queen, Bilikisu Sungbo, built the city. Some say that she built the city as a religious offering. It is also claimed that Sungbo's territory had a gold and ivory trade. Moreover, her royal household are said to have kept eunuchs. Portuguese documents dating back 500 years, allude to the power of an Ijebu kingdom that some scholars think is possibly this very one. Today, the ruins continue to be of great importance. There are yearly pilgrimages to Sungbo's grave.
Despite this great African achievement it is, however, disconcerting to note that racist theories are already being formulated about this kingdom. For example, Barnaby Phillips wrote that the building of Eredo was: "carried out by people who could not read or write, and with only the most basic of tools. Thousands of labourers - probably slaves - must have toiled in the thick rain forests and dark labyrinth swamps for years."
Naturally, he offers no evidence for the assertions of slavery and illiteracy. On the other hand, the evidence of iron smelting and the other highly advanced metallurgical activities for which the Nigerian civilisations were world leaders seems to disprove the notion that the builders had only basic tools at their disposal.
On a happy note, Dr Darling, the leader of the archaeological team, suggested that Eredo may well gain World Heritage Status. This will put the Eredo kingdom or city on an equal footing with other African marvels such as the Pyramids of Giza and the city of Djenné. It also places this great achievement on a footing with other great marvels from around the world such as Stonehenge.