Many of the hidden ancient relics that survive to this day relate to military defense and wall systems. Not only are they massive and built to endure, they would have offered protection to the ancients who built them. And, in their sophisticated construction, they tell something of the advancements that these ancient people possessed.
Such walls were built by the Ijebu people of Nigeria, whose legends tell that they were built for a powerful and wealthy local woman called Bilikisu Sungbo. Many have linked this woman, and the large and sophisticated domain she ruled, to the stories of the legendary Queen of Sheba.
These defensive walls, perhaps used to unite the tribes within through common defense and access to water, were huge by contemporary standards, although smaller than the neighboring Edo walls of Benin. How were they build, and what can they tell us of the Ijebu, the people of the Yoruba who built them?
Sungbo’s Eredo is a manmade system of defensive walls and ditches surrounding a large area of rainforest in south western Nigeria. The Eredo walls today stand at a length only second to the Great Wall of China.
However, historians have concluded that the original walls were far greater than their present condition suggests. Created by the kings of the Ijebu kingdom, the system of walls and ditches provided a formidable protective barrier for the ancient kingdom.
The Yoruba tribe, whose descendants still inhabit parts of Benin and Nigeria, built the wall. The word Eredo itself derives from an Ijebu word, that means “embankments” in English.
Radiocarbon dating of the walls reveals that the structure dates back to between 670 to 870 AD. The presence of this structure, and the fact that it has endured through time is a testimony to the sophisticated construction techniques of the African civilization.
Historical studies suggest that settlements around the area of Eredo existed as far back as the late stone age. The walls of Sungbo Eredo were built therefore on lands which had been occupied, farmed and defended by roughly the same people for millennia.
A Monumental Undertaking
The walls were primarily built to act as a defensive bulwark during inter-tribal wars in west Africa. They were created by excavating around 3.5 million cubic meters (123.6 m cubic feet) of earth.
The builders of this magnificent wall excavated the earth to create a 165 km (103 mile) ditch with steep vertical walls of between 3 to 6 meters (9.8 to 19.7 feet) high. All that remains of this wall today are these deep trenches that once served as the foundation of the structure.
However, these ditches’ sheer depth and width give an idea of their grandeur and imposing appearance. The raised embankment of Eredo was greater in size than the entirety of Greater London, and the walls ran for a further length than Hadrian’s Wall in England in their full scale.
A wall system of such a scale speaks of the teamwork and traditions of the people building it. Although no written records of the construction of the Eredo walls exist, native people believe that the old men of the Yoruba tribe supervised the wall construction.
The younger men dug the earth with spades, and women carried baskets filled with dug-up earth. The women would then deposit the earth on the inner side of the ditch, creating a wall which built up behind the first barrier. Children would have likely helped as well, carrying messages as well as the empty baskets.
Thus, the Eredo walls survive today as a powerful testament to the unity and cooperation in the ancient Yoruba tribe. Unlike almost every other major construction in history, these appear to have been built with an emphasis on cooperation and mutual advantage, rather than despotic control.
So, who were these co-operative builders who flourished in west Africa over a thousand years ago? Historical evidence confirms that a thriving Ijebu kingdom flourished between the 10th and 14th centuries, protected by these walls.
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The walls of Eredo also have a connection with the legendary Queen of Sheba, mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran. The earthwork of the Eredo walls falls adjacent to a sacred grove in OkeEri. The grove houses a tomb that the local people believe belongs to the legendary Queen of Sheba.
In the local language, she is referred to as Bilikisu Sungbo, and from what little information survives, she appears to have been fabulously wealthy, and to have held a position of power without a husband.
The wall is popularly named after her, being called Sungbo’s Eredo or the Queen of Sheba’s embankment. While this does fit the description of the fabled Queen of Sheba, such attributions should only be made with caution.
Many other great civilizations flourished in Africa, which may offer other candidates for the Queen of Sheba, who may also by entirely mythical. The legend itself, that a wealthy childless widow of the Yoruba clan named Bilikisu Sungbo built the walls, persists. But this may not be the famous Queen.
Truly the Queen of Sheba?
The Bible describes the Queen of Sheba as a dark-skinned woman, indicating her possible African origin. But the main problem with this identification is one of distance.
The Queen of Sheba is said in the Bible to have send a valuable caravan of treasures to the Jewish King Solomon. The journey such a procession would have had to take to travel from Nigeria to Jerusalem makes such an undertaking almost impossible.
Other historians have concluded that the Queen of Sheba was more likely in Arabia, perhaps Yemen, which would put her geographically closer to the region of the Bible and Quran. Others still have concluded that she, and Solomon, did not exist at all.
But this is to take nothing away from this extraordinary construction in west Africa. The Ijebu, coming together as one, built a great wall to defend their heartlands, one which protected them for centuries and one which survives to this day.
Top Image: Remains of a section of the walls. Source: angiekake / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Bipin Dimri
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