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The Garden History Society

Yoruba Palace Gardens Author(s): J. B. Falade Reviewed work(s): Source: Garden History, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 47-56 Published by: The Garden History Society Stable URL: . Accessed: 23/12/2011 22:15
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TheYoruba culture south-west in A. of Nigeria, West Africa,began abouttheeighth century D. Amongst itscultural too in the achievements, littleknown Europe,canbelistedextensive gardens surrounding royal are taken excavation archaeological here,withevidence palaces.These assessed accounts, fromtravellers' and actualremains.

There is, in some circles, a negative attitude to African traditionalarchitecture, an attitude which has prompted others to argue that the traditionalarchitectureof the African continent deserves more than passing consideration.1 Since many people as narrowlyconceiveof architecture the designof buildings,it has alsobecomenecessary to extend the same argumentto the gardens.2One can perhapscite some examples.The most comprehensivebook on YorubaPalacearchitecture that by Ojo,3 which provides is some useful accounts of the buildings but erroneouslyrefersto the gardensas 'forests' enclosed within the walls. Another example is the recent attempt to create replicas of some notable Nigerian palaces, mosques and shrines at the Jos Open Air Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture (MOTNA), in which the landscape character of gardensas settingsfor these buildingshas been largelyignored.4Such neglect reinforces the current disbelief in the existence of Nigerian garden styles and ideas. We need to redress the situation. Crowehas rightly concluded that 'Gardensare the link between men and the world in which they live, for men in everyage havefelt the need to reconcile themselveswith their surroundings,and have createdgardensto satisfytheir ideals and aspirations'.5Certainly,the Yorubapeople of southernNigeria attachedgreat importanceto gardendesignas an art. It could be saidthatthey werepreoccupiedwith building elaborategardensfor their deities, kings and chiefs.6 The aim of this paper is to describe and analysethe landscapecharacterand the underlyingconceptsof YorubaPalacegardens.Attemptsto documentthe historicalpast of any aspect of Africanculture including those of Nigeria face a numberof problems. One of the greatesttragediesfor traditional Africanarchitecture thatthe equivalentsof is the many greatbuildingsand gardensaroundwhich the people in westerncountriescan weave their local histories today have virtuallydisappearedin Africa. This is because
Departmentof Urban and Regional Planning, ObafemiAwolowo University,Ile-lfe, Nigeria



these buildings were constructedof mud7and becausegardenshave proved even more ephemeralthan the mud buildingsthey embellished.Anotheraspectof this problemhas been the greatlack of writtenaccountsand recordsand the absenceof plans. Therefore, except for the existingevidence, one has to rely on the very few survivingrecordsand on oral accountsand archaeology.Thus, since many of these gardenshave either vanished or been greatly altered, it is intended to study their various attributesfrom existing literature. In doing this one needs to free oneself from the bias of the authors whose works provide the research material. It is to the European explorers who had been curiousenoughin passingto describesome of the Nigerianhistoricgardensthatmuch of the credit of this paperis due.

The royalpalacesof Nigeriaarethe most importantand dominantlandscapeelementsof units andthe focalandnodalcentres. traditionalsettlements,beingthe largestresidential revolves around either the obas, emirsor shehuswho live in them. The Everything outstanding architecturalquality of these palaces reflects the political, social and rulers. For example,Ojo in his study, Yoruba religiousvalues attachedto the traditional described Yoruba obas as the political and spiritual heads of the people,8 Palaces, regardedas the epitome of mankind and deserving the highest honour, privacy and comfort. The architecture the oba'spalaceaccordswith his importance.The samecan of be said of other traditionalrulersin Nigeria among the Hausa, Kanuriand Fulani. The traditionof buildingelaborateaafins(palaces)amongthe Yorubais probablyas old as the earliestsettlement at Ile-Ife. Although there is in fact no firm archaeological dating for the founding of Ile-Ife, it is generallybelieved today that the town has been occupied since the eighth centuryA.D. 9 Becauseof the importanceattachedto kingship and all that goes with it, this traditionwas carriedto otherYorubatowns. Just as Yoruba towns approximated a model town plan, so did the palaceswith their distinctiveand to similararchitectural style. The most accomplishedones like that of Ile-Ife and Old Oyo becamethe set patternfor the laterones. For example,the firstpalaceat Ilesawas said to have been laid out on Old Oyo's model with the help of one of the princessent from Old

The history of Old Oyo shows the evolutionarynature of the developmentof Yoruba palace architecture. Moreover, it seems that the essential attributes of the palace architecturewere perfected here. Old Oyo or Katunga was the headquartersof an extensive and powerful empire which rose to prominenceonly after Ife had begun to who had earlierpioneeredthe decline. The palaceof Old Oyo was built by Oranmiyan one at Ile-Ife. Both Fage and Aderibigbe11 affirmthat Old Oyo State was founded by Oranmiyan,the Son of Oduduwa,who migratedfrom Ile-Ife. In particularAderibigbe asserts that according to Benin tradition, the same Oranmiyanalso founded a new dynasty at Benin. However, modernresearchhas tentativelyascribedthe beginning of this episodeto somewherebetween 1388and I43I. Oranmiyan becamethe ancestrallink



between Ile-Ife, Old Oyo and Benin where he founded new dynasties. It is recordedby Johnson12that the first palace at Old Oyo was completely razed to the ground by fire duringthe time of Sango, a misfortuneand retributioncausedby his own magicalskill of emitting fire from his mouth. Thereforethe task of building a new and more attractive palacefell on Sango'ssuccessor,Aganju, who was describedas a sovereignof high taste and a lover of gardens and wildlife. According to Johnson, 'he greatly beautifiedthe palace adding attractivesquares front and back, with rows of brazen posts. He also originated the tradition of decorating the palace with (flower) hangings on state occasions'.13 The success he had in rebuildingthe Old Oyo palaceis rememberedby the old Yorubaadagewhich says; 'Ile oba tojo esuewa lose', meaningthe goddess of beauty causes the palace to be burnt in order to ensure a higher architecturalsplendour.14 Oluaso, anotherking of Old Oyo, laterconstructedsome I20 kobis,the imposing porch entrancesto Yorubapalaces.15 The magnitude of the old Yoruba palaces and their landscape charactercan be visualizedfrom the descriptionsgiven by the nineteenth-century explorersand missionaries. Generally, older Yoruba palaces had many impressive buildings that were surroundedby veryhigh walls, while the gardensaroundweremostlymaintainedin their primeval landscape character. Of the royal palace at Old Oyo, Clapperton, a Scot,
?/ j^C-lz~tJ)
* 7/

'Figure ~Old

I. Oyo palace




I [











recordedthat the king's palace, which covered some 226 hectares, was located on the south-facingslope of a hill (Ajakahill). The king's residentialquarterswere built of clay and and roofedwith thatch. The posts which supportedthe verandahs doorswere carved in bas-relieffigures depicting the boa killing either an antelopeor a hog, and scenes of warriorsin processionsattended either by drummersor slaves.16The Old Oyo palace had two largeparks, one to the front and anotherfacingthe north. The formercovered half of the total palaceareaand overlookedthe main entrancedoor. To the left of this park was a fetish house, and further south were two attractivelarge blocks of granite near which was a maturedeciduous tree. In the centre of the park outcrops (inselbergs) were two beautiful clumps of shade trees; and in the midst of them a tall fan palm which toweredover the whole scene. (Hyphaene thebaica) Barely a decade after Clappertonhad described Old Oyo, it was attacked by the Fulani empire and crushed;and this led to its abandonmentand the foundationof new
Oyo in I837.17 Since I940 the site of Old Oyo has been designated as a Forest Reserve

(Figure I). The site of the old palaceis now largelyovergrownwith trees and saplings coveredwith many lianas.18 Of the royal palaces in Iwo and Ede, there is the account by Hindererwritten in

TheKing'scompound Iwo]is quitea palace native in kindof [in style,withthosecurious towers to But an [Kobi] peculiar theOyopalace. theagbala palace ground], extensive [the a trees was gardenadjoiningto it containing varietyof lofty and wide spreading .... of of is something [inEde]the King'spalace thepicture neatness a nativebuilding, andhis agbala behindwhichis verylarge,wouldbe a fineparkif the wallswerenot in

The palaceat Ile-Ife in 1912 (Figure2) accordingto Frobenius: wasthe mostimpressive in the town,its massive wallsbeingvisiblefromwhatever sight one the with on quarter approached town.Itsfront especially thefineopensquare whichit stands makes imposing an wallsaremighty, effectin spiteof allits ruin.The [enclosing] overa yardat the baseandsomeeighteen high[5 metres].20 feet The former Kobi of the Ooni's palaceis said to have measured92 m in length, 18 m in width and over 7 m in height.21Frobeniusalso noted that Ooni's residentialcompound had 'three open courtyards, and a building which overlooked the largest one had a projectedfore court like a baldachino,with a recessedentrancefitted with a well carved timber door and two mud steps that ran acrossits length'. Frobeniusalso mentionedsome of the wonderfulbaobabs,Adansonia digitata,that he saw in the courtyardgardensof the palaceand in the market-places; these were the most southerlyspecimensof the tree he had seen. The existingEnuwasquarewas said to have been grassed in the past and used occasionallyfor the grazing of royal cattle. Furthermore,the palacehad many other enclosuresadornedwith beautifulsculptures carefullyworkedin stone and iron. There was a smallenclosureto the easternpartof the palace, which was adorned with many beautiful sculptures that he described as a 'monument park'.22The sculpturesin it were arrangedin an interestingpattern, and included a fish head carvedin stone, a block of quartzstone sculpturelike a drum with five holes which was used for Ifa's worship, and in between them the anvil of Lade, a smoothbulbousor drupe-shaped ironblock held to be the anvilof Ogun, the god of iron.


5I Figure 2.



Ooni's palace, I912 (source:

Frobenius 1913)


3M 2 I 1

1 O 1 L I

Figure 3. Sculpturegarden, Ooni's palace,


top Frobenius describedas a _ stone figure'. It is in /y-A Q~l.^^d^~ ^~ ~'crocodile fact a mudfish (source: ' 1913) 'y ^il^ _i^\.~~~ /Frobenius

The object with a ridged

Ogun, the son of Oduduwa, was a blacksmith who became deified by the Yoruba after his death and his anvil has been a symbol used to denote his presence. Another interesting feature in the midst of all these other objects was the crocodile stone figure (Figure 3). Frobenius had comments to make about the dilapidated condition in which he found the palace. According to him: poorOni! poorPalace!How arethe mightyfallen!Oncea gloriousedificeherereareditself aloft, built of bricks well burnt, brilliant with coloured tiles and sundry other ornament! ... Here the smoke of burningsacrificesrose into the airand here the breathof life exhaled from the many a human victim offered up, while this strange country's high priestschantedprayer.Othertimes otherpictures!Let us see whatthe Oni is today;let us go to one of his audiences.23 Considering Frobenius' painstaking description, the Ooni's palace could be regarded as a perfect arcadia, even though it was in ruin at the time of his visit. The Ooni's palace was in such a state of ruin and neglect partly because of the protracted civil wars between the Modakeke and Ife people which led to the abandonment of the city twice during the



nineteenthcentury.Today, most Yorubapalacegardenshavebeen alteredsubstantially: only fragmentsof historic gardensare left in nearlyall of them. Since the beginningof this centurytwo notablechangesin the landscapecharacter of Yoruba palaces have been identified by Falade.24The first is the encroachmentof buildingsupon the palacegardens,leadingto the shrinkageof the palacegrounds. Ooni Aderemiassertedin 1966 that he had it on recordthat the presentpalaceis a quarterthe size of the originalone.25The second significantchangehas been the opening up of the of wooded landscapesof Yorubapalaces,leadingto the disappearance majestictreeslike the Adansonia with exotic treesand shrubs. Increasingly, digitataand their replacement the palace gardens begin to adopt the stereotyped grassed parklandsof the English landscapestyle introduced by the colonial administrators.These are indicative of the changeswhich have takenplacein the tastesand valuesof Yorubakings, especiallythose associatedwith their political status and religiousviews.

Generally,the Yorubaattachgreat importanceto the gardenas art. Their rich artistic culture attests this. The underlyingidea of the Yorubapalacegardencan be said to be summedup in the wordogbaor agbalameaning'anenclosedarea,fencedoff garden,or a yard'.26 To this end every Yorubapalaceis enclosedwith attractiveand imposingwalls. Between the walls and surroundingthe palace buildings are the gardens (Figures 4 and 5). The open spacesaroundthe Yorubapalaceswere extensiveand serveda numberof functions. Olowo's Palace (44 ha) is the largestsurvivingexample. In it were (and still



---I pATHS

Figure 4. Olowo's palace, Owo, I976. This is one of the largestsurviving traditional Yorubapalaces (based on aerial photograph)

0 100 2p0 3OOM I I I 1



Figure 5. Aerialview of Owabokun'spalace, Ilesa. The rectangular palaceis framedby the adjoiningroads and enclosing walls. The palacebuilding served as a focal point in the town. Behind it is the elaborategarden, which still has its medievalwooded landscape

are) different types of gardens both utilitarianand ornamentalwhich include farm gardens, kitchen gardens, sacred gardenswith temples, herb gardens, graveyardsand wildernesslandscapeas a huntingpark. The mainman-madefeaturesof the gardenwere the walkspavedwith quartzstonesandpotsherds,the religioustemples, monumentsand statues, the carefullyplantedmajesticand sacredtreeslike Ficus, Adansonia digitata,and Newboldialaevis, and the partof it preservedas wildernessand stockedwith game. The value attachedto the palacegardenas a hunting groundis well corroborated the need by to designatea forest reservefor a similarpurposefor the Alafinof Oyo whose palacehad no parkland.27These palace gardens were carefully maintained by the townspeople together with the market squares, roads, town squaresand other public buildings. and The form of Yorubapalacegroundsreflectedcultural,environmental religious needs. The generallyhot and humid climaticconditionsmeant that it was imperativeto createoutdoor space for Yorubakings for open air relaxationnear the palacebuildings. Culturally, Yoruba kings are generallyheld as the spiritualand political heads of the townspeople and surroundingvillages. Until early this century, they were restrictedto their palaces except on ceremonialoccasions. There was also daily worship in temples and groves on behalf of the townspeople. Thus these palaces were developed as




Figure6. Yoruba obelisks.A. Idi OgunEsa obelisks Itakpa on Street,Ile-Ife, whichmighthavebeenwithinthe old beforeit was palace compound in reduced size. The triangle a is sundial. B. The obeliskat Idena
Grove, Ile-Ife, 1912. C. The

Grove, Staff,Oranmiyan Oranmiyan Ile-Ife. Bandc aretoo faraway fromthe old palace havebeen to in included its grounds (sources:

Frobenius I9I3, Falade I984)

self-contained paradises or sanctuariesso that the kings could remain within them without feeling imprisoned. The immediatephysical needs of the Yoruba kings were obviously partly met by the purely utilitariangardens such as kitchen gardens, farm gardens, herb gardens, the wilderness stocked with game, and the grazing fields. Similarly, the king's spiritualneeds were met by the religious temples, monoliths and statuettes erected in these gardenswhere open air worship often took place (Figure6). Though Yoruba kings might have been restrictedto their palaces their lives were not totally devoid of leisure pursuits. An important landscape feature that was conspicuously absent in these historic gardenswas water. Besides naturallyoccurringwater in the gardensuch as streamsor lakes or wells, waterwas representedin both abstractand symbolicformssuch as the use of stone sculptures of water features like crocodile, boa and fish; some of these were describedby Frobeniusas the objects seen in the sculpturegardenat the Ooni's palace. In addition, the impluvium(Yoruba: akodi) was originally a water garden in the courtyardsof the Yoruba and the Benin compounds, of which the best examples are is preservedin the palacesof the kings and compoundsof the chiefs. The impluvium a small open area in the centre of the compoundpurposelycreatedto collect rain water. Hence it is sometimes referredto as a 'raincourtyard'.Usually, provisionwas made to



Figure7. Courtyard paving

aho,lgca hwf ivsgto inPX , pattern, Ile-Ife. Double rows of potsherdswere laid in a herringbone

pattern forma to

squaregrid filled with ole culure rmquartz pebbles. This

fifteenth -\Obadjac


set onmn n rie can~brokenpottery



dated the to

mud watertanks catchthe waterin largepots for storagebut nowadayscement-plastered are used. Archaeological excavationsat Ife revealedsome impluvis pavedwith sherdsof pierced by a hole and forming a kind of funnel to avoid dampness and aerosion the of Whereas the Yoruba look to the east as the place of origin of their ancestors, archaeologicalevidence tends to discount this claim. For example, archaeological investigationsin Ile-Ife have not only shown the antiquityof Ife culturebut the modern view is that the sculptureof Ife and Benin could have evolved quite naturallyout of the older Nok culture28or might have been part of the same civilization. The Ife culture evidently drew much of its artistictraditionfrom that of Nok, or from an undiscovered common ancestor.29In fact, the high standardof Yorubaarts such as the bronze and terracottas,which have been judged as among the most accomplishedin the world,30 cannot be separatedfrom other aspects of their civilization,including architectureand gardening.All flourishedtogether.Obviously,the historicgardensdescribedabovewere the creationsof artistsin that they existed both to house and exhibit importantworks of artsuch as sculpturesandmonoliths.All the majorbronzesand stone sculpturetreasured in museums were still in shrines and groves until they were brought into museums for safe keeping. Cordwell has rightly concluded that, among the Yoruba, elaborate architecturaland artistic expressionwas closely associatedwith deities and kings.31It could be argued that gardenswere no exception.



The author wishes to acknowledgethe different authorswhose works have been cited and especially permissionto use Figures I and 2 which have been drawn from earlier
publications by Willett (I967) and Keay (1947).


I. S. Denyer, Traditional AfricanArchitecture (London, Heinemann, I978). See also B. A. Oruwari,'TowardsEvolutionof Indigenous Architecturein Nigeria', NIA Journal, 3(2) (June
I987), pp. 25-26. See other articles by S. Biobaku,

12. S. Johnson(192I),

13. S. Johnson (I92I), pp. 44-55. I5. S. Johnson (I92I),

op. cit. op. cit., pp. 9-Io and op. cit., pp. I55-58.

I4. G. J. A. Ojo (I966), op. cit., p. 64.

I6. H. Clapperton, A. Awotonain the same journal. Journalof a SecondExpedition intotheInterior AfricafromtheBight of Benin to 2. J. B. Falade, Nigeria'sUrbanOpenSpaces:An of InquiryintotheirEvolution,PlanningandLandscape Soccatoo.(London, John Murray,1828), pp. 53Qualities.Ph.D Thesis, Departmentof 54. Architecture Edinburgh University (1985). See I7. J. D. Fage (I978), op. cit., J. F. Ade Ajayi (1972), op. cit. chapter8, 'RoyalGardens',pp. 307-45. 18. R. W. J. Keay, 'Notes on the Vegetationof Palaces (London, 3. G. J. A. Ojo, Yoruba Old Oyo Forest Reserve',FarmandForest,8, UniversityPress I966). See also G. J. A. Ojo, No. I (June I947), pp. 36-47. 'YorubaPalaces:An index of YorubaCulture', I9. David Hindererquoted in A. L. Mabogunje, NigeriaMagazine,94 (1967), pp. 194-210. in Urbanisation Nigeria(London, Universityof 4. J. B. Falade (I985), op. cit., pp. 167-70. London Press, I968), p. 97. Design(ThomasGibson 5. S. Crowe, Garden 20. L. Frobenius. The Voiceof Africa:Being an PublishingLtd, I98I). InnerAfrican account the Travelsof theGerman 6. J. B. Falade, 'YorubaSacredGrovesand of Architectural Research,I I, Expedition of the Years 1910-1912. 2 Vols (London, Squares',Edinburgh I9I3). Reprinted Benjamin Blom, I968. See (1984), pp. 21-49. Vol. I, pp. 270-77. 7. See C. Graham,'Some sketches of Katsina 2I. G. J. A. Ojo (I966), op. cit., p. 57. from the past', TheNigerianField, XXXIII,No. 2 22. L. Frobenius (I913), op. cit., p. 309 of Vol. I. (I968), pp. 88-90. 8. G. J. A. Ojo, op. cit. 23. Ibid., p. 277. A Culture: Geographical 24. J. B. Falade (I985) op. cit., pp. 33I and 339. 9. G. J. A. Ojo, Yoruba 25. Quoted in G. J. A. Ojo (I966). Analysis(London UniversityPress, I966), p. 167. 26. Abrahams,Dictionary ModernYoruba See also M. D. Jeffreys, 'When was Ife founded', of TheNigerianField, xxIII No. I (I958). (I958), P. 507. Io. S. Johnson, TheHistoryof the Yorubas (CMS 27. G. J. A. Ojo (I966), op. cit. 28. J. D. Fage (1978), op. cit., p. 103. Lagos, I92I), p. 150. Ozanne, basing his argument of on the similaritybetween the architecture town African 29. F. Willett, Ife, in theHistoryof West walls suggestedthat the style spreadfrom Oyo to (London, Thames and Hudson, I967). Sculpture See chapter ix, 'The origin of the Yoruba and of Ile-Ife. See Paul Ozanne, 'A new Archaeological the Art of Ife', pp. II9-28. Surveyof Ife', Odu New SeriesNo. I (April I969), 30. See W. Bascom, African Art in Cultural pp. 28-45. I . J. D. Fage, A Historyof Africa(Hutchinson perspective: An introduction(New York, I973). See also F. Willett (I967), op. cit., pp. 7-8. London, I978), chapter4, 'The Developmentof Statesand Tradesin Guinea',pp. 83-109. See also of aspects 31. J. M. Caldwell,SomeAesthetic Ph.D Thesis, North Yoruba Benin Cultures, and Yearsof J. F. Ade Ajayi, and F. Espie, A Thousand Western University (I952), p. 45. WestAfricanHistory(IbadanUniversityPress,
1965), p. 93.