Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The 135th good thing about Lagos: Sungbo's Eredo, Africa's largest single ancient monument

On our Saturday field trip, we were supposed to have another stop to visit the town of Epe, a couple of its mosques and the Oba. Epe is a good sized town that we came to after we got back on the major road going along the Lekki peninsula and then crossed the lagoon on a causeway which returned us to the mainland. But we were unable to tour Epe because the week before our visit, the Oba died. When our guide contacted town officials, they said that the town was in mourning and it wouldn't be respectful for us to visit it at that time. So we drove through the town, but will have to wait another day for more indepth inspection.
So our final stop of the day was just off the main road a short ways past Epe. We were introduced to a small section of Sungbo's Eredo, which has been described as Africa's largest single ancient monument (that link takes you to a very interesting article about the Eredo, which I will quote shamelessly here). An "eredo" means a "ditch," but this is no small ditch, but a huge system of walls and ramparts. As a construction project, Sungbo's Eredo required more earth to be moved than the Great Pyramid of Giza (though it can't be compared with that project in complexity). More than 100 miles in circumference with some sections having walls which reach 70 feet in height, it encloses an area 25 miles north to south and 22 miles east to west, the size of Greater London, or 30 times bigger than Manhattan. It was built around 1000 AD, legend says, at the bidding of a wealthy childless widow named Bilikisu Sungbo. She has been linked in local legend to the Queen of Sheba, but because there is a big discrepancy in dates, that doesn't seem credible. The ramparts mark the boundary of an African rainforest kingdom, which would have taken millions of hours of toil to construct. Our guide said that it was built with no iron tools, just wood.

To visit the Eredo, we took off on a short hike into the thick rain forest just off the road. This large and beautiful tree is like a road marker -- it stands atop part of the buttresses of the wall now covered with vegetation. Just past the tree along the road was a small house with people that will serve as guides to the Eredo and they were paid to clear the trail for us.

We first stopped at this lovely pool of water with lily pads and surrounded with banana palms. It was a nice place for a picture.

Then we descended further into the trench alongside the wall. It was quite a treacherous climb, and we had to grab branches to keep our footing through the heavy undergrowth.

We were able to walk along a section of the wall and see the steep and smooth ramparts, and get a feeling for the mammoth task of what this construction would have taken 1000 years ago.
After we climbed up on a rise, our guide said that this pair of trees beside the trail marked a toll area. They had a bowl beside a tree and they said that at the time of this community, travellers would have had to pay a fee with cowrie shells, the currency of the time.

Most mystifying is why go to the trouble of building such a huge wall. In a rainforest habitat, a community doesn't need a wall and ramparts quite so much for a defensive purpose, but the Eredo may have had more of a cohesive purpose, and perhaps a spiritual purpose. The walls enclosed a community, separating their living area, which would have been tamed and cultivated, from the wildness of the rain forest outside the walls. "The earthworks represent the boundary between the real world inside the enclosure and the spirit world outside." Bodies were cast into the trench outside the walls. And "according to local tradition, the inhabitants buried charm pots beneath earthworks gateways and applied potions to the earth walls to ward off evil spirits. To this day, there is an annual ceremony to appease the spirits of the gateways."
The existence of the Eredo got some publicity in 1999 when a British archeologist, Patrick Darling, publicized his surveying of the site, which he kind of stumbled on. Before the publishing of his findings, the Eredo had been little-known outside of community residents and specialists in Yoruba history. Darling is supposed to be returning to Nigeria soon to do more field work in the area. He thinks the Eredo should be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, which would protect it from further destruction.
It was very interesting to learn something about this ancient African rainforest kingdom.


Nicholas K-C said...

Hi Carolee, I was reading your post on the Eredo and it's very interesting.

I'd like to visit it this weekend, was hoping you can tell me a little more about how you did it - is it a well known landmark or will a taxi driver look at me like I'm crazy if I ask him to take me there?


Carolee said...

Hi Nicholas!

It was an interesting place. It's not that well known (even a Nigerian museum archeologist I asked about it had never heard of it) and not really marked at all. I'd be surprised if a Lagos taxi driver would know anything about it. I know it's a ways after Epe off the main road and just after that majestic tree on the right there's a little white building and the trail begins there. But I think just trying to get to it on the spur of the moment especially during the rainy season is quite iffy. I know they had paid someone to clear the path and guide us. I tried checking the Nigerian Field Society trip reports to see if they had more info. about this trip, but I couldn't find a trip report about it, so I really don't know who they would contact. You could try to contact someone from the Nigerian Field Society (contacts on the website) to see if they have any more information about how to get access to the trail. Sorry I can't be more help!

Nicholas K-C said...

Hi Carolee

Thanks for the advice - I've emailed the Lagos branch of the NFS. Will see what they have to say.