If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know “mud” buildings can be majestic. But more needs to be said about the royal architecture in precolonial Africa.
Enter “Yoruba Palace Gardens” by J. B. Falade published in Garden History (Vol. 18, No. 1). I must have read this journal years ago and I suspect it was when I was trying to do random research on that historical novel (or two, or three) that I’ve been working on forever. Falade writes of the Old Oyo palace,
[it] had two large parks, one to the front and another facing the north. The former covered half of the total palace are and overlooked the main entrance door. To the left of this park was a fetish house, and further south were two attractive large blocks of granite outcrops (inselbergs) near which was a mature deciduos tree. In the centre of the park were two beautiful clumps of shade trees; and in the midst of them a tall fan palm (Hyphaene thebaica) which towered over the whole scene.
This description is based on Hugh Clapperton’s visit to Old Oyo before it was sacked by the Fulani empire. Royal gardens were also reported in other Yoruba towns such as Iwo, Ede and Ile-Ife. These gardens not only had flora, they also had sculptures apparently worked in stone and iron.
Falade writes that, “the Yoruba attach great importance to the garden as art” and goes on to state that every Yoruba palace had a garden between its imposing walls and the palace buildings. This space was know as ogba or agbala. Some gardens were utilitarian but others were ornamental. So you have kitchen gardens, sacred gardens with temples, herb gardens, gardens for grazing royal cattle, wilderness landscape that served as a hunting park for royalty…
The gardens had walkways paved with quartz stones and potsherds along with religious temples, monuments and statues.
Yoruba kings were restricted to their palaces outside ceremonial occassions and could not be seen by the general public on any normal day. So the wide expanse of land within the palace walls provided kings with space to relax in a “self-contained paradise” where they could enjoy leisure activities.
As if it wasn’t enough, there were also “water gardens”. The impluvium, or akodi in Yoruba, also referred to as the ‘rain courtyard’ was present in both Yoruba and Benin households. It was an open area in the compound created to collect rain water. Archaeological excavations at Ife have found these rain courtyards paved with potsherds and drained by pipes “made out of clay pottery or grindstone pierced by a hole and forming a king od funnel to avoid fampness and erosion of the adjacent walls”.
Falade suggests that the gardens were created by artists. Gardens thus join the elaborate carvings and architecture that the Yoruba are known for. Yoruba historic sculptures can be found in museums across the world, but historic architecture, including these gardens, seems to have been all but forgotten.