BENIN: Abomey, one of the most important historical cities in West Africa


December 6, 2023

The city known today as Abomey and located in south-central Benin was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most important kingdoms in West African history. This kingdom was established in these lands in 1625 by the Fon tribe. Quickly, it became one of the most powerful kingdoms, both militarily and commercially, being one of the main actors in the slave trade where they captured people from other tribal groups as prisoners and sold them to the European powers destined for the New World.

The kingdom of Dahomey expanded rapidly through present-day Benin, Togo and Nigeria; and they were feared by different tribal groups that took refuge in the mountains such as the Taneka tribe (if you want to know more, you can click here), or the Holi ethnic group (if you want to know more, click here). A total of 13 kings ruled in Dahomey, where we find one of the most popular armies of women in human history known as “the Amazons of Dahomey”. It was not until 1892, almost 300 years after its foundation, that the kingdom was defeated by the French, later becoming a colony of the European country until it achieved its independence in 1960 with the name, first, of Republic of Dahomey; and, fifteen years later, under the name of Benin.

The Kingdom of Dahomey was and is a place where voodoo is practiced. In fact, Benin is the only country in the world where voodoo is declared an official religion, and many practice this religion. This is one of the characteristic features of the city and, therefore, surely during your visit you will also have the opportunity to access a voodoo festival, a religion of which we have a very gloomy image but that is still a way of believing and connecting with its ancestors and nature.

Today, in Abomey, you can see the remains of the royal palaces of this kingdom, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and experience the voodoo religion more closely, visiting one of its fetish markets and attending some of its celebrations. Visiting the history of one of the most important nerve centres in the African history of the Gulf of Guinea and seeing the traditions of one of the world’s most mysterious religions are the main reasons why you can’t miss Abomey during your trip to Benin. 

How to get there?

Abomey is one of the country’s major cities. There are different means of transport connecting this city with Cotonou or Porto Novo via Bohicon (located 9 kilometers east of Abomey). For example, if you are coming from Cotonou, the distance between the two cities is 140 kilometers, with an approximate journey time of 2-3 hours. If you are coming from Porto Novo, the distance is 110 kilometers, which you will also do in 2-3 hours of travel.

If you are coming from the north, such as Dassa, you can reach Abomey by the main road where you will find a lot of truck traffic. From Dassa to Abomey there is a journey of 86 kilometers that you will do in approximately 2 hours. Therefore, Abomey is a city that is very well connected by the different roads that pass through the center of Bohicon, as well as the different means of public transport that arrive there (shared taxis or buses).

How to organize your trip through Abomey?

We travelled to Abomey with Euloge from Loana Travel. For those of you who don’t know him, Euloge is a very nice person who speaks Spanish and is from Benin. He has an agency that organizes trips to different countries in the Gulf of Guinea, and when we wrote to ask for information, he told us that he wanted to travel with us in order to show us the cultural richness that Benin has. An excellent and professional person who has a very interesting local travel agency company. For those who want to contact him, you can see his website here here or send a Whatsapp directly to +22994753719.

Abomey can also be visited for free, but you will have to keep in mind that it will be much more difficult for you to locate certain places where they perform voodoo rituals, since they are usually quite closed to tourism. With a local guide like Euloge, it’ll be much easier for you to move around the city’s different cultural corners and understand all the rituals of the voodoo tradition.

What to do in Abomey?

The city of Abomey is the nerve center of an area where you can do many activities, among which we highlight:

– Visit the royal palaces of Dahomey, considered a World Heritage Site

The royal palaces, which had an area of approximately 47 hectares, consisted of one construction for each king who was in power of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Despite there being 13 kings, only 12 palaces were built here because King Akaba decided not to build his palace in this space. In the royal palaces of Abomey, you can see walls, with interior parts where you can see different tools and utensils of each realm, as well as musical instruments and the throne of King Ghézo. In addition, in the courtyard of the palaces you can also find different vendors who will show you the handcrafts they make and that you can take as a souvenir of Abomey.

Legend has it that Abigboma, the daughter of King Tado, a small kingdom in present-day Togo, was kidnapped by a panther with whom she had two children. One of these was King Kopon of Allada, who had three sons: Meji, Te Agbanlin and Gangnihessou. When it came time for the king’s succession, problems began between the brothers and finally it was Meji who succeeded their father. Te Agbanlin went south, to the region now known as Porto Novo; and Gangnihessou settled in Dahomey. Gangnihessou is considered the first king of the kingdom of Dahomey.

The kingdom of Dahomey was presided over by 13 kings, most notably Aho (the third king and who laid the foundations of the fortress of Dahomey), Agadja (the king who incorporated the “Amazons of Dahomey” into his military team), Ghézo (one of the most important kings who solved the crises they had with other neighboring realms such as those of Nigeria),  Glélé or Behanzin, a king who went into exile because he never wanted to surrender to the French. In fact, this was the penultimate king the French brought to Martinique where he died in 1906. Behanzin decided to burn down the palaces before handing over the secrets of the Kingdom of Dahomey to the French. Finally, after Behanzin, we find Agoli, the last king of the Dahomey kingdom who was only a symbolic figure since most of the country was already colonized by the French.

The Royal Palaces of Abomey are a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to their importance in the slave trade of the Gulf of Guinea and their monarchical dynasty that lasted almost 300 years and established one of the most powerful kingdoms in African history. To access the venue, you will have to pay 5,000 CFA per person. Visiting the remnants of this empire is one of the activities not to be missed during your trip to Benin.

– Learn about the history of Dahomey’s Amazon Women’s Army

Dahomey’s Amazons were one of the most important armies of women in all of world history. They were created in the Kingdom of Dahomey during the presence of King Agaja (1708-1740) since there were not many men, and were an army totally loyal to the king. However, it was not until the reigns of Ghézo (1818–1858) and Glélé (1858–1889) that the army reached its apogee.

They were known for their bravery and strength in fighting. It is explained that these warrior women were capable of killing an elephant and created a real terror among the neighboring peoples. It is said that they did not hesitate to behead their enemies and drink their blood. During the nineteenth century, they became an elite army and were considered wives of the king. In the center of Cotonou, you’ll find a 30-meter statue of the Amazon as a symbol of national identity and a key part of this country’s history.

The women warriors of the Kingdom of Dahomey were called Amazons in reference to the ancient warriors of Greek mythology, the Amazons. The association with the Amazons of Greek mythology was made due to the perceived similarities between these African warrior women and the legendary Amazon warriors of Greek culture. The Amazons of Greek mythology were a tribe of legendary warriors, known for their bravery and skills in fighting. According to mythology, the Amazons were an exclusively female people who lived in the Black Sea region and fought deftly in battles and wars.

When Europeans came into contact with the Kingdom of Dahomey and learned of the existence of women warriors in the region, they observed their military skills and special status in society. Since these women were an all-female military unit and were noted for their bravery on the battlefield, Europeans began to call them “Amazons” in reference to the legendary warriors of Greek mythology.

The use of the term “Amazon” to refer to these women warriors has endured in history and popular culture, becoming an iconic symbol of female bravery and autonomy in the West African region. For more information about this army, you can read this article from National Geographic.

– Discover the Chameleon Temple, a very curious building to see

During our visit to Abomey that we did with Euloge, we were able to access a chameleon-shaped temple where they celebrated a small ritual inside. This temple is located on the outskirts of the city and is located right next to Tohuiyo Agbale Palace.

To get there, we recommend that you enter the following coordinates in your map (7.14848, 2.03230). This temple is an unfamiliar place, therefore, you will most likely not find anyone. You may need to give a small amount to the person guarding the sanctuary. We were 3 people and we gave 1,000 CFAs. Inside the temple, at that time, a small celebration was taking place.

Seeing this chameleon-shaped building from the outside is breathtaking. You can even go up to the top through small stairs that are located at the back. We had never seen an animal-shaped temple like this before, so if you have time in Abomey, we advise you to visit it.

For voodoo religion, chameleon has different meanings. For example, this animal is considered to represent the connection between the material world and the spiritual world as it changes color and adapts to the environment. In this way, with the chameleon you can communicate with the other world. In addition, the chameleon is also believed to have certain magical powers to protect people from negative energies or bad influences.

Next to the temple, you will find this palace that is closed but on the walls of the wall has different decorative elements where you can better understand all the culture and history of the Kingdom of Dahomey and Benin.

– If you’re lucky, attend a traditional voodoo celebration

The origin of voodoo is in West Africa. It is an ancient religion, more than 10,000 years old and is the legacy of the Ewe, Kabye, Mina and Fon ethnic groups. Voodoo means spirit and soul with the fon language. One of their beliefs is contact with the spirits of their ancestors and, for this, they use dances, objects, drums and rituals. When the European colonizers arrived in this part of the African continent, they decided to ban everything related to objects and rituals and classified them as “black magic”, a name that has reached the Western world today.

This religion spread in America from the African slave trade to the new continent. It is an animistic and polytheistic religion, that is, they believe in different deities related to various aspects of nature and who have their own rituals. Despite this pejorative image, voodoo is a religion with many followers in Benin who seek contact with their ancestors, and believe in solutions given by shamans to cure diseases, fetishes that function as amulets in the face of certain adversities and rituals to contact and talk to their ancestors and nature.

Therefore, during your visit to Abomey, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey, it is likely that you will coincide with some voodoo ritual, a very surprising activity culturally and traditionally. We, for example, were able to see an initiation dance by new followers of voodoo to worship the God Zakpata.

This ritual begins at noon, when  the new followers dance to the rhythms of the drums, with necklaces and almost naked bodies to purify themselves with water and be cleansed of spirit. Then, in the evening, the main celebration is held. Some make them spend a night on a sacred grove and others, like the one we saw, symbolize the tradition of their ancestors with a representative work such as hunting.

With the rhythm of the drums and the whole town at the celebration (the women who are already followers can be seen thanks to their white headscarf), the ritual begins by preparing the ground, where they will put some leaves and on top of the animals that have been hunted and that are a gift of the gods because it has facilitated hunting. The animals are half dead, but they still breathe and then a woman, symbolizing like an angel, acts as a messenger between the animals and the gods. He stands on top of them and speaks to them in their ears to give a message that his death and hunting is not a bad thing.

After this first part, the new followers come out accompanied by different spiritual heads. They walk out as if they were hunters and enter into trance with the gods from the music of the drums and different flips they perform. People encourage and encourage them to come into contact with the gods. The followers are wearing the naked bodice at the top and oiled with palm oil, and skirting at the bottom and everyone goes barefoot around the ceremony grounds. They wear a line on their white head made of chalk and water to symbolize that they are the new followers.

When they perform the dances, some relatives throw money at them as a symbol of joy for being members of the voodoo temple. After the presentation of the new followers, the spiritual chiefs take the animals and show them to the public and kill them by banging on the ground and offering the animal to the gods. These are really hard scenes to watch. Here the people who perform the ritual become half animals. They act savagely, butchering the goat, grabbing it with its teeth, and showing the people where some bless the goat as a gift from the gods. It symbolizes the power of hunting, and this tradition was also done before with enemies, who showed them in front of everyone and killed them in order to show the prize and show that they were a warrior people.

Once the ritual is over, these goats will end up in different parts of the temple to share the prize that the gods have placed in front of them. And with this celebration, these new followers of this temple will have already started voodoo.

Attending a voodoo celebration in Benin is one of the activities that you will only be able to see in this country. Therefore, despite seeing surreal and unimaginable scenes, we think it can be a good activity to better understand the tradition and religion of this country. Seeing why they do it and to what end will help us remove prejudices from this religion that we often conceive, as the colonizers did, as “black magic”.

– Visit the Bohicon Fetish Market, one of the country’s iconic voodoo market

As discussed in the previous point, Voodoo is an official religion in Benin. Therefore, in some of its markets you will find areas where they sell fetishes to use as amulets or use during different rituals. We could say that they would be like pharmacies, where voodoo adepts go to look for recipes in order to connect with their ancestors and comply with the instructions of the shamans.

In Abomey, one of the most important markets you’ll find in relation to voodoo is the Fetish Market which is located in Bohicon, 9 kilometers east of the city. There, you can see different stops with quite extravagant objects. You can find monkey heads, crocodile heads, cheetah heads, skins, birds, lizards, snakes, endangered species… and everything you can imagine.

To access them, we recommend that you do not go with your camera, as they are places very susceptible to tourists and if they see you taking a photo, you will surely have some problems. The photos we took were after asking questions and doing an activity where, for an amount of 100 CFAs, they read the future to you and made a small ritual.

Where to sleep in Abomey?

Abomey is a city where you will find different accommodation options. Among these, we highlight:

Auberge d’Abomey: This was our accommodation during the two nights we spent in Abomey. It is a hotel located in a green and quiet area, with different rooms overlooking gardens and very well maintained. Room prices are worth 15,000 CFA per double room. In addition, you have the option of eating in the same accommodation. If you want to have more information about this hotel, click here.

Our route

DAY 1: After meeting in the morning the Fulani ethnic group in the Cove region and having lunch and discovering the history hidden behind the Dassa hills, we headed with Euloge to Abomey. It was time to continue making the circular route, and now it was time to go south, where after about 90 kilometers we would be in the city of Abomey, one of the most important cities in Benin.

Before arriving in Abomey, however, we made a stop at Bohicon where we could see the soul market, a voodoo market where different objects, stuffed animals and amulets are exhibited so that people who believe in voodoo can go shopping. Seeing a table full of animal heads such as monkeys, cheetahs, lizards and other unlikely ones create a sense of astonishment. If you believe in voodoo and you are going to see a shaman, he will prescribe some ingredients that you will only find in a fetish market… Can you imagine a doctor in our house making us an ape head prescription and picking him up at the pharmacy? In Benin, there are many who believe in voodoo and despite having a very different vision from ours, you must also know how to respect and understand.

We walked through the market that at that time on Saturday afternoon was very quiet, and then we greeted a shaman who suggested we read our future. Laia and Esteve didn’t quite convince them of the idea, but Xoli said yes, so we did a small ritual in one of the stops between lizards and stuffed animals, while the shaman did his job. After that experience, we said goodbye to one of the most comprehensive fetish markets we had seen in Benin.

From Bohicon to Abomey, there is a short 9km journey that runs on a car-filled avenue that passes through different roundabouts. In one of them, next to the football field, we stopped for a beer. The home team’s game had recently ended and there was a lot of atmosphere around the stadium. In fact, a giant screen was installed next to where we brewed our beer to follow one of the most important events in the world of football: the Champions League final played by Real Madrid and Liverpool in that year.

We took a place in chairs from where we could see the giant screen, and ate some sandwiches while watching the atmosphere between the different fans that cheered each team. Some shouted “Reds, reds, reds…” and others “Reaaal, reaaaal…”. During the match, scolding and joking between them was common. In the end, the victory was for Madrid and that night we witnessed again the madness with which football is lived in Africa. In fact, we met the coach of the local team of Abomey who was very happy because he was from Real Madrid and that’s why he had celebrated with a few extra beers.

It was time to leave for the accommodation, where we arrived and went to rest after a very intense day. We were in the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa, and the next day we would go to discover its epicenter: the royal palaces, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

DAY 2: In the morning, we enjoyed a good breakfast in our accommodation, the Auberge d’Abomey. It was a very quiet hotel where we could disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the previous night around the football field. Before going to the royal palaces, we first took the opportunity to visit the chameleon temple, a very original building and unknown to many tourists.

Seeing an animal-shaped building feels strange to you. It is an architecture of which we are not at all accustomed, and this one of the chameleon had a special meaning: this animal represents the adaptation of the material world to the transcendental world. Therefore, different ceremonies are held inside and since it was Sunday, we were able to access a ceremony with different songs and dances.

Then we were able to go round the temple and climb its roof, over the chameleon’s head; And we were able to photograph this iconic building where its architect must be congratulated because it must not be easy to build a ship in the shape of an animal and that looks as good as this chameleon’s temple.

Next to the temple was  the Tohuiyo Agbale Palace, a palace closed to the public but where the walls were decorated with different elements characteristic of Beninese society and voodoo. Around them, different children gathered to see what we were doing and we were able to do some games and dances with them before returning to Abomey to visit the royal palaces.

The royal palaces of Abomey are located in a walled complex that has different courtyards. There, the different kings built their palace (except one), and today you can visit this enclosure. Although some of the palace buildings were damaged or destroyed during the colonial period, some of the original structure and architecture can still be seen, such as the Palace of Ghézo, one of the most important kings of the Kingdom of Dahomey.

We took a tour of the different rooms observing objects of the time, musical instruments or the king’s own throne; and after being at the epicenter of one of the great African kingdoms like the Kingdom of Dahomey, it was time to look for somewhere where a voodoo ritual would be celebrated that Sunday. Euloge told us that being a Sunday we would surely be lucky, since being a holiday is when more different voodoo ceremonies are celebrated.

We drove forward in the car, asking people heading us to different places. Each time we were putting ourselves in narrower streets until suddenly, we began to hear drums in the background and see people dressed in white. Something was happening there… Euloge parked and we followed the crowd of people heading to a square where we saw four new followers wanting to start voodoo. Some of these were children, while others were older, and all wore necklaces  and almost naked bodies to purify themselves with water and be cleansed of spirit before entering the voodoo priest’s house where they would wait until night, when the dance would begin where we would never have imagined what we would see.

But we’ll tell you about that later; for before that we found a friend of Euloge’s who had not seen each other in a long time. He was a local painter who painted masks and had done commissions for people all over the world. There was one I was especially proud of because we came from Catalonia: it was Luis Suárez, who was a Barça player.

We left the car in a small square and took some motorcycles until we reached his house where he showed us all the art material he had. Really, he was a craftsman who did magnificent works. Masks are very important in Beninese culture with Geledé dances (if you want to know more, click here), but he also had paintings and showed us his workshop. It had been a long time since they had seen Euloge and we were privileged spectators of a reunion between two friends.

It was getting dark, and that meant it was time to return again to the square where we had been at noon in order to experience one of the most unthinkable nights during our trip to the African continent. It was dark night, and we walked until we reached the square that was beginning to fill with people. In one corner, there were the musicians with the drums, in another corner a crowd of people seated, the children in front and behind smiling women, some white symbolizing that they are already part of voodoo. On one side, a space where people entered the square but which was increasingly full; and on the other side, benches with people seated. We sat there… We were the only whites in the whole square and, of course, most eyes were on us. Some smiled, others covered their faces when you crossed your eyes, others laughed and others looked seriously as if they didn’t like us being there. And, in the next few hours we would witness a dance of new voodoo adherents worshipping the God Zakapta.

Euloge went to talk to the spiritual head of that neighborhood to comment that we would be there, and he told us that there was no problem taking photographs if we wanted. We paid 5,000 CFAs all three as a thank you for letting us be there, so for the spiritual head we were welcome. Anyway, we did not dare to remove the cameras since we saw it as a very big intrusion… If anything, we would only use the mobiles in a concealed way and if we see that we did not bother people.

So the wait until the dance started became long… More and more people were coming, and the musicians began to play. In front of us, on the stage that was the floor of the square, they placed some animals that were still breathing but had their necks cut off, on a small mat of leaves. These animals that are dying symbolize a gift from the gods who have given them so that they could hunt them, but it was shocking to see these goats bleeding a few meters away.

Suddenly, a woman appeared and lay next to the goats and began to whisper into the ears of the animals. This woman symbolized an angel who acted as a messenger between the gods and animals and thanked them for her death. A death that was not bad, as it meant the entry of new adherents to the voodoo religion.

Then the drums sounded louder and the four followers we had seen at noon began to come out, barefoot, oiled with a kind of cream and with their bodies half naked. They wore a line on their white heads made of chalk and water to symbolize that they were the new followers. They walked out, making movements as hunters and were getting more and more into trance to communicate with the gods. Beside us, spectators shouted angrily to help and encourage them to connect with the afterlife. Some of the adherents were losing their north more and more, with a muffled gaze and spinning over themselves and puzzling gestures. They were beginning to be in contact with the gods, according to what Euloge stealthily told us.

The music resonated more and more, and the followers began to dance individually, as if it were a solo performance by a ballet group. When they performed the dances around the square, some people threw tickets at them as a symbol of joy for this new one formed in the voodoo temple of the neighborhood. The shouts, the applause when they performed several flips in a row and the rumble was the soundtrack of a square that was totally absorbed in the initiation ritual of those four members of different ages.

After a few minutes of dancing, the spiritual heads accompanying the protagonists grabbed the goats that were still breathing their last breath, and began to dance with them, moving them up and down and down the sides and then throwing them forcefully to the ground. That deadly blow sure killed the animal, as those muscled boys who were shirtless had thrown the animal hard. That goat would become a sacrifice to the gods, and they did this four times by heading to all four sides of the square. In front of us, it was shocking to see the force with which the animals threw and the faces of the followers who seemed to be totally in another world.

Just at the end of this sacrifice on four sides of the square, the people who lead the ritual and the new followers pass the animal, becoming wild animals that attack the goats. They take them, bite them, transfer them and show them to the people who bless them as a symbol of gratitude for having been a gift from the gods. They were hard scenes to watch, it seemed that we were on another planet, but we were living a ritual dance of initiation that, for them, symbolized the power of hunting. In fact, this tradition was also done before with enemies, who showed them in front of everyone and killed them in order to show the prize and show that they were a warrior people.

The music continued to play and the different followers were carrying the goats up and down, until suddenly, two of the directors of the ceremony rush to us and stamp the goats on our legs. We could still feel the warmth of the dead goat and its blood, and stood motionless not knowing what to do. These two people put down their hands, and we looked at them. The whole square was aware of what we were going to do, but we didn’t move without knowing what that script change meant. Meanwhile, next to us we heard Euloge get up and talk with a spiritual head, and after a while, which became quite long, the two young people of voodoo decided to remove the goats from our legs amid the laughter and pointing out of the people around the square. It seems that they wanted money for our presence there, but Euloge already commented that we had thanked the sacrifice when we arrived.

Anyway, Euloge, who had already warned us minutes earlier when the goats were running up and down so that they would be blessed for the people in the square if we wanted to leave, made a sign that it was probably time to get up and finish, early, the show. So, we got up, and went to the musicians to camouflage ourselves in the gloom and march under the dark night towards the car, surprised and stunned by what we had experienced that night.

We would never have imagined that we would see a dance where the dancers enter into transit with the other world, with very hard scenes of “animal abuse”, but also with a minimally open vision to try to understand that it is a ritual that they have done throughout history and explains what they previously did with their enemies.

Voodoo is an official religion in Benin, and experiencing some of its rituals is one of the experiences we will remember most from our trip. That night, we had a hard time sleeping…

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