Editorial note: This post is part of our theme for March 2023, Science City, an exploration of the ways cities and science have interacted over time and around the world.
By Likam Kyanzaire
Benin City sits at the eastern end of Nigeria, not far from its commercial capital Lagos. The site is home to the centuries-old Benin Empire. Collapsed in the eighteenth century, the Benin Empire was a marvel of civilizational ingenuity and scientific brilliance. One of the best applications of Bini knowledge was in the urban design of its capital city of Edo. While the modern Benin City was built on the ruins of Edo, there is still much we can learn from the great African empire.
According to Historian Chief Uwadiae Jacob Egharevba, it was Oba Ewuare Ne Ogidigan, the great, who, in about 1440-1473 AD, changed the name of the country to Edo, after his deified (servant) friend. Before this, the area had been called the land of Igodomigodo. Thus, the city has been known afterwards as Edo ne ebvo ahirre (Edo the city of love) because through love Edo (the servant friend) was able to save Ewuare from sudden death.
The only remnant of the past in modern Benin City is the palace of the house of Chief Enogie Aikoriogie. Historians estimate the structure was built in the second half of the nineteenth century. Burned to the ground by British armies, the urban geography of Edo obscures a system of city design we now call fractals.
Not just an urban planning term, fractals are a geometric process that involves the continual sequencing of patterns. Fractals can be seen on an infinite scale by zooming further into a geometric shape. The more you zoom in, the geometry stays the same. Think of a tree and how it stems from its root and branches off. Now look at one of the branches; it again stems from its root and branches off. The geometric stem pattern of trees remains identical the more we zoom in.
Fractals are evident throughout history but first appeared in western understanding when popularized by Georg Cantor at the beginning of the twentieth century. Cantor set out to prove infinity by creating recursive feedback loops. Cantor’s work enabled scholars to see fractals everywhere, casting them as a fundamental building block in many natural designs.
Fractals as Indigenous
Fractals are part of indigenous knowledge systems found mainly in Africa. When researchers in the 1980s began seeing fractal designs in African communities through satellite imagery, they began to grasp how integral and inherent geometric patterning was to a large swathe of African civilizations. They were also perplexed by how fractal design spread in Africa. The groups that used fractal geometry had little in common and no known contact with each other. Many other societies in Africa and around the world were more accustomed to Euclidean geometry. While fractals are irregular and random patterns, Euclidean shapes are simple geometrics compared to fractal patterning. Euclidean patterns have a defined set of rules or formulas that can be easily used to create different geometric forms. The Pyramids of Giza are a great example of societal use of Euclidean geometry in design. By using the triangle shape, ancient Egyptians were able to create a lasting structure defined by a set formula. Today Euclidean geometry inspires many of our city zoning laws.
Euclidean, or hierarchical, zoning is a policy that carefully and centrally plans land use like a pyramid, where industrial use is at the bottom, followed by retail and residential. The further one travels up the pyramid, the laws become increasingly restrictive. The need to carefully plan and dictate these uses favors the deployment of traditional forms and eliminates the sort of irregular but patterned shapes of fractals. Euclidean zoning then bulldozes fractals in favor of standardized lines and boxes, which helps to explain the stunning conformity of suburbia. Think about its sprawling nature and how constant it is.
Our current urban grid system is a pathology of Euclidean zoning; the Edo city-state used fractal design and zoning to create their society. A city of explorers, artisans, and knowledge practitioners, the Edo city-state is a profoundly and philosophically African city.
In a 1984 lecture delivered at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, the Oba (king) of Benin gave a synopsis of the founding of Edo:
“According to our traditional history that evolved out of our ritualistic beliefs, this land of Edo is the origin of the world. It was founded by the first Oba of Benin who was the youngest son of the Supreme God. When it came to the turn of the youngest child he saw a snail shell. He took that and broke it open only to find that it contained ordinary sand. He emptied it in the area that is now Edo and the whole place became land”
This story of creation highlights the importance of land in Edo tradition. Managing the land takes on a religious quality and becomes ingrained in the psychology of the city. As the son of God, the Oba is at the centre of the religion-land culture. The cultural connection to land helps explain Edo societies’ use of fractals as a system based on the natural environment.
Self-Similarity in Fractal Design
As a medieval city with little outside influence, the Edo city-state employed fractals for a large part of its culture, including urban design, religion, and art, among other areas. A fundamental property of fractals is self-similarity. Self-similarity is a fractal property where the shape of the whole geometry is the same as that of its constituent parts. Think of the tree analogy—the branches are a similar shape to the whole tree, and the branches of branches are the same shape as well. The end of each branch creates a new pattern of similar shapes. As a process, fractals start new shapes where others end. Fractals generate in a circular process where the output of one pattern becomes the input of another.
The value of self-similarity as repeating shapes on different scales is not just geometric but social. A child learns to be a person by watching their parents and imitating them. On a sociopolitical level, the Edo city-state’s institutions are distinctively self-similar. The king as the center of Edo life has a council of provincial leaders known as the uzama chiefs who act as the centre of their specific provinces. According to David G. Ebhohimen of Covenant University, the chiefs did exercise relative autonomy while being completely loyal to the Oba (king). Geographically, the king’s palace stood at the center of the city, while the eleven chiefs’ palaces were miniature versions of the king’s. Major streets radiated from the king’s palace towards those of the chiefs, and smaller arteries cut from the chiefs’ palaces towards other parts of the city.
With well-maintained drainage systems, metal streetlights, and large boulevards, Edo resembled Victorian England during the medieval period. Several European voyages visited Edo at its height; the city left them in awe. In 1691 a Portuguese ship captain named Lourenco Pinto observed the sheer scale and magnificence of the city: “Great Benin (Edo), where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets are straight and as far as the eye can see.”
Edo as a Self-Organizing Geosociality
In addition to the palace and uzama chiefs’ domiciles, another piece of Edo’s urban design was the placement of its guilds. Like in Europe, Edo had many skilled craftspeople who were organized according to their craft. Edo had over sixty guilds for trades like metalwork, ivory, smelting, etc. These specialized associations outfitted the palace with its intricacies and worked at the behest of the Oba, but guilds also commissioned work for richer citizens and visitors. The guild system produced the famous Benin Bronzes, among other arts and tools. Many attribute the craftsmanship and longevity of these guilds to their complexity.
According to Yemi Ebenezer Aluko and Abiodun Duyile from Ekiti State University in Nigeria:
“Another aspect of the organization or structure of the guilds was that, by their nature, most of them were interdependent. The iron smiths provided swords, spears, and poisoned arrowheads to the hunters, while the carpenters, in turn, got their cutlasses, chisels, and other important implements from them also.”
Following the fractal property of self-organization, guilds were both connected to the political sphere of the Oba and uzama chiefs, but autonomous enough to imbue a creative process.
Self-organization is another concept of fractals, which measures the capacity of a system to spontaneously self-organize itself into higher states of complexity. In other words, the ability to increase the complexity of an organization without direction. The features of self-organization are necessary in fractals and act as a case study of complexity theory at work.
A good example of natural fractal self-organization is cell automata. The cells in our body are self-organizing because they can create a whole person without any specific direction. Complexity theory emphasizes interactions and the accompanying feedback loops that constantly change systems. While it proposes that systems are unpredictable, they become constrained by order-generating rules. For cell automata that may be DNA, while in Edo it was the order provided by the Oba. The Oba is the main reason guilds work, and through the Oba other rules-generating properties exist. Councils and headmen worked for the Oba but as administrators within specific guilds. As administrators, they led guilds politically and economically.
Although working at the behest of the Oba, guilds had the physical and social space to self-organize their production. Today we would consider the economic system of Edo to be administratively decentralized, meaning decisions are made among the lower rungs of the political hierarchy. The Oba would decree his needs, which guilds would fulfill however they saw fit. If the Oba required a sword, guilds would create the necessary inputs.
Administratively, guilds also managed their own affairs in most judicial cases. Socially and architecturally, members of a guild lived within the same district, tucked in between the arterial streets and circular palaces. The past is present today; the streets of modern Benin City contain names like Igbensamnwan and Igun, based on the guilds that habited there centuries ago. Although working at the behest of the Oba, guilds had the physical and social space to self-organize
In Edo, guilds were interrelated with each other and also affiliated with palace societies, groups that would manage the needs of the Oba and his palace. The guilds of Oba’s doctors were affiliated with the Iweguae, one of the three main palace society groups, since their primary function was to care for the Oba personally. Together they took care of the Oba’s welfare, health, and private life, and other guilds worked with multiple societies to carry out different functions. These functions were not only for the Oba’s good but anything he saw the empire and palace needing, such as the bronzes and public art among other areas.
While these guilds did work for the Oba, their interdependent and collective physical space meant they maintained high principles of self-organization. Not only were separate guilds self-organizing but so was the entire guild system and economic productivity of the empire. Guilds gained their institutional freedom of organization from urban design. Controlling their own districts gave them the creative freedom to work collectively and competitively.
African Intelligent Design
Edo’s fractal architecture must be viewed within the adoption of fractalism among disparate African societies. Inland West African societies, including those in the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon and several Songhai villages, also use circular fractals in design. Western researchers especially have a habit of essentializing African societies as somehow especially natural rather than intelligent, largely intuitive. Yes, fractals do come primarily from nature, but the designs seen in Edo and other fractal societies are not unconscious and intuitive designs that mimic nature; rather, they are conscious choices relating to geometry, political systems, and labor.
The Great Walls of Benin are a wonderful example. A marvel of the pre-mechanical world, the Walls of Benin hold the Guinness World Record for the largest earthworks created before the mechanical age. The walls covered 6,500 square kilometers of surface area, extended for some 16,000 kilometers from one end of the city to another, and connected more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. Far beyond the confines of an unconscious building, the walls decorate and define the city.
Exploring history, especially one that often gets ignored, demonstrates how ingenuity is not linear but fluid. Edo institution builders understood how physical design influenced social organization and created self-aware systems that adapted to society. Regaining human knowledge of fractals could be of real help. There are already great ideas on how to imbue our urban environments with biological systems using fractals, but fractal design can bring neighborhood autonomy by providing space for residents to self-organize.
As a black researcher, I am also excited by what an African system of knowledge means for the cultural confidence of black people. So often when we learn about Africa it is a continent of problems that must be solved by others, but increasing our societal knowledge about fractals and how they exist can work to dispel racist notions of an unscientific Africa. Lost to the years of war, slavery, and colonization, Edo stands as a history of a scientific city for the future.
Likam Kyanzaire is a writer and researcher based in Canada who works on issues around social institutions and community sustainability. You can read more about him at www.likamk.com.
Featured image (at top): “Benin City,” (2014), Ewinosa, Wikimedia Commons.