The Yoruba country (Yorubaland) consisted of parts of present-day Southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. The country included the Niger River, grasslands, mountains, hills, lakes, streams, creeks, and lagoons leading out to the Atlantic coastline. A variety of fruits and vegetables grew in the country such as sweet and sour sop, papaw, yam, bananas, koko, cassada, oranges, sweet potatoes, pineapples, beans (brown and white), plums, guinea corn, avocados, pears, guavas, apples, and mangoes.
Big game was found in the northern part of the country. For example, the lion, buffalo, leopard, wolf, foxes, jackals, monkeys, deer, and porcupines can be found, while hippopotamus’ dwelled in large rivers, and alligators in the swamps and lagoons in the south. There were also a variety of birds such as green pigeons, storks, crown birds, and the talking green parrot. The chief produce of the country was red palm oil, shea butter, ground nuts, cotton, which was in abundance, and ivory.
The Ife Kingdom is in the central part of Yorubaland and is known as the creative and spiritual kingdom of the Yoruba country. The Yoruba believe the “Ife Kingdom” is the source of the spreading, and their race was the first human beings and civilization originated from Yorubaland. The Yoruba graphic myths detail the beginning of time when the whole earth was a watery surface, and Olodumare or “God” sent down heavenly beings to create solid land, along with plant and animal life. The heavenly beings came down from heaven on a chain, and they brought with them some quantity of earth, one chicken and one palm nut.
The chain landed in the center of Yorubaland which happens to be the Ife Kingdom. The heavenly beings poured the earth onto the water and created land. When they placed the chicken on the land, the chicken scratched the land with its claws until all the continents and islands of the world came into existence. Plant life in the world came into being by the heavenly beings sowing the palm nut, and as it sprouted, it grew, and plant life was born.
The first Europeans entered Yorubaland in the 19th century, and the first Christian missionary named David Hinderer preached the Christian gospel to a large crowd at the Ife palace. When he finished, the Ife’s told him all religion originated from Ife, and what he preached was no more than one of the other versions that evolved later in a distant part of the world.
In 1886, British agents visited the Yoruba interior and were told by the Alaafin (king) of the Oyo Kingdom that "The Ife’s were the fathers of all people and all people came from Ife.” Ife chiefs and their people were camped at the neighboring Isoya village because their kingdom was in ruin. If the Ife’s were not able to resettle their land (Ife Kingdom) the whole world would spoil, as they were the priests of the deities who ruled the world.
According to the leading British agent Henry Higgins, in 1886, he said:
"There are all manner of legends as to the wonder to be seen at Ile-Ife (Ife Kingdom)… The Ife’s call themselves the conservators of the world and the oldest of mankind and boast that all crowned personages in the world, including the white mans sovereign, went out originally from Ile-Ife, and it was curious the deference with which other tribes treat them although they are at war with them…"
It is generally believed that the Ife Kingdom was so close to heaven that one could meet their departed ancestors in its streets, and there is a hidden shrine in the Ife Kingdom that leads to the gates of heaven.
The history of Ife Kingdom is from about the 9th century to 1900 AD, but 1000 AD to 1500 AD was a period of growing economic and political prosperity in the history of the Ife Kingdom. In the 10th century, the diameter of the Ife Kingdom was 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) with 13 settlements. Ooni (King) Oduduwa, so monumental was his role that popular traditions and legends labeled him as the father of the Yoruba race. When he died, his successors deified him, and he was crowned amongst the Yoruba people as the first human to walk the earth.
There were conflicts Oduduwa endured before being crowned as the father of the Yoruba race. Oduduwa was the leader of a group who were regarded as a settlement of strangers within the Ife Kingdom. The Ife Kingdom was already established, but Oduduwa never accepted the claim of the already established Ife settlement led by Obatala. Since Oduduwa was not going to accept any existing alliance of previous kings, war was the solution, and a smallpox epidemic resulted in many losses of lives on both sides, especially Obatala’s settlement. The fighting continued between the two settlements for the supremacy of the Ife Kingdom.
With the Oduduwa settlement ultimately defeating Obatala’s settlement. Oduduwa saw a need for a new pattern of settlement that was desperately needed in the Ife Kingdom, which was one leader who would be king of all settlements within the Ife Kingdom. First, he invited the kings of the old settlements to new locations that he chose for them. When the “Oduduwa Constitution” emerged, the Ife Kingdom only had one king, which was Oduduwa and his family became the royal family. Each king of pre-Oduduwa settlements were stripped of their titles and they surrendered to Oduduwa. The former kings were appointed as chiefs in their quarters.
Once Oduduwa got his kingdom organized, he devoted special attention to the economy, and the return of peace among the kingdom liberated the people and food by farming became plentiful. Trade within the Ife Kingdom existed before the rule of Oduduwa, but trade boosted while he was king. He started a tradition where every Yoruba King was supposed to establish a central marketplace, known as the king’s market in the vicinity of the palace. Oduduwa gained enormous wealth from exporting kola nuts to the north and bringing horses to the Ife Kingdom. He also paid special attention to long distance trade making sure peaceful traffic was orderly to and from the Ife Kingdom.
It was under Oduduwa’s rule where beads became royal regalia (The countries of the Western Sudan: Ancient Ghana, Mali and Songhai used gold as royal regalia). Beads were incorporated within his crowns, clothes, bracelets, wristlets, and anklets, which became a great treasure of personal adornment of Yoruba Kings. Such a high demand for beads pushed the bead industry higher and higher in the Ife Kingdom.
The brass and terracotta sculptures of the Ife’s represent the best of naturalistic art in tropical Africa.
One scholar said, “stand comparison with anything which ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, or Renaissance Europe, had to offer.”
Leo Frobenious, the first European to see the terracotta sculptures during his visit to the Ife Kingdom in 1910 said they were, “eloquent of symmetry, a vitality, a delicacy of form directly reminiscent of ancient Greece."
The bravery of Queen Moremi saved the Ife Kingdom from raids from a rival tribe who called themselves the “Igbo-Igbo.” Myth has it that Queen Moremi wanted the raids to stop so she deliberately let herself be captured and she became a wife of the ruler there. While in the Igbo-Igbo Kingdom, she learned all their secrets about how they planned their raids. When Queen Moremi finally escaped and returned home to the Ife Kingdom, she passed the intel to the Ife government and the kingdom was able to put an end to the raids.
Before being deliberately captured by the Igbo-Igbo, Queen Moremi had asked for protection from a local stream, and pledged that if she succeeded, she would sacrifice her only son to that spirit. When she returned alive to the Ife Kingdom, and the Igbo-Igbo raids were ended. She indeed took the painful step of sacrificing her only child.
Among the Ife people, and as well as all over Yorubaland. This story was meant to illustrate that the people were so much in love with their kingdom that they would make the most painful sacrifices for the kingdom’s personal welfare.
The Ife Kingdom eventually became a source of inspiration for major political changes in Yorubaland. Kingdoms all over Yorubaland acknowledged the Ife’s leadership, their rulers claiming the Ife Kingdom as the source of their origin and legitimacy. By the 15th century, the Ife Kingdom declined in power and dominance as powerful rivals such as the kingdom of Benin (Yorubaland’s neighbors to the south) and the Oyo Kingdom (The Ife’s neighbors to the north) emerged.
The Ife Kingdom eventually became weak compared to other emerging kingdoms who became greater politically and militarily. It was known amongst the Yoruba people that the land territory of the Ife Kingdom must not be violated, because the assault of the Ife Kingdom meant upsetting the supernatural guarantees that sustained order in the world. In the late 19th century, the Ife Kingdom was destroyed in war, and oracles warned throughout all of Yorubaland that the Yoruba country would never know peace until the Ife Kingdom was resettled and respect and honor was due to it.
The civilization of the Ife Kingdom produced many great men and women, such as kingdom founders, great traders, farmers, priests, artists and artisans, and herbalists. Besides Ooni Oduduwa, there were other prominent people who lived great earthly lives, and when they died, they were deified as Gods or Goddesses, or were granted with the title of hero or heroine, like Queen Moremi.
For example, Ogun, an Ife King was deified as a patron god of working people, a master blacksmith, and God of War. Others include Orunmila, the master diviner, and the greatest Ifa priest who became the God of wisdom and knowledge. Elesije, the great physician, Olokun, the richest woman trader who later became the Goddess of the Sea. Obagede, the large skill plantain farmer, and Orisanla became Obatala, who became deified as the most senior Yoruba God.
During the centuries of Ife’s great wealth and influence, it didn’t have a significant military establishment. After the suppression of the Igbo-Igbo raids, the Ife’s didn’t have to defend its kingdom with any major threatening force.
The Ife Kingdom eventually became the exalted leader of Yorubaland, not by means of war but by the influence of its commerce and its expansion of its heritage. As other kingdoms within Yorubaland started to emerge, they acknowledged Ife as a source of life and light rather than their rival. Although the Ife Kingdom laid in ruin by the 19th century, all Yoruba Kingdoms still held the Ife Kingdom in high regard and were in awe with what was accomplished within its history.
According to author Stephen Adebanji Akintoye of ‘A History of the Yoruba People,’ he said, “Until about the end of the 14th century at least, there was what we must call an Ife empire – an empire held together not by force of arms but by power of commerce, the belief in a common ancestry, and the manifest oneness of a common heritage.”
Akintoye, S. A History of the Yoruba People. Amalion Publishing. Jan. 1, 2010. Feb. 12, 2021. P. 16-17, 81-82, 98, 101, 103, 108-110, 113-116, 119-120, 122-123, 131, 139, 470.
Johnson, S. The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate. Forgotten Books. July 3, 2012. Feb. 12, 2021. P. 5, Location: 332, 343, 353, 362, 372.