The Primacy of Pathways

At Dumbarton Oaks, Suzanne Preston Blier, a professor at Harvard University, said not all landscapes are enchanted in the ancient Yoruban city of Ife in southwestern Nigeria, but many are.

Combining landscape architecture with a rich cosmological system, the Yoruban kings and Ifa priestly castes laid out Ife as a giant turtle, with criss-crossing pathways embedded with deep cultural and religious meaning. Much of this has been unknown to the outside world, until Blier and others at Harvard created AfricaMap, an open-source geospatial mapping Web site, to unearth the patterns underneath the buildings and vegetation. She said “technology may actually be key to uncovering the past.”

Some scholars put the earliest settlements at Ife at 350 BCE, with the kingdom reaching its peak as an artistic and cultural center around 1300AD.

Arriving in the area, Blier was “stunned by the landscape,” and the “amazing system of spatial engagement, buildings, and ritual pathways” that form the city.

The topography is like a “bolder hat,” with a palace and temple in the middle, and then a set of hills circling. The lowlands are continually covered in rain, providing fertile soils. Nowadays, the city is 50/50 Muslim and Christian. She said this “hybridity” is also reflected in the landscapes, which mixes baobab trees from the savannah with palm trees from the south.

The archeological elements of Ife follow closely the current city. Yoruban cities were “centrally planned.” Ife’s palace was an “ancient center, with a garden environment.” The back of the palace was a historic forest used to grow herbs and medicinal plants. Buildings formed a square courtyard in the center where rainwater was collected. In ancient Yoruban culture, when people died, they were buried in their living or bedrooms. She discussed how this was important in the distinction between interior and exterior spaces.

Yoruban mythology centers around two primary figures: Obatala and Odudua. Obatala was sent down from the heavens (on a chain or boat) to create earth, but instead got drunk on palm wine. So the supreme god sent down his younger brother who managed to finish the job.

As a result, Obatala is considered the sky god, and is associated with ritual power, while Odudua is associated with earth, and earthly political power. “These are the cosmological heroes,” but they also stand for “the division of Ife and different dynastic rulers.” Obatala is connected with the first dynasty, while Odudua is with the second.

Along with sky and earth, there is light, which is represented in the mica Yoruban kings where in their crowns. Mica is spread throughout the soil in Ife so “when it rains, the pathways become glittery and enchanged landscapes, powered by light.”

Unearthing the city’s turtle shape via AfricaMap, Blier found that each of the four main gods in Yoruban religion had different spaces associated with different roles, which “coincide with Ife divination.”

There were also divisions according to family, and a ward system that follows those lines. Each have different pathways.

She emphasized the “primacy of pathways” and their role in preserving “time – past, present, and future.”

Also, chiefly compounds with old and new dynastic leaders have specific locations around the palace, with guaranteed “viewsheds” that allow the priestly caste to “keep the king in view and in check.” The viewsheds actually represent the political landscape as well.

Kings in Yoruba never die but turn into natural elements, “skeuomorphs,” kind of large stone sculptures. In the same vein, she said “buildings never die” here. Earth homes crumble and then locals reuse the mud to create new homes. Buildings are simply reinvested with new life. “You can see very modern buildings next to decrepit ones on the same street corner.”

Blier added there is a larger renewal of life in Yoruban culture and “pathways are key to this.” The pathways to one temple, for example, need to be freshly cut for each ceremony, but according to ancient plans. Once cleared, these paths that “quietly engage with history” become “very public spaces” in which anyone can go in. There are also vertical paths or “holes” that priests use to connect with the spiritual world.

While each ancient city in Africa is unique and can’t really be compared, Blier said AfricaMap is also uncovering “similar” examples elsewhere. The ancient Dahomey kingdom is actually organized around the model of a serpent eating itself. “It has a python urban plan.”

Learn more about the Ifa religion and Yoruban culture through the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also, check out Harvard University’s WorldMap, a beta version that builds on AfricaMap. It can be used to “overlay historical maps, including period maps,” provides “base mapping for different contexts,” along with geospatial visualizations of data on population, ethnicity, and economic and environmental indicators.

Image credit: Ife /

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