Nan Zognidi, Abomey’s queen mother, greets visitors in her grand audience chamber © Stuart Butler
It still goes without saying that Abomey should be one of the first places you rush to in Benin.
With walls made of blood and palaces containing thrones balanced on human heads, the royal city of Abomey is the gory Buckingham Palace of Benin and after Timbuktu and Zanzibar is one of the most celebrated of old African towns. Its former name, Dahomey, is a French corruption of the original Fon word for the city, Danhomé, which means ‘In the belly of Dan’, and it was a name that was once whispered in fearful awe by the citizens of the surrounding kingdoms as well as in the civilised drawing rooms of 19th-century Europe. It was a name that had enough chill in it to send a shiver down the spines of anyone who had ever crossed its path. Its kings, descended from the son of a princess who slept with a panther, were protected by the only genuine Amazon army the world has ever known, and they lived a life of extreme brutality. The walls of their city were festooned with the severed heads of enemies and former friends of whom they had grown tired. To relax they feasted on a harem of hundreds of virgin girls and for sport they fulfilled their coronation vows by expanding the size of the kingdom they had inherited through war. To fund it all, the many prisoners generated from this constant state of warfare were wrapped in chains and sold to the European slavers in Ouidah and other coastal towns.
For many years it was a city forbidden to foreigners and of those who were compelled to try to make it here, some in disguise and some on the invitation of the king, few returned to Europe to tell the tale. It was a city that became so powerful that it gave even the French colonial machine a serious run for its money and it was a city of such doomed extravagance and wealth that inevitably it became no more than a name of legend and mystery and, like Timbuktu with its similar echoes of past grandeur, is to some extent a disappointment for the modern tourist. However, although the fear has faded and the old wealth and extravagance are now no more than an almost unimaginable dream, it still goes without saying that Abomey should be one of the first places you rush to in Benin.