Ile-Ife: The Sacred Yoruba City

On par with Jerusalem, Mecca, or Rome, Ile-Ife, situated in south-western Nigeria, is one of the world’s principal sacred cities. For the Yoruba, the city is located at the epicenter of not only Yorubaland but of the entire world, of not only all that has existed and all that exists, but of all that will ever exist. It is the birthplace of gods and humans alike and the core of Yoruba identity.

Painting of four Yoruba kings wearing colorful clothing and elaborate crowns, sworn to protect the sacred city of Ile-Ife, by Julian Sinzogan.
”Yoruba Kings”, by Julian Sinzogan.

Ile-Ife: The Place where the Day Dawns

The Yoruba myth of origin tells the story of how Ile-Ife, and the entire world, came into existence.​1,2​ At a time before time, when the world was only darkness and primordial waters, Olodumare, the Supreme Being, decided to create something new in the universe. He gave his eldest divine son, Obatala, a chain, a shell containing a small quantity of sand, and a five-toed guinea fowl, then instructed him to descend into the universe to perform the ritual of creation. On his way to carry out this important mission, Obatala was distracted by a group of other divinities with whom he got drunk and fell asleep.

Oduduwa, another of Olodumare’s sons, stole the items from his passed-out brother and descended from the heavens into the watery world with the chain. He poured the sand from the shell onto the primordial waters and placed the guinea fowl on top. The mighty, mythical guinea fowl kicked, dug, and trampled the sand with its huge claws, scattering it over the water to create dry land. Where the earth-spreader’s claws dug deep, valleys were formed; hills and mountains were left in the untouched places between the bird’s claws.

The spot where Oduduwa poured the sand was named Ile-Ife, the place where earth spreads, and there he planted the first palm nut which grew to become the tree of life, the originator of all plant life.

The process of creation unleashed the Supreme Being’s potent, generative, and spiritual force into the plants, the rivers, the mountains, and the valleys of the new world, infusing special places with sacred power. When the sixteen primordial orisha (powerful Yoruba gods and spirits) descended into the world, it is in these special places that they made their homes, often the sites of miraculous occurrences. It is in Ile-Ife that Obatala sculpted and fashioned the first human bodies out of clay, failing to discover how Olodumare infused life into them. It is also there that the gods implored Olodumare to provide a way for the poor blind creatures to see the world around them. Olodumare created the sun and moon, and Ile-Ife was “the place where the day dawns”, the first place touched by sunlight.

Ile-Ife: The City of 201 Gods

The city of Ile-Ife, like many other Yoruba cities, is laid out in concentric circles radiating out from the king’s palace, the most sacred, most spiritually potent spot. It is the ancient walls of the city that divide the sacred from the profane and its gates are much more than mere barriers against intruders or invaders. They are thresholds adorned with magical objects and shrines overseen by Esu, the gatekeeper god, who filters out evil spirits and neutralizes the power of malevolent magic and medicine. Paradoxically, the human gatekeepers blessed by Esu, are often notorious ex-convicts on parole, whose reputations and physical presence repel any unwanted visitors.​2​

Map of Ile-Ife, showing the major roads, the ancient walls of the city arranged in concentric circles, the palace in the center, the Modakeke quarters in the west and various archaeological sites.
Map of Ile-Ife and its archaeological sites.

Bolasi Idowu, the father of Yoruba religious studies, recalled his very first experience of the city this way:​1​

“A young person who was lucky enough in those days to be taken by his parents to Ile-Ife would approach the city with feelings which baffled analysis. He was bound to be assailed on entering the city with successive waves of emotions. He would be almost afraid to look; for at every turn might be walking or lurking, for all he knew, some divinities or ghosts!”

Among the numerous names the Yoruba have conferred upon their sacred city is “The City of 201 Gods” — or 401, depending on the count — in homage to those that came down from heaven to live and interact with humans on Earth. Although the exact tens or hundreds of gods may vary in the city’s epithet, the final digit, 1, cannot be omitted. To some, it represents the next deity the Yoruba people may create to add to the pantheon. To others, the number 1 stands for the sacred king — or Ooni — of the city, who is thought to be the only deity to speak in a human voice.​2​

The Ooni: Divine king of the Yoruba

The legendary hero and deity Oduduwa is regarded as the original founder of Ile-Ife. His descendants have occupied the throne and palace since time immemorial, as successive oonis (kings).​2​

Oduduwa also had sixteen other royal children, who left the city to carve out their own realms. The myth establishes Ile-Ife as the source for all the crowned Yoruba cities, as Oduduwa gave each of his children a sacred crown and sword representing their divine right to take possession and rule over the new territories. Although these new realms were independent from Ile-Ife, they nonetheless were bound by strong spiritual and political traditions and allegiances.​2​

The Yoruba kingdoms — Benin, Oyo, Owu, Keto, etc. — all payed allegiance to the sacred city. After the death of their monarchs, they would send lavish delegations to Ile-Ife in order to procure both crown and sword, the symbols of spiritual authority, without which the late king’s successor would not be recognized by their subjects. In exchange for the Ooni‘s validation of their reigns, the kings would swear to protect the sacred city against any enemies.​2​

Painting of a Yoruba royal court like the one of Ile-Ife, seen from above, with thatched roofs and people crowding the streets. Piece by Julian Sinzogan.
“Cours royales 2” (Royal Courts 2), by Julian Sinzogan.

In 1793, Alafin Awole of Oyo violated these ancestral customs, not only by breaking his vow to protect the city, but by actively attempting to raid Ile-Ife for captives to sell to slavers. This led to massive internal uprisings and civil wars from which Oyo would never recover.​2​

Such was the renown of this city of gods and of the sanctity of the Ooni himself that the Portuguese who first made contact on the shores of the Benin kingdom didn’t fail to take notice. The explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira wrote in his navigational guidebook, Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, in 1505-1508, that the Ooni of Ile-Ife was “considered among the Negroes as the Pope among us.”​2​

This god-king, the very embodiment of the hallowed city center from which all radiated, remained ever within the sacred palace walls. Then came 1903, an earth-shattering year for all of Yorubaland. It was the year that the British colonial governor requested that the Ooni travel to Lagos, that he transgress the enshrined boundaries of Ile-Ife in order to settle a dispute. Only the Ooni could determine whether a Yoruba king in Epe (now part of the Ogun state) was a legitimate descendant of Oduduwa and therefore entitled to wear the beaded crown. This request was unprecedented: never before had the Ooni vacated the palace of the sacred city.​2​

The trip the Ooni undertook that year was chilling to all the other Yoruba kings. So alarmed were they that they too decided to leave their own palaces, remaining estranged from their respective cities for the duration of the Ooni‘s visit to Lagos and until they could confirm his safe return.​2​

Ile-Ife: City of Life… and Death

Painting of the Yoruba living dead, spirits wearing masks and beating on drums during the many festivals of Ile-Ife. Piece by Julian Sinzogan.
“Abakuá Diablitos” (Living Dead), by Julian Sinzogan.

Yoruba town and city names are often prefixed by the word ilé, meaning house or home, or ilẹ̀, meaning land, or earth. Ilé also means the final place of rest. After death, to go home is to join one’s ancestors in the afterlife, to return to one’s place of origin.​2​

The ritual center of Ile-Ife represents the intersection between heaven, earth, and the underworld. During funerals, the Yoruba implore the deceased’s soul to take the straightest road to Ile-Ife and not to tarry on the way. In the past, those who had lost a loved one would make the journey to the sacred city in order to divine the cause of death and whether it was wrongful or not, or to hear about any unfinished business the deceased wished his relatives to carry out.​2​

Even kings of other Yoruba nations, such as the Benin kingdom, returned, in part, to Ile-Ife after death. Orun Oba Ado, literally meaning “the heaven of Benin kings”, is an ancient burial ground in the city that holds fragments of kings’ corpses, even if only fingernail pairings or hair clippings.​2​

The gods of Ile-Ife required many sacrifices to be appeased and to maintain the peace and prosperity of the city. In the past, the city was known for its human sacrifices, a practice that the few Christian missionaries who were allowed to enter the city deplored. One such missionary by the name of Thomas left the city in the 1870s because he “would no longer bear the continued human sacrifices which the king had promised to stop.”​2​

City of Violence

The history of Ile-Ife, like all great sacred cities of the world, has been punctuated with moments of great conflict.

From its very mythic beginnings, Ile-Ife has been a contested place in which violence frequently surfaces. Shortly after the mythical creation of the world, Oduduwa’s theft of Obatala’s instruments of creation led to a terrible divine war. Even the supreme Olodumare was unable to put an end to his sons’ feud. Ultimately, the stories say, Obatala was defeated.​1,2​

Whether Oduduwa was a deity at the beginnings of Ile-Ife or a human foreign invader intent on conquering local aboriginals as hypothesized by many scholars, there is little question of the great wars of conquest he waged to establish his powerful dynasty.​2​

The Modakeke

In more recent history, the main source of conflict in Ile-Ife is between the Ife indigenes and the Modakeke refugees. Violence between these two peoples escalated over 150 years and came to a climax in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Painting of a warrior ancestor holding a fly-whisk and dancing. Yoruba ancestors are thought to reside in the sacred city, Ile-Ife. Piece by Julian Sinzogan.
“Egun” (Ancestor), by Julian Sinzogan.

The Modakeke, descendants of Oyo, sought asylum in Ile-Ife due to the early nineteenth century Yoruba civil wars that brought down the old Oyo empire. As a Yoruba people themselves, the Modakeke appealed to tradition and to the image of Ile-Ife as the ancestral home of all Yoruba people. They settled as refugees in the city and surrounding towns, but with every successive ruler on the throne of Ile-Ife came differing attitudes towards the refugees: some welcomed the Modakeke presence, some rejected them.​2​

By 1830, hostility between guests and hosts was intense. Ooni Abeweela accommodated the Modakeke in large numbers, to the great displeasure of the Ife people, and by the Ooni’s death in 1849, the Ife and Modakeke were engulfed in civil war. A major war was fought that year, when the Modakeke sacked the city, took thousands of citizens as prisoners, and held the city for the next five years. The colonial government of Nigeria initiated a peace treaty which would relocate the Modakeke outside of Ile-Ife territory. This treaty was signed in 1886, but it was only in 1907 that the Modakeke were actually relocated, during the reign of Ooni Adelekan Olubuse I.​2​

The Yoruba religious studies scholar Jacob Olupona relates this story about the temporary relocation of the Modakeke in 1897 in his book, City of 201 Gods:​2​

“For a long time before this exodus, the Modakeke had vowed publicly to stay in their homes. […] when the disputants were deadlocked, Ooni Olubuse called his medicine men to inquire what course could be taken to resolve the conflict. The medicine men warned that perhaps they would have to perform a major sacrifice that could involve the loss of the king’s life. The king pondered this, but his love for Ile-Ife was foremost in his mind. Finally, he agreed to order his own sacrifice. His medicine men began preparations, and at night, the king was made to carry the sacrificial rituals on his head while walking naked to the quarters of the Modakeke. As the Modakeke saw the unclothed king of Ife approaching them, they were terrified. It was an absolute abomination to behold the king unclothed. At this point, they hurriedly packed their belongings and fled from Ile-Ife.”

Ooni Ademiluyi Ajagun, deeply sympathetic to the Modakeke refugees, ordered them to return to Ile-Ife in 1922, an act that led to renewed conflicts with the city’s people. His successor, Ooni Aredemi (1930-1980) curbed the tensions by promoting a diplomatic approach of intermarriage and friendly alliances. His favorite wife, Segi, was Modakeke. But the relative peace would not last much past this Ooni‘s death. From 1984 to 2004, hostilities between the two communities flared up once again, destroying property and lives, and tensions remain to this day.​2​

The Ife people see the Modakeke as refugees who have no traditional claim to the land they occupy, in and around Ile-Ife. In their view, the Modakeke violated the sacred trust between tenants (the Modakeke) and property owners (the people of Ife) by waging war against Ile-Ife. The Modakeke, on the other hand, feel entitled to their presence there, as descendants of Oduduwa. They argue that it is absurd that they should have to pay the traditional isakole — the annual tribute tenants pay to property owners — and feel that they are not well-represented in local government.

The two communities are trapped in a cycle of violence and revenge, fueled by old grievances and remembered injustices, as well as new ones. More than a century of interaction on the social, religious, economic, and personal levels have not managed to eliminate the tension or integrate the two groups.

Nevertheless, the Yoruba remain unified in their reverence for this city, the legendary birthplace of all of humankind, so much so that when the Osun state was carved out of the old Oyo state of southwestern Nigeria in 1991, Ile-Ife residents naturally expected their exalted city to be named the capital of the new state. To their bitter disappointment, the state selected the troubled commercial city of Osogbo instead. One Yoruba elder, however, imparted his wisdom on the matter as follows: “When we introduce Ile-Ife City into the frailty of Nigerian politics and the filthy lure of its commerce, it will lose its sanctity and its tradition will diminish in importance. What it lost in politics, power, and wealth, the city gained in authority, status, and reverence.”​2​

Sources and Further Reading

  1. 1.
    Idowu EB. Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. USA: A & B Book Dist Inc; 1994.
  2. 2.
    Olúpọ̀nà JK. City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifẹ̀ in Time, Space, and the Imagination. Los Angeles, CA, USA: University of California Press; 2011.
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