Ile Ife, Nigeria (ca. 500 B.C.E.- )

Natural History Museum Building at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, Nigeria, October 12, 2011
Courtesy el-siddeeq lame (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Building, Ife University, ca. 1970
Courtesy Eldar Sharon (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ile Ife, or Ife, is an ancient Yoruba city in southwestern Nigeria famous for its art. Between 700 and 900 A.D., the Ife began to develop as an important artistic center. By the 12th Century, its artists were creating bronze, stone, and terracotta sculptures, some of which are found today in museums in Nigeria, Europe, and North America. The artistic production of Ife began to wane in the 1500s as political power and wealth shifted to neighboring kingdoms such as Benin and Oyo.   

Ife was founded around 500 B.C. and is the oldest Yoruba city. It is presently part of Osun State and has an estimated population of 501,000 people. Ife is a prominent regional agricultural center for a surrounding area that produces vegetables, grain cacao, tobacco, and cotton. Ife is home to the Natural History Museum of Nigeria, and Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), one of the leading academic institutions in West Africa, named in honor of Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo (1909-1987), eminent nationalist, and one of modern Nigeria’s distinguished founders.

Ile Ife is where the Yoruba believe the gods descended to earth and civilization began. The name Ile Ife means place of dispersion. According to Yoruba tradition, Ife was founded by the deities Oduduwa and Obatala when they created the world. Obatala fashioned the first humans out of clay, while Oduduwa became the first divine king of the Yoruba people.

Historical data suggests that the first people who lived in the area were the Igbó people (unrelated to the ethnic group). The word means ‘bush’ in Yoruba, and the legend of Oduduwa and his army invading the city from the north, pushing the earlier inhabitants to the east, and establishing the first Yoruba kingdom, supposedly describes “the conquest of nature by human culture.” 

‘Historical Oduduwa’ is said to be the ancestor of the Yoruba kings, and J.’ Sina Ojuade dates the start of the dynasty to 1000 AD. After his death, Oduduwa’s sons and descendants spread out from Ile Ife to found other Yoruba states, creating a large Yoruba diaspora within pre-contact West Africa. 

Yorubas remain the vast majority of Ife’s inhabitants, and the current royal dynasty of Ile Ife is over eight centuries old. Adeyeye Entian Ogunwusi became Oba (king) following the death of Alayeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II in 2015.

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