Kingdom of Nri

Igbo Ukwu

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 34

In 1939, an Igbo farmer named Isaiah Anozie discovered the archaeological remains of an ancient African civilisation in the Nigerian town of Igbo Ukwu.

Formal excavations of the site revealed hundreds of intricately cast bronze sculptures, pendants, ornaments and a wide range of other artefacts and objects, distinct in their styles.

The history of Igbo Ukwu is believed to date to the ninth century, making it the earliest example of bronze metallurgy in West Africa.

The people of Igbo Ukwu worked bronze through hammering, bending, twisting and incising centuries before the emergence of other bronze producing nations such as the Yoruba of Ife or the Edo of Benin.

The virtuosity of the Igbo Ukwu artists is remarkable with regard to both terracotta and bronze. They manipulated their material with a skill and richness that has been described by British art historians Hugh Honour and John Fleming as:

“A virtuoso feat… Its elegant design and refined detailing are matched by a level of technical accomplishment that is notably more advanced than European bronze casting of this period.”

The high technical proficiency of the Igbo Ukwu metalwork, of course, led to the theory that Europeans must have been responsible or somehow involved; however, science and common sense have dismissed said ideas.

The excavated sites at Igbo Ukwu tell a story of a highly sophisticated African civilisation complete with its own monarchy, government, art and religion.

Several sites were discovered during the excavation at Igbo Ukwu, including a great room where treasures and items of worship were stored; a burial chamber of a great priest, richly decorated; and an enormous hole in which pottery, bones and other objects were found.

Igbo Ukwu was the religious capital of the ancient Kingdom of Nri (or Ọ̀ràézè Ǹrì). A theocratic kingdom ruled by the Eze Nri.

As ruler, the Eze Nri held religious and political authority over much of Igboland (modern-day southeastern Nigeria). Igboland, at the time, was characterised by its dense population and its organisation into small-scale political units.

The importance of Nri to these wider Igboland polities can be seen in an old proverb:

“The street of the Nri family is the street of the gods through which all who die in other parts of Igboland pass to the land of spirits.”

The significance of Nri is all the more interesting given the fact that it was not based on the use of military force - Nri never had a military or police force.

The Nri system of control was based on the propagation of the religious ideology that Eze Nri was the divine ruler and that Nri priests and representatives were sacred.

To achieve this control, the Eze Nri embued the title of ozo on distinguished Nri men. The ozo title was of great consequence and another example of the religious nature of leadership in the kingdom.

As an ozo, one was instructed to:

“Beware of evil and dirty deeds. Beware of lies. Never tell lies. Beware of injustice. Never be unjust. Bring peace and prosperity to your people.”

The ozo, as both the political and religious elite of the Igbo people, carried the highly important ‘spear of peace’, which represented their connection to the Eze Nri and to his dominion over the kingdom.

The ozo were tasked with spreading out all over Igboland, living amongst small communities and performing political, cultural and ritual functions, such as crowning chiefs, settling disputes, distributing knowledge and creating markets and shrines.

Further evidence of the profoundly religious nature of Nri culture can be seen in its aversion to bloodshed and violence. To spill human blood in violence was considered an abomination.

In situations where bloodshed or death was brought on by violence, the family or community responsible would find themselves ‘besieged’. This meant that no trade could go to the people or community who committed such an act, and the siege could only be lifted by a ritual of purification conducted by a representative of Nri.

The Nri kingdom’s adherence to a philosophy of harmony, non-violence and peaceful coexistence saw the land become a safe haven for other Africans during the European colonial invasion and transatlantic slave trade.

Nri maintained its vast authority over Igboland well into the sixteenth century; however, its influence began to wane with the introduction of Christian missionaries and imperialist philosophies.

Slowly missionary dogma was injected into Nri culture, while colonial ideologies were incorporated into Nri governance.

Finally, in 1911, British troops invaded Nri forcing the reigning Eze to renounce his authority, ending the kingdom of Nri as a political power.