The Royal Palaces of Abomey are 12 palaces spread over a 40 hectares (99 acres) area at the heart of the Abomey town in Benin, formerly the capital of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. The Kingdom was founded in 1625 by the Fon people who developed it into a powerful military and commercial empire, which dominated trade with European slave traders on the Slave Coast until the late 19th century, to whom they sold their prisoners of war. At its peak the palaces could accommodate for up to 8000 people. The King's palace included a two-story building known as the "cowrie house" or akuehue.
UNESCO had inscribed the palaces on the List of World Heritage Sites in Africa. Following this, the site had to be included under the List of World Heritage in Danger since Abomey was hit by a tornado on 15 March 1984, when the royal enclosure and museums, particularly the King Guezo Portico, the Assins Room, King's tomb and Jewel Room were damaged. However, with assistance from several international agencies the restoration and renovation work was completed. Based on the corrective works carried out and reports received on these renovations at Abomey, UNESCO decided to remove the Royal Palaces of Abomey, Benin from the List of World Heritage in Danger, in July 2007.
The opulent palaces built by the 12 rulers of the kingdom within the cloistered site of Abomey, functioned between 1695 and 1900, as the traditional cultural hub of the empire. The first ruler to initiate the building of palaces was King Houegbadja who had founded the city. According to folklore, the descendents of the royal family of Abomey who built the 12 Royal Palaces of Abomey are the progeny of Princess Aligbonon of Tado and a panther.
Their kingdom existed in the southern part of the present day Republic of Benin in Abomey. Recorded history is, however, traced to the 17th century to two of their descendants, namely Do-Aklin and Dakodonou. In the 19th century, however, with the rise of the antislavery movement in Great Britain, King Guézo (1818–1858) initiated agricultural development in the country, which resulted in further economic prosperity of the kingdom achieved through exports of agricultural products such as corn and palm oil.
Dahomean culture was deep rooted with intense reverence for the kings of Dahomey and with great religious significance. Each king was symbolised on a "common appliquéd quilt". Ceremonies were part of the culture; with human sacrifice as one of the practice.
The town where the palaces were built was surrounded by a mud wall with a circumference estimated at 6 miles (9.7 km), pierced by six gates, and protected by a ditch 5 feet (1.5 m) deep, filled with a dense growth of prickly acacia, the usual defence of West African strongholds. Within the walls were villages separated by fields, several royal palaces, a market-place and a large square containing the barracks. The average thickness of the walls was about 1.5 feet (0.46 m), which maintained cool temperatures inside the palace rooms.
The bas reliefs functioned as a record book (in the absence of written documents) to record the significant events in the evolution of the Fon people and their empire, relating the military victories and power of each king and documenting the Fon people's myths, customs and rituals. However, in 1892, in defiance of French occupation, King Behanzin (1889–1894) ordered that the city and the palaces be burned. Providentially, most monuments survived the fire and many palaces have been since restored. Copper and brass plaques adorned the walls.
In recognition of the unique cultural significance of these monuments, UNESCO inscribed the Royal Palaces of Abomey under the List of World Heritage Sites in 1985 under Culture – Criteria IV. The site inscribed consists of two zones namely, the palaces which form the principal zone and the Akaba Palace Zone on the north-northwest part of the site; both zones are enclosed within a partially preserved cob walls. The UNESCO inscription states: "From 1625 to 1900 twelve kings succeeded one another at the head of the powerful Kingdom of Abomey.
With the exception of King Akaba, who used a separate enclosure, they each had their palaces built within the same cob-wall area, in keeping with previous palaces as regards the use of space and materials. The royal palaces of Abomey are a unique reminder of this vanished kingdom." The Royal Palaces of Abomey were taken off the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in July 2007.
The Abomey Historical Museum is housed in a building built over an area of 5 acres (2.0 ha), which was established in 1943 by the French colonial administration. Its coverage includes all the palaces within an area of 40 hectares (99 acres), and particularly the palaces of King Guézo and King Glèlè. The Museum has 1,050 exhibits, most of these belonged to the kings who ruled Danhomè. The Museum has many exhibits, which fully represent the culture of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Some of the significant exhibits are: appliquéd “king” quilt, traditional drums, and paintings of ceremonies and the war between France and Dahomey.
Extensive conservation work, extensions of buildings and collections have been carried out since 1992. The Italian Cooperation programme has been a generous donor, financing it under the “PREMA-Abomey programme”. Conservation work and the enhancement of buildings and collections has been implemented since 1992. This work was possible due to funds to an amount of US $ 450.000 arranged through UNESCO trust. Other donors who also contributed to the work were ICCROM's PREMA programme, the Getty Conservation Institute and Sweden.