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Friday, January 15, 2016

Ijala: Delta community where kings never die

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  • Where trees serve as eternal tombstones

In the Royal Cemetery, Ijala, Delta State of Nigeria, the Itsekiris have a place that comes close to the Valley of Kings in Egypt. It is a grove known as Ijala and it has a history that is 520 years old with about 18 kings buried in it. 

However, while the ancient Egyptians built pyramids to bury their kings, the Itsekiri people devised a unique, effective and efficacious means of preserving their kings’ memories after death.

  On a recent visit to the grove, rain began to fall suddenly without warning, threatening to disrupt our journey. We plodded on nonetheless, through the track towards the Royal Cemetery of Warri Kingdom at Ijala, on the outskirts of Warri, the final resting place for all the past Olus or kings of Warri. 

The rain did not dampen our excitement, however. The joy of being among the first set of mainstream travel journalists to visit the grove was enough reward.

To get to the royal cemetery from Warri, a tourist would first get to the Warri Refinery which is not difficult to locate, and from there, one could then ask for the refinery jetty. Ijala is off the Jetty Road. Before the cemetery grove is the Falcorp Mangrove Park. The royal cemetery is  about 20 minutes trek from the park. 

There is just a foot path that leads to the grove which made  the members of the Naija Seven Wonders expedition team  to walk in a  single file, occasionally stopping to brush off plants across the path. 

At the entry point into the grove, the waist level shrubs and plants gave way to huge trees and palm trees between 50 to 70 feet high.

Entering the grove leaves one with the feeling that it is a special place. The foliage makes a canopy above, leaving pockets of holes. Above, some birds protested the invasion of their sanctuary through their incessant chirpings. We kept on walking though, ignoring them.

  There is no gate that signals the beginning of this sanctuary of royalty, except the huge pristine trees that welcome visitors. The Ijala grove gives one a kind of eerie feeling. It will take a visitor with a very strong heart to do a tour alone. It is a huge forest that is rich in different species of trees, animal and wild life. 

The advantage it has over other forests is that due to its status as a royal grove, the flora there are left untouched and grow wild in whatever direction nature pushes them.

According to the tour guide, Henry Erikowa, the Ijala Royal Grove is one of the most preserved heirlooms in the country. The closest example of what the Itsekiri people have in the royal cemetery is the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.  

The Royal Cemetery dates back to 1500 AD, exactly 512 years of existence this year. The story of the royal cemetery is the story of Warri Kingdom. Of course, every notable kingdom in the country has its history, but none seems to be backed with proper documents like Warri. 

There are a few kingdoms on earth that could pinpoint the places where the remains of all their past kings were buried. 

Warri Kingdom is among this. This makes it unique. This proper documentation is predicated on the culture of planting trees on the grave of every Warri monarch that died right from the founding of the kingdom. 

  The trees, which are very old (some over 500 years old) serve as tombstones for the past kings. They grow tall, unchallenged and undisturbed by man because the people hold the place in awe. So they are never cut down no matter how huge they grow.

Metaphysically, it is like the Warri monarchs rather than die, move to the next world. As a sign that they are very much with the living, the trees are planted on their graves as a symbol of their continuing existence in the material world. 

They grow tall, huge, cover the grounds around. They are a kind of pantheon that looks after the Itsekiri people.

According to our tour guide, the Warri Kingdom Royal Cemetery came into existence in AD 1500 after the death of the first Olu of Warri, Olu Ginuwa 1. According to history, Olu Ginuwa was a prince from Benin kingdom. He was allegedly forced to depart from the kingdom due to palace intrigue. 

The then Prince Ginuwa and his entourage's journey from Benin took them through many places before finally arriving at a virgin land named Ijala. It was from Ijala that they relocated to the present place, Warri. 

The first king of Warri, Ginuwa 1, did not make it to Warri. He died before the relocation and was consequently buried in the first settlement, Ijala which subsequently became the burial ground of the kings of the Warri kingdom. 

Ginuwa's eldest son, Ijijen, succeeded him. He was the one that moved the people from Ijala to Ode-Itsekiri.

According to Erikowa, when a Warri king dies, he will be carried by boat through the Ginuwa 1 Creek. Traditional rites will be performed to determine where the late king will be buried and also the kind of tree that will be planted on the grave. This is why there are different trees planted on the kings’ graves.

Walking through the grove, we saw trees of different species planted on the graves of well-known and obscure Warri kings such as Dom Domingo, the Warri king that had a taste of western civilization in the 15th century when he travelled to Portugal to get western education. 

There are also tree markers for other kings such as Olu Abejoye (Luigi), Olu Esigie and many others. Other kings that have their graves there are: Olu Ijijen, Olu Irame, Olu Ojoluwa, Olu Atorongboye (Sebastian), Olu Atuwatse 1 (Dom Domingo), Olu Oyenakpara (Antonio Domingo) 1645-1653, Olu Omoluyiri (Mathias Ludivico) 1654-1673, Olu Abejoye (Luigi) 1673-1700, Olu Akenjoye (Sebastian 11) 1701-1708, Olu Omagboye (Miguel) 1709-1709, Olu Akengboye (Dom Agostinho ) 1710-1734, Olu Atogbuwa 1735-1759, Olu Erejuwa1 (Manuel Otobia) 1760-1806, Olu Akengbuwa Joao (John) 1807-1848. 

Between 1848 and 1936 there was an interregnum. The next king was Olu Ginuwa 11 1936-1949 and Olu Erejuwa 11 1951-1986.

In the forest are signposts, identifying the kings buried under each tree. We got to the river through which the remains of the dead Olus are brought to the cemetery.

All around the grove, we saw broken pots that were probably some of the cooking utensils used by the old settlers of Ijala.

The Royal Cemetary of Warri is a place steeped in well-documented history that ought to be in better shape than it is. The curator,  Erikowa, seems to be doing a great job in preserving the place. With the history of about 512 years behind it, the place ought to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is not surprising that the cemetery made the shortlist of the Naija Seven Wonders even though it did not make the final seven.  

There are signs of encroachments by people. The importance of this rare historical site is that it should be left the way it is. The government should make efforts to protect it.

Contributed by Patience Saduwa and Okorie Uguru

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