While medieval Europe was dealing with feudalism, barbarian invasions, and the plague, the African kingdom of Benin boasted a magnificent city with straight roads, record-breaking fortifications, and even street lamps. The streets, houses, and villages were laid out in a planned fractal design, which went over the heads of visiting Europeans. Benin City, in what is now Nigeria, was a sight to behold.
When the Portuguese first “discovered” the city in 1485, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle. They called it the “Great City of Benin”, at a time when there were hardly any other places in Africa the Europeans acknowledged as a city. Indeed, they classified Benin City as one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world.
In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed: “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”