The Osun Osogbo Grove
Osogbo, Nigeria


Yoruba indigenous architecture as expressed in the built forms such as palaces and nature groves are found very profound especially in regard to function, firmness and delight 1. Palaces (aafins) as the king’s traditional official residence, were mostly representative of a state house in the typical urbane Yoruba setting because of their grandiosity. They were usually owned and built with the best available materials and methods by the community; often made up of a myriad of courtyards and forecourts for private and public socialization. The osun osogbo grove has, apart from the Osun river and forest, the afrocentric remodeled original first and second Osogbo palaces that eventually became the abode for the Osun deity. Open courtyards and forecourts, supported by elaborately decorated beams, lintels and boards of the ceilings on posts or caryatids (opos) carved with human, mythological and animal figures and various geometric patterns were a major characteristic of the Osun Osogbo grove. These carvings mostly found on door panels and house post records special events like coronations, sacrifices, hunting expeditions and other activities connected with royal living. This has been represented in Oyo palace, reminiscent of the old Oyo Empire and was also characterized by projected porches as front verandas; high pyramidal steeples (roofs) called “Kobi” according to some sources.

The kobi is only for kings’ (Obas) houses, as a mark of rank architecturally. This is where the king’s drummers usually sit, and it served as a place for the king to view people who greeted him in his courtyards without being fully exposed. Generally such a space is duly called ojude oba the king’s forecourt annual festival as made popular in Ijebu-ode, another urbane Yoruba city and more recently in other such cities.

Sacred groves which were used for social, religious and health functions were common to the Yoruba built environment, as were courtyard and open spaces. This very important part of Yoruba culture has become an endangered architectural element., Sacred groves were relevant parts of historical, architectural, and religious spaces in traditional townscapes of the study area. s the foremost Yoruba historical city Ile-Ife has had 337 historical sites identified in it. Over 10, if not all, identified groves are now extinct for reasons of communal wars and careless urban planning. 3 (Omisore, 2002). The Osun grove in this category among others were traditionally called igbodus or igboros as a major part of the traditional southwest Nigeria city codes linked to Yoruba mythology and religious institution planning according to Adejumo (2011). They are not appreciated as part of ‘architecture without architects’ in the study area whereas the greening of cities has become a great international urban design best practice as in declaring Hamburg as the Green capital of Europe 4 ( Dube, 2016). Great moats were built around major traditional southwest towns in the past as was still seen in Ile-Ife,5 aside the monumental earthen wall with moated sections which was discovered to have encircled the ancient Ijebu-Ode. Towering as a summit 21.2 metres from the ditch around up 640 kilometre square in circumference it was described in the Sunday Times’ by Mark Macaskill to be an epic scale astounding architecture according to Majekodunmi (2017). The Osun grove is fitting for study as the first palace of Osogbo, however its status as a UNESCO heritage site is now being threatened for unnoticed non-adherence to preservation criteria of built-forms.


The grove is a 75 hectare UNESCO heritage site of the annual international Osun Osogbo festival located in Osogbo the capital of Osun state as the original location of the first and second palaces of the first king (Ataoja) and settlers in the town.

The original historical attraction to the site is the Osun River which remains of great economic importance to Nigeria and after which the state is named. The site of the grove is the last one of vast groves to survive. It serves to prove the existence of sacred groves all over Yoruba land for multiple purposes including health, religion, and others. There are the restored two palaces, forty shrines, five sacred places and nine worship points along the river.

There are also over four hundred plant species, with at least two hundred known to have medicinal benefits. Osun; the river goddess was said to have covenanted with the people to prosper if they avoid clash of interest with her by relocating since she also lived there. For there was always said to have been complaints of her unseen pots probably underneath being broken. It was also requested by Osun for the people to worship and offer her sacrifice which is what the annual international Osun Osogbo festival now stands for. This is not strange given the socio-religious background of the people who believed it was Queen Osun; who once lived as an erstwhile wife of Alaafin Sango but out of some sort of displeasure transformed to become the river. The Yoruba culture of the study area anyway had a way of life of continued relationship between the living and the dead.


The site and activities taking place there were discovered as sacred, and therefore there is restricted access except for devotees. The case study was relevant as a cultural space because of cultural activities that take place there and the fact of the present shrines having been royal residences. 

Suzanne Wenger a German artist and devotee set out, through divine inspiration, to rebuild the past through built-form just as Uli Bier established the Osogbo School training afrocentric artists, many of whom worked at the grove. The Osogbo art school has within 50 years of existence sparked off a chain of such other schools and an internationally acclaimed renaissance of the glorious old African art age 5 (Probst, 2011). Most of the sculptural pieces have giant intimidating shapes that help uphold the grove’s sacredness as part of the long and continuing tradition of sculptures made to reflect Yoruba cosmology. The grove is a one-stop-shop universal representation of the unity of all the different arts which uniquely includes architecture here. The Osogbo School and grove also have; music, dance, drawings, photography, language and theatre all as part of chronotropic structure of inter-subjective and inter-textual communication showing cultural semiotics.


Interview revealed that, Wenger had her set of local ‘divine artists’ to whom the divine inspirations of what was to be sketched, sculptured or built were described. The site is a rich forest reserve habitat of monkey species around the river; guarded against poaching and encroachment. Many sculptural and other forms of art are found along the access road and the landmark river to simply enhance the serenity or serve as sanctuaries or shrines.


As can be seen in Figure 5, the road right from the main entrance is adorned with cement based landscape sculptural pieces up to and beyond the entrances into the first and second old palaces which are some distances from one another on either sides of the road. The first palace by the river is where the main festival is done and crowds are allowed in, while the second palace became more restricted to only devotees.


Architecture and Primary Function:

The two sites of the old palaces are gated and the curator’s office, bookshop and some small ancillary facilities are located at the entrance of the first palace. As one enters the serene forested environment the beautiful mostly high balustrade-like continuous sculpture which line thewide path serve to fence off the thick bush towards the built-up place and river bed. The main buildings are simple rectangular open plan bungalows with sculptured external walls especially at the frontage which only the devotees enter. The entire frontage and sides were made up of myriads of exotic beautifully adorned wooden caryatids, most not less than six meters in height. The roof is simple gabled but patterned like a flying bird’s wing. 

Symbolic Function:

The old restored palace buildings now house the goddess as a hall for the worshipers to come to commune with her virtually daily like we have burial mounds and spots housing the dead in traditional houses. It is however not exactly like a church or mosque yet it is far more elaborate even though still simple than most typical shrines in the study area and other parts of Africa. The flying bird’s wing patterned gabled roof is inspired to represent Osun among other women who ‘fly’; all the other wooden and stabilized earth based sculptures have varying expressions of cultural continuity. The setting except in the use of some modern material remains traditional indigenous without the likelihood of the Islamic and western cultural contact and vernacular heritage in line with the triple heritage of African architecture 6 (Elleh, 1996). Even though it is a phenomenon which started in the 1950s it has become larger than life in encouraging afro centric developments in the visual and performing art.


Taking advantage of this study to ensure and encourage continuity of different past architectural styles and movement instead of undue criticism so as not to repeat mistakes of the modern movement of the early twentieth century.

A most striking typical example is the mass concrete lean-to roof modern architecture designed amphitheater that is not as contextual,as the simple flying bird’s wing patterned gabled roof. This abandoned project by the Osun state government if completed will run contrary to all other equally tradition inspired great art pieces and may be a major contributor to the looming danger of loss of heritage status. Even the art relief works on it, is rather too cosmetic and not consciously ornamental as opined by 7 (Teriba 2020). This typifies how most government initiated projects are done with a lack of context and continuity of the return to the renaissance of the indigenous built-forms and practices as started by Wenger is the required UNESCO standard. This is so because most inherent values and principles from some age-old built-form are not imbibed even in works of renovation that are not often done to bring them out as they originally were. There is always the wrong notion of modernizing everything with a carryover of the colonial idea that whatever is indigenous is no longer good enough for us.



There is a need for the continuity of all original afrocentric art concepts and pieces of the Osun Osogbo to remain internationally guarded so as to preserve it as one of the major surviving African groves of the Yoruba cultural identity.

--Ajibade Adeyemo, November 14, 2020

Edited Jola Idowu


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49 Gbongan - Ibadan Road, Osogbo, Osogbo, Nigeria
Associated Collections
Inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Style Periods
Variant Names
Osun Osogbo Grove
Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove
Building Usages
urban design and development