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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kingdom of Nri


Capital Igbo-Ukwu[1]
Language(s) Igbo
Religion Odinani
Government Elective monarchy
Founder Eri
 - 1043—1158 Eze Nri Ìfikuánim
 - 1988—present Eze Nri Ènweleána II Obidiegwu Onyeso
 - Established 1043
 - Surrender to Britain 1911
 - Socio-political revival 1974
Currency Ikpeghe/Okpogho

The Kingdom of Nri (1043—1911) was the West African medieval state of the Nri-Igbo, a subgroup of the Igbo people, and is the oldest kingdom in Nigeria. The Kingdom of Nri was unusual in the history of world government in that its leader exercised no military power over his subjects. The kingdom existed as a sphere of religious and political influence over much of Igboland, and was administered by a priest-king called the eze Nri. The eze Nri managed trade and diplomacy on behalf of the Igbo people, and was the possessor of divine authority in religious matters.

The kingdom was a safe haven for all those who had been rejected in their communities and also a place where slaves were set free from their bondage. Nri expanded through converts gaining neighboring communities allegiances, not by force. Nri's royal founder, Eri, is said to be a 'sky being' that came down to earth and then established civilization. Some of the well known outcomes of the Nri civilization is through its art manifesting in the Igbo Ukwu bronze items.

Nri's culture had permanently influenced all of Igbo culture, especially through religion and taboos. It brought new advanced concepts of the creator, Chineke, and of the universe in general. British colonialism as well as the Atlantic slave trade contributed to the decline of the Nri Kingdom. The Nri Kingdom is presently going through a cultural revival.



The Nri kingdom is considered to be the foundation of Igbo culture.[2] Nri and Aguleri, where the Igbo creation myth originates, are in the territory of the Umeuri clan, who trace their lineages back to the patriarchal king-figure, Eri.[3] Eri's origins are unclear, though he has been described as a "sky being"[4] sent by Chukwu (God).[5] He has been characterized as having first given societal order to the people of Anambra.[5]

Nri history may be divided into six main periods: the pre-Eri period (before 948 CE), the Eri period (948—1041 CE), migration and unification (1042—1252 CE), the heyday of Nri hegemony (1253—1679 CE), hegemony decline and collapse (1677—1936 CE) and the Socio-culture Revival (1974—Present).[6]



Eastern Hemisphere at the end of the 9th century AD showing Nri and other civilizations.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Nri hegemony in Igboland may go back as far as the 9th century,[7] and royal burials have been unearthed dating to at least the 10th century. Eri, the god-like founder of Nri, is believed to have settled the region around 948 with other related Igbo cultures following after in the 13th century.[8] The first eze Nri (King of Nri), Ìfikuánim, follow directly after him. According to Igbo oral tradition, his reign started in 1043.[9] At least one historian puts Ìfikuánim's reign much later, around 1225 AD.[10]

In 1911, the names of 19 eze Nri were recorded, but the list is not easily converted into chronological terms because of long interregnums between installations.[11] Tradition held that at least seven years would pass upon the death of the Eze Nri before a successor could be determined; the interregnum served as a period of divination of signs from the deceased Eze Nri, who would communicate his choice of successor from beyond the grave in the seven or more years ensuing upon his death. Regardless of the actual date, this period marks the beginning of Nri kingship as a centralized institution.

Expansion and zenith

Colonization and expansion of the kingdom of Nri was achieved by sending mbùríchi or converts to other settlements. Allegiance to the eze Nri was obtained not by military force but through ritual oath. Religious authority was vested in the local king, and ties were maintained by traveling mbùríchi. By the 14th century, Nri influence extended well beyond the nuclear northern Igbo region to Igbo settements on the west bank of the Niger and communities affected by the Benin Empire.[7] There is strong evidence to indicate Nri influence well beyond the Igbo region to Benin and Southern Igala areas like Idah. At its height, the kingdom of Nri had influence over roughly most of Igboland and beyond. It reached its furthest extent between 1100 and 1400.[3]

Decline and fall

Nri's hegemony over much of Igboland lasted from the reigns of the 4th eze Nri to that of the ninth. After that, patterns of conflict emerged that existed from the 10th to the 14th reigns, which probably reflected the monetary importance of the slave trade.[8] Outside world influence was not going to be halted by native religious doctrine in the face of the slave trade's economic opportunities. Nri hegemony declined after the start of the 18th century.[12] Still, it survived in a much-reduced, and weakened form until 1911. In 1911, British troops forced the reigning eze Nri to renounce the ritual power of the ìkénga, ending the kingdom of Nri as a political power.[12]


A tender palm frond was a symbol of Nri

Nearly all communities in Igboland were organized according to a title system. Igbo west of the Niger River and on its east bank developed kingship, governing models in states such as Aboh, Onitsha and Oguta, their title Obi.[13][N 1] The Igbo of Nri, on the other hand, developed a state system sustained by ritual power.[7]

The Kingdom of Nri was a religio-polity, a sort of theocratic state, that developed in the central heartland of the Igbo region.[8] The Nri had a taboo symbolic code with six types. These included human (such as twins), animal, object, temporal, behavioral, speech and place taboos. The rules regarding these taboos were used to educate and govern Nri's subjects. This meant that, while certain Igbo may have lived under different formal administration, all followers of the Igbo religion had to abide by the rules of the faith and obey its representative on earth, the eze Nri.[14]

An important symbol among the Nri religion was the omu, a tender palm frond, used to sacralize and restrain. It was used as protection for traveling delegations or safeguarding certain objects; a person or object carrying an omu twig was considered protected.[14] The influence of these symbols and institutions extended well beyond Nri, and this unique Igbo socio-political system proved capable of controlling areas wider than villages or towns.[13]

Eze Nri

Eze Nri Obalike sounding his bell

The eze Nri was the title of the ruler of Nri with ritual and mystic (but not military) power.[13] He was a ritual figure rather than a king in the traditional sense. The eze Nri was chosen after an interregnum period while the electors waited for supernatural powers to manifest in the new eze Nri. He was installed after a symbolic journey to Aguleri on the Anambra River.[4] There, he would supposedly use magical powers to collect stones from under the water, undergo a symbolic burial and exhumation, then finally be anointed with white clay, a symbol of purity. Upon his death, he was buried seated in a wood-lined chamber.[3] The eze Nri was in all aspects a divine ruler.

Ìkénga Cult

While the eze Nri lived relatively secluded from his followers, he employed a group of Jesuit-like officials called ndi Nri.[15] These were ritual specialists, easily identifiable by facial scarifications or ichi,[15] who traveled with ritual staffs of peace in order to purify the earth from human crimes.[3] The ndi Nri exercised authority over wide areas of Igboland and had the power to install the next eze Nri.[13]

Areas under Nri influence, called odinani Nri, were open to ndi Nri traveling within them to perform rituals and ensure bountiful harvest or restore harmony in local affairs.[8] Local men within the odinani Nri could represent the eze Nri and share his moral authority by purchasing a series of ranked titles called ozo and nze. Men with these titles were known as mbùríchi and became an extension of the Nri's religio-political system. They controlled the means for agriculture and determined guilt or innocence in disputes.[12]

Both the ndi Nri priests and mbùríchi nobility belonged to the Ikénga, the cult of the right hand. The Ìkénga god was one dedicated to achievement and power, both of which were associated with the right hand[11]


For many centuries, the people within the Nri hegemony were committed to peace. This religious pacifism was rooted in a belief that violence was an abomination which polluted the earth.[3] Instead, the eze Nri could declare a form of excommunication from the odinani Nri against those who violated specific taboos. Members of the Ikénga could isolate entire communities via this form of ritual siege.[12]


Nri maintained its vast authority well into the 16th century.[2] The peace mandated by the Nri religion and enforced by the presence of the mbùríchi allowed trade to flourish. Items such as horses, which did not survive in tsetse fly-infested Nri, and seashells, which would have to be transported long ways due to Nri's distance from the coast, have been found depicted in Nri's bronze. A Nri dignitary was unearthed with ivory, also indicating a wealth in trade existed among the Nri.[11] Another source of income would have been the income brought back by traveling mbùríchi.[13]


Unlike in many African economies of the period, Nri did not practice slave ownership or trade. Certain parts of the Nri domain, like Agukwu, did not recognize slavery and served as a sanctuary. After the selection of the tenth eze Nri, any slave who stepped foot on Nri soil was considered free.[12]



A bronze ceremonial vessel made around the 9th Century, one of the bronzes found at Igbo-Ukwu.

Igbo-Ukwu, a part of the kingdom about nine miles from Nri itself, practiced bronze casting techniques using elephant-head motifs.[7][11] The bronzes of Igbo-Ukwu are often compared to those of Ife and Benin, but they come from a different tradition and are associated with the eze Nri.[13] In fact, the earliest body of Nigerian bronzes has been unearthed in Igbo territory to the east of the Niger River at a site dated to the 9th century, making it (and, by extension, Nri) older than Ife.[16]

It appears that Nri had an artistic as well as religious influence on the lower Niger. Sculptures found there are bronze like those at Igbo-Ukwu. The great sculptures of the Benin Empire, by contrast, were almost always brass with, over time, increasingly greater percentages of zinc added to the brass.[7]


Earth cults were central to the Kingdom of Nri.[17] Nri oral tradition states that a bounty of yams and cocoyams could be obtained to the eze Nri while blessings were given in return.[3] It was believed that Nri's influence and bountiful amount of food was a reward for the ruler's blessings.[11] Above all, Nri was a holy land for those Igbo who followed its edicts. It served as a place where sins and taboos could be absolved just by entering it. Even Igbo living far from the center of power would send abnormal children to Nri for ritual cleansing rather than having them killed, as was sometimes the case for dwarfs or children who cut their top teeth before their lower teeth.[18]

Belief in the Sun

Nri people believed that the sun was the dwelling place of Anyanwu (The God of Light) and Agbala (The Holy Spirit). They believed Agbala to be the collective spirit of all holy beings (human and nonhuman). The Holy Spirit was the perfect agent of Chi-Ukwu or Chineke (the big God or the Creator God). The Holy Spirit chose its human and nonhuman agents only by their merit. It knew no politics. It transcended religion and culture and, of course, gender. It worked with the humble and the truthful. They believed Anyanwu, the Light, to be the symbol of human perfection that all must seek. Anyanwu was perfection and Agbala was entrusted to lead us there. Since both Anyanwu and Agbala dwelt in the sun, they honored the sun.[19]


The mission of Nri people

It is their first duty to accept anybody who walks into the Nri community seeking to have a new life. It does not matter if their former communities rejected them or if they willingly left their communities as long as those immigrants respect Nri laws. The second duty Nri people owe to their environment is to actively spread the message of peace, tolerance, fair play, and non-violence as Agbala (God—The Perfect Spirit) and Aja-Ana (Earth Goddess, Mother Earth) had shown them. The third duty of the Nri community to their environment is to prescribe and interpret moral laws according to Aja-Ana (the Earth Goddess) and to cleanse whoever had offended Aja-Ana.The fourth duty Nri owe to the earth is to continue to explore what it means to be a perfect human being and, therefore, a perfect society and then make those discoveries a reality in the world.[20]


It had been said that Nri people did not think with their heads but with their hearts. And nowhere was that saying revealed more than in the way they described leadership. The male quarters, which was also the leadership center of the family, was referred to as the heart (obu or obi) of the compound. To Nri people, one used one's head to survive and one's heart to live a life of purpose and of service and fulfillment. The rest of the body did not serve the heart. Rather, the heart served the rest of the body with life-saving blood. It was the heart that recycled and cleansed any polluted blood and made it usable again. The heart understood how much blood was needed and where and when to send it. To Nri people, a leader must be ruled by the heart..To the Nri, a leader who could not feel with his heart was not worthy of leadership.[21]

Year counting ceremony

Igu Aro (the year-counting and -keeping ceremony) was one of the ties that bound Eze Nri [the king] and Igbo families and solidified his influence over their communities. Based on the official years recordings of Ezi Nri and his officials, Igbo people observed special days and communal events. In return, they sent representatives to pay tribute during the year-counting ceremony to show their loyalty and to receive blessings on behalf of their people. It was one of the rare services that Ezi Nri personally performed rather than one of his Ozo or Nze emissaries. It was one, if not the only, regular event at which he could speak directly to all Igbo people. He took this time to reflect on the end of the year or the century, as the case may be, and to count blessings from the past, to reaffirm the Igbo mission and philosophy, and to share his new vision or any spiritual messages he had received.[22]

Nri Scarification

An Igbo man with facial marks of nobility known as Ichi[23]

In a standard Nri scarification, the artist would carve the first line to run from the center of the forehead down to the center of the chin. They would then carve a second line to run across the face, from the right cheek to the left. The second line met the first at the center of the nose, making it a perfect cross. The second cross was drawn with one line running from the left side of the forehead down to the right side of the chin and another line running the opposite direction. This sequence and pattern was repeated until the pattern looked like the rays of the sun. Altogether it took sixteen straight lines, eight crosses, for a full-face scarification that mirrored the rays of the sun. It was their way of honoring the sun that they worshipped. But it was more than that. It was the face of service and another way of losing one's facial personality.[24]


In Igbo land, people's salutation names or nicknames, which they chose as adults, summed up their personal philosophies about life. They showed how life had affected them or what was important to them. Their regular first and last names were just names. At best, they reflected their parents' philosophy or thinking. But the salutation name was what an individual consciously chose as an adult. They could always change it if their thinking changed, though that rarely happened. So when Igbo men or women told another that they liked their salutation name, they didn't mean that they liked the sound of it, but that they liked their philosophy.[25]


The burial, funeral, and mourning for the dead were very serious business in Nri and all of Igbo land, especially if the deceased was a well-established family man or woman. The funeral rites and official mourning for the dead lasted up to seven market weeks, twenty-eight days. Then family members and close relatives would try to ease themselves back into their regular routines.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Ehret, Page 315.
  2. ^ a b Griswold, page XV
  3. ^ a b c d e f Isichei, page 246
  4. ^ a b Isichei, Elizabeth. A History of African Societies to 1870. 1997, page 246.
  5. ^ a b Uzukwu, E. Elochukwu. Worship as Body Language. 1997, page 93.
  6. ^ Onwuejeogwu, M. Angulu. An Igbo civilization: Nri kingdom & hegemony. 1981, page 22.
  7. ^ a b c d e Hrbek, page 254
  8. ^ a b c d Lovejoy, page 62
  9. ^ Eze Nri, Nri Enwelana II, Obidiegwu Onyeso. The Nri Kingdom. Retrieved 2010, 11 February.
  10. ^ Chambers, page 33
  11. ^ a b c d e Isichei, page 247
  12. ^ a b c d e Lovejoy, page 63
  13. ^ a b c d e f Ogot, page 229
  14. ^ a b Nyang, page 130
  15. ^ a b Chambers, page 31
  16. ^ Hrbek, page 252
  17. ^ Isichei, page 85
  18. ^ Lovejoy, page 70
  19. ^ Anunobi, page 207
  20. ^ Anunobi, Page 115-116.
  21. ^ Anunobi, Page 103
  22. ^ Anunobi, Page 139
  23. ^ Basden, George Thomas (1921). Among the Ibos of Nigeria: An Account of the Curious & Interesting Habits, Customs & Beliefs of a Little Known African People, by One who Has for Many Years Lived Amongst Them on Close & Intimate Terms. Seeley, Service. p. 184. 
  24. ^ Anunobi, Page 200-201.
  25. ^ Anunobi, Page 252.
  26. ^ Anunobi, Page 12.


  1. ^ Apparently from the Benin Empire's Oba, this is debatable however, because the word "obi" in most Igbo dialects literally means "heart" and may be a metaphorical reference to kingship, rather than a loanword from Yoruba or Edo)


  • Chambers, Douglas (2005). Murder At Montpelier: Igbo Africans In Virginia. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 325 pages. ISBN 1-57806-706-5. 
  • Griswold, Wendy (2000). Bearing Witness: Readers, Writers, and the Novel in Nigeria. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. pp. 376 pages. ISBN 0-691-05829-6. 
  • Hrbek, Ivan; Fāsī, Muḥammad (1988). Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. London: Unesco. pp. 869 pages. ISBN 92-3-101709-8. 
  • Ehret, Christopher (2002). The civilizations of Africa: a history to 1800. James Currey Publishers. pp. 480 pages. ISBN 0-85255-475-3. 
  • Isichei, Elizabeth Allo (1997). A History of African Societies to 1870. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 588 pages. ISBN 0-521-45599-5. 
  • Lovejoy, Paul (2000). Identity in the Shadow of Slavery. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 256 pages. ISBN 9780304705849. 
  • Nyang, Sulayman; Olupona, Jacob K. (1995). Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honour of John S. Mbiti. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 455 pages. ISBN 9783110147896. 
  • Ogot, Bethwell A. (1992). Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. California: University of California Press. pp. 1076 pages. ISBN 0-520-03916-5. 
  • Anunobi, Chikodi (2006). Nri Warriors of Peace. Zenith Publisher's Trade Paperback original. pp. 378 pages. ISBN 0-9767303-0-8. 


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