The recent annual general meeting of the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators (NATOP), held in Ile-Ife, Osun State, created a wonderful opportunity for stakeholders in the travel trade to discover the tourism wealth of the city, known worldwide as the cradle of the Yoruba race. Undoubtedly, Ife is a city with many parts, home to monuments, shrines, deities, the academia, a rising profile as a hospitality centre and traps of modernity. The three-day event hosted by the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, served the dual purpose of showcasing the city’s profile and sampling its hospitality offerings, and having done justice to the AGM’ theme: “Impact of Culture, Partnerships and Governance on Nigerian Tourism Development,” in the first two days, the rest of the period was used to tour comprehensively the nooks and crannies of Ife. And the tour was quite revealing. Named as the city of 401 deities, Ife is home to many worshippers of these deities that are celebrated through festivals. Along with the culture of Ife, their beliefs extend along the concept of the Ase, which helps to make art of kings and gods. Ile-Ife is famous worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone and terracotta sculptures, dating back centuries. The Ooni (king) of Ife, according to the tour guide, is a descendant of the god-king, Oduduwa, and is counted first among the Yoruba kings. He is traditionally considered the 401st spirit or Orisha, the only one that speaks. Of the 401 deities, Ife is home to 201. In fact, the royal dynasty of Ife traces its origin back to the founding of the city more than 10,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The present ruler is Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi Enitan, Ojaja II, who ascended the throne in 2015. Following the formation of the Yoruba Orisha Congress in 1986, the Ooni acquired an international status the likes of which the holders of his title had not had since the city’s colonisation by the British. Nationally he had always been prominent among the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s company of royal obas, being regarded as the chief priest and custodian of the holy city of the Yoruba. In former times, the palace of the Ooni was a structure built of authentic enamelled bricks, decorated with artistic porcelain tiles and all sorts of ornaments. At present, it is a more modern series of buildings. The current Ooni is an accountant and real estate developer. Since his enthronement in 2015, he has turned the palace into an architectural masterpiece, upgrading most of the structures and decorating them tastefully.
Ile-Ife is renowned as the city of 401 deities. It is said that every day of the year the traditional worshippers celebrate a festival of one of these deities. Often the festivals extend over more than one day and they involve priestly activities in the palace and theatrical dramatisations in the rest of the kingdom. Historically, the king only appeared in public during the annual Olojo festival, other important festivals here include the Itapa festival for Obatala and Obameri, the Edi festival for Moremi Ajasoro and the Igare masquerades.
Kings and gods were often depicted with large heads because the artists believed that the Ase was held in the head, the Ase being the inner power and energy of a person. Both historic figures of Ife and the offices associated with them are represented. One of the best documented among these is the early King Obalufon II, who is said to have invented bronze casting and is honoured in the form of a naturalistic copper life-size mask. The city was a settlement of substantial size between the 12th and 14th centuries, with houses featuring potsherd pavements. Ile-Ife is also known worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone and terracotta sculptures, which reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400 AD. In the period around 1300 CE, the artists at Ife developed a refined and naturalistic sculptural tradition in terracotta, stone and copper, alloy copper, bronze, and brass, many of which appear to have been created under the patronage of King Obalufon II, the man who today is identified as the Yoruba patron deity of brass casting, weaving and regalia. After this period, production declined as political and economic power shifted to the nearby kingdom of Benin, which, like the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, developed into a major empire. Bronze and terracotta art created by this civilisation are significant examples of naturalism in pre-colonial African art and are distinguished by their variations in regalia, facial marking patterns, and body proportions. Ancient Ife also was famous for its glass beads, which have been found at sites as far away as Mali, Mauritania, and Ghana.
The main city of Ife is divided into two local government areas: Ife East, headquartered at Oke Ogbo, and Ife Central, at Ajebandele area of the city. Both local governments are composed of 21 political wards. The city has an estimated population of half a million people. Ife is home to the Obafemi Awolowo University. It contains attractions like the Natural History Museum of Nigeria, hosts a regional agricultural centre, with an area of that produces vegetables, grain cocoa, tobacco and cotton.
Ife has a few open markets, such as Oja Titun and Odo-Ogbe market, with about 1,500 shops. With construction still ongoing at the Ife Grand Resort and Leisure, where the NATOP AGM took place, Ife will soon become a destination indeed. The property being developed by the Ooni will redefine hospitality and tourism in the region and create jobs for the youth around and beyond. Its grandeur and serenity, even while under construction made the director-general, National Council for Arts and Culture, Otunba Olusegun Runsewe, to appeal to Oba Adeyeye to request for a rail line to be extended to Ife from Lagos to enable tourists visit the city regularly.