The Oyo Empire (c. 1400–1835) was a West African empire of present-day Nigeria.

The empire grew from a kingdom established by the Yoruba at the turn of the 14th century and grew to become one of the largest West African states encountered by colonial explorers.

It rose to pre-eminence through wealth gained from trade and its possession of a powerful cavalry known as the Eso Ikoyi. The Oyo Empire was the most politically important state in the region from the mid-17th to the late 18th century, holding sway not only over other Yoruba kingdoms in modern-day Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, but also over other African kingdoms, most notable being the Fon Dahomey (in present-day Benin).

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Mythical origins

The mythical origins of the Oyo Empire lie with Oranyan (also known as Oranmiyan), the youngest prince of the Yoruba Kingdom of Ile-Ife. Oranyan made an agreement with his brother to launch a punitive raid on their northern neighbors for insulting their father, the Oba Oduduwa, first of the Oonis of Ife. On the way to the battle, the brothers quarrelled and the army split up. Oranyan’s force was too small to make a successful attack, so he wandered the southern shore until reaching Bussa. There the local chief entertained him and provided a large snake with a magic charm attached to its throat. The chief instructed Oranyan to follow the snake until it stopped somewhere for seven days and disappeared into the ground. Oranyan followed the advice and founded Oyo where the serpent stopped. The site is remembered as Ajaka. Oranyan made Oyo his new kingdom and became the first “oba” (meaning ‘king’ or ‘ruler’ in the Yoruba language) with the title of “Alaafin of Oyo” (Alaafin means ‘owner of the palace’ in Yoruba).

Early period

A Survey of Old Oyo Palace Compound
Oranyan, the first oba of Oyo, was succeeded by Oba Ajaka, Alaafin of Oyo. Ajaka was deposed because he was seen to be lacking Yoruba military virtues and allowing his sub-chiefs too much independence. Leadership was then conferred upon Ajaka’s brother, Jakuta, who was later deified as the deity Shango. Ajaka was restored after Shango’s death. Ajaka returned to the throne thoroughly more warlike and oppressive. His successor, Kori, managed to conquer the rest of what later historians would refer to as metropolitan Oyo.


The heart of metropolitan Oyo was its capital at Oyo-Ile, (also known as Katunga, Old Oyo, or Oyo-oro). The two most important structures in Oyo-Ile were the ‘afin’, or palace of the Oba, and his market. The palace was at the center of the city, close to the Oba’s market which was called ‘Oja-oba’. Around the capital was a tall earthen wall for defense with 17 gates. The importance of the two large structures (the palace and the Oja Oba) signified the importance of the king in Oyo.