Abomey & Dassa-Zoumé


Abomey and Dassa-Zoumé are two cities located in central-southern Benin, the former the capital of Zou Department, the latter the capital of Collines Department. Abomey is perhaps better known, given its history and fact that it is home to the Royal Palaces of Abomey, a long-designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dassa-Zoumé’s much less obviously a heritage hotspot, but dig a little and it is equally fascinating.


Located in the south-western savannah region of Benin that is crossed by the Couffo River, the royal city of Abomey is the former capital of the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey, which ruled from the 17th century until the early 19th century, and is known for its strict military rule, its architecture and art, and its involvement in the capturing and enslaving of its enemies, a practice extended to trading with European slavers based in Ouidah and in other coastal towns during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Prior to the centralisation of the kingdom, the Abomey plateau had been home to a small number of tribes, eventually forcibly removed from the region or sold to Portuguese, British and Dutch slave traders. The French took over the kingdom in 1894, establishing French Dahomey. In1958, French Dahomey was absorbed into the larger Republic of Dahomey, which achieved independence from the French in 1960, and was in turn renamed the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975.

The region is now known for what remains of its royal palaces, which were home to the kings of Dahomey for over two centuries, the tombs of the kings, and now the Musee Historique d’Abomey, an important museum housing a collection of artefacts, weapons, royal thrones and religious objects. The Royal Palaces of Abomey were built under the twelve kings who succeeded from 1625 to 1900, each representing a different king and their reign. The palaces were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.


Dassa-Zoumé or simply ‘Dasse’ and traditionally ‘Igbo Idaasha’ is located along the country’s main north-south highway. Sat at the foot of beautiful granite hills, it is surrounded by a mix of hill and forest, and owes its growth to its historical importance, its position, and the fact that it is an important pilgrim destination.

Dasse-Zoumé was named ‘Igbo Idaasha’ by the Idaasha, a subgroup of the Yoruba, which migrated from what is present-day western Nigeria. Supposed to have established ‘Idaashaland’ as early as circa 1600, the nascent dynasty absorbed and was influenced by local non-Yaruba groups and their customs and practices, evolved out of competing clans, and eventually consolidated power with the founding of Igbo Idaasha, which means ‘belonging to all Idaasha people’. A large and well-populated sanctuary town, Igbo Idaasha would go on to survive the vicissitudes of the slave trade and colonialism, largely by decamping wholesale into the hills. Its present king or ‘oba’ is Egba Kotan II.

Like the rest of Benin, different religions are easily accommodated in Dassa-Zoumé. In this case, the main religion is Christianity, Islam a reasonably far behind second, and then Voodoo and other smaller belief systems. It is believed that the Virgin Mary appeared at the Grotte Notre Dame d’Arigbo, making it an important destination for Catholic pilgrims.

For accommodation in this area, see below.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Travel ideas, conservation stories and the latest from our exploration team