Stories have been told about the great oracle of Ibini Ukpabi ― once regarded in folklore, although erroneously (five deities in the pantheon are acknowledged to be above the rest in terms of power. They are Ala, Amadioha, Anyanwu, Ekewnsu and Ikenga.
Among them, Ala is acknowledged to be the most powerful deity, just below Chukwu or Chineke the supreme being), as the most powerful deity (Igbo: Arusi or Alusi) in Igboland―whose existence struck fear into the hearts of many.
With the rise to dominance of Arochukwu and the Aro Confederacy, from around the 17th century up to its decline in the 20th, the oracle of Ibini Ukpabi was a center for pilgrimages embarked upon by Igbos, and various other peoples from Niger-delta areas, for various reasons. Most prominent among the reasons was that the shrine served as a centre for the resolution of disputes.
For those oblivious of the fact, Arochukwu―the third-largest city, after Aba and Umuahia, in present-day Abia State, Nigeria―boasts of several historical tourist sites. Most notable among them is the magnificent Cave Temple Complex with its Oracle of Ibini Ulpabi (nicknamed “the Long Juju” by the British) and network of the underground slave trade routes.
There are several things that make this cave temple complex stand out among other historical sites in the Aro area. First, the shrine of Ibini Ukpabi was a prize from the century-long war between the Aro and several Ibibio clans who first lived in the area where Arochukwu is today located.
Again, and most importantly, is its role in the slave trade era, along with the role it played in the history of the area, the whole of Igboland, and beyond the borders of Nigeria in places like Cameroon and Equatorial Guinee.
Located deep in a tropical rainforest in Arochukwu, the Arochukwu cave temple complex, consist of large cave chambers housing the Oracle of Ibini Ukpabi and said Chamber Presence―of Chukwu (God), the Throne of Judgement, an alter (or kitchen area), the Shrine of Nakedness, a Hill of Rags, the Stream of Blood, and series of long, dark tunnels (also the Tunnels of Disappearance) stretching over a kilometer long. A six feet deep gully leads into the Cave Temple Complex.
To the outside world, this site is today nothing but a great tourist destination, but to the peoples indigenous to the area, it holds both spiritual and historical significance; a reminder of the distant past, and the indulgences of a secret society at the height of the Atlantic slave trade.
The complex, including the oracle it housed―at the height of its power, was administered by a cult led by a chief priest. There, the Aro ran an economic and socio-political ring that effectively controlled trade in the region east of the Niger River, and as such had a tremendous effect on many people before the dawn of western colonialism.
When the British―in their quest for colonial power―began their assault on kingdoms around the River Niger, the oracle of Ibini Ukpabi saw to the coming together with many communities when it became somewhat an apex court for the peoples of the region. Here, people from various places came to settle their disputes. Due to its great influence, shrine stewards and lower members migrated to clans south of Niger, where they settled.
In these new places, they served as emissaries and informants to the oracle, passing along information on disputes and equally arranging trips to the shrine. That way, a network of pilgrimages to the oracle was established in the region. As the Atlantic slave era came to its peak, the Aro deviously used the oracle’s influence in the area to profit from the slave trade.
Having already established a network of pilgrimages to the oracle, trading posts and slave quarters together with satellite shrines were, clandestinely, set up in various villages throughout the region. In them, small litigations were handled. Those found guilty were, in most cases, sent to the cave temple of Chukwu, seemingly as sacrifices to appease the Great deity. However, these people were, in fact, sold to European slave merchants.
At first, they were brought to the cave complex through the gully leading to the complex. Many have, in the past, believed the present road leading to the complex to be the main slave route. This, however, is not true. Once at the complex, those who wished to plead their cases were ushered into the complex and further into the chamber presence.
The innocent were allowed to return home through the same route they came, while the guilty were stripped naked at the Shrine of Nakedness, from where they were taken up the hill of rags (the place where they dumped their clothes) and to the wandering stream of blood.
The Aro strategically colored the river red, and as the red water flowed down the stream, this served as a sign to the relatives that the victims were dead. However, they were secretly taken into the Tunnels of Disappearance leading to outlets in the former slave trade routes to the coastal port in Calabar and sold into slavery. From Calabar, there they were shipped to the Americas. In this manner, the fate of thousands was sealed.
The British have claimed to have destroyed the complex towards the end of the Anglo-Aro war, 1901-1902. However, the cave temple complex, together with the Oracle of Ibini Ukpabi, is still intact and can be seen today. Evidently, it was the starting point of the gully leading to the complex that the British had destroyed.
Despite the obvious lack of influence once wielded by Oracle at the height of Arochukwu’s power, the mystic Arochukwu Cave temple has become an important tourist destination.