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Casa Branca Yard / Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká

           The first Afro-Brazilian cult terreiro recognized as a national heritage.

Casa Branca Yard / Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká

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Last update: 30/04/2015

By: Júlia Morim - N/I

In 1986, Terreiro Casa Branca (White House Yard) or Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká was the first Afro-Brazilian cult terreiro recognized as a national heritage. Located at 463 Vasco da Gama Avenue, in the neighbourhood of Engenho Velho, Salvador, Bahia, the terreiro occupies an area of approximately 6800m2, in which there are buildings, trees and sacred objects.

According to oral tradition and existing documentation, the oldest Afro-Brazilian temple in Salvador – and perhaps the oldest still operating in the country – was founded in the 1830s (SERRA, 2008, p.1). According to Serra (2008, p.3), “the mystical roots of Terreiro da Casa Branca in Engenho Velho have a very special connection with the ancient African (Yoruba) cities of Oyo and Ketu.” The name – Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká – refers to its founder, known as Iyá Nassô, a name that actually is not a proper name but an important priestess title of the African Oyo Empire. Alongside Iyá Nassô, tradition says that two other priestesses collaborated in the foundation of the temple, Iyá Adetá and Iyá Acalá, as well as the priest Bamboxé Obitikô, all of whom came from the city of Ketu. However, the name Casa Branca derives from the main construction in the yard that is a house of this colour.

Considered a main centre of worship, as there are possibly many terreiros in the country that have descended from it, that is whose founders were initiated there – including Gantois and Axé Opô Afonjá – Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká was called “the mother of all the houses” by the poet Francisco Alvim (SERRA, 2008, p. 6).

Self-identified as Candomblé from the Ketu nation, in allusion to its main founders’ place of origin, the cult group Ilê Axé (which means ‘temple’ in Yoruba) is also identified as ‘Nagô’, a term used to describe groups of Yoruba origin and their descendants.

According to the religious community, the terreiro first settled in Barroquinha, in the historic centre of Salvador, and later moved to where it is today in the Engenho Velho neighbourhood. This move, which occurred with several other terreiros, including to other states, is possibly related to the city’s expansion period, causing them to migrate to more peripheral areas.

At the entrance of Terreiro Casa Blanca is the Oxum Plaza, where the Oxum Boat monument is located. On a slope is the main building, divided into
the public festival hall, the cloister, the sacred kitchen and some of the main shrines, plus residential rooms, a dining hall where the food offerings are shared in the large public festivals, a changing room where the initiates in trance dress themselves, and other annexes. This building is commonly known as the ‘barracão’ (shed) and comprises dependencies for both practical-domestic and religious use. As well as the shrines and niches inside the barracão, there are others that are small stand-alone buildings, (also) called ‘ilê orixá’ (SERRA, 2008, p.10).

Also on the terreiro’s property are houses where some community members live, as well as sacred trees and shrubs. The terreiro’s entire area is considered a temple because it is full of symbolic meaning for its members.

Women’s roles are very strong at Terreiro Casa Branca, as only women can embody deities. The Ialorixá (main priestess) is the head of the house, with a life-long tenure. After the death of an Ialorixá, the House, undergoing a period of mourning, is under the command of the second in the hierarchy. The new Ialorixá is chosen by a rite called Ifá or shell casting. According to Serra (2008, p.5), the chronological order of those who occupied the position of Ialorixás in Terreiro Casa Branca is as follows:

• Iyá Nassô;
• Iyá Marcelina da Silva or Obá Tossi;
• Iyá Maria Júlia Figueiredo or Omoniquê;
• Iyá Ursulina Maria de Figueiredo, known as Tia Sussu;
• Iyá Maximiana Maria da Conceição or Oin Funquê, known as Tia Massi;
• Iyá Maria Deolinda Gomes dos Santos or Okê;
• Iyá Marieta Vitória Cardoso or Oxum Niquê;
• Altamira Cecília dos Santos or Oxum Tominwá.

The author says that in addition to the important role played in the religious sphere, the priestesses stood out “in the civil life of the black-mulatto population in Bahia: a very enterprising women, with a dominant presence in street trading and significant influence in their midst, who exercised strong leadership” (SERRA, 2008, p.7).

Terreiro Casa Branca has ‘children’ of various colours and backgrounds, making it notable locally and nationally. It is prestigious and has good relations with followers from other faiths. It is a reference with regard to studies on Candomblé, and has been the subject/object of several studies, including those conducted by Edison Carneiro, Nina Rodrigues, Pierre Verger and Roger Bastide.

Despite its importance, in the early 1980s, its operation was threatened because of property speculation. The land where it is located was put up for sale by its owner, which could have resulted in the expulsion of residents and the end of services. A mobilization movement started then for its preservation, which had the support of African groups, celebrities (including Jorge Amado, Carybé, Dorival Caymmi, and Mãe Menininha do Gantois), politicians, institutions (such as the Brazilian Association of Anthropology and the Federal University of Bahia) and the general population.

The result of the movement came in 1982 with the preservation of the terreiro by the Salvador City Council, making it a simple preservation area. However, this measure was not sufficient to ensure its permanence. Thus, its representative requested preservation at the federal level, with an application complied in 1984 but only effected in 1986, after City Council’s expropriation of the land (1985) and its donation to the São Jorge do Engenho Velho Association, the civilian representative of Terreiro Casa Branca. In 1985, the religious community was included in the city’s category of ‘strict protection area’.

The recognition of its relevance to the history and culture of the country was an alternative to its continuity, since, as advocated by Peter Fry (IPHAN, 1982, p.117),
the value of a Candomblé yard lies essentially in their oral tradition, or, if you like, in its axé, its secret, passing from generation to generation through initiation rites. The place where Candomblé is practiced, its buildings, its vegetation and its ritual objects represent the materiality of this tradition.

Thus, the preservation secured possession of the Terreiro for the cult community and fostered the development of conservation actions and improvements in space and in buildings, whose costs the egbé (worshiping community) would have had no way to afford. A petrol station located in the terreiro’s area was expropriated by the State Government in order to return a lost part of the territory to the terreiro’s community. The barracão has undergone repairs by IPHAN. The slopes were contained and the pathways and steps paved by the Institute of Artistic and Cultural Heritage (IPAC/BA). The Salvador City Council carried out storm-water drainage infrastructure projects.

To Serra (2012, p.53), for being the first Afro-Brazilian monument to be recognised as a heritage of Brazil, “the preservation of Casa Branca was a victory over prejudice, elitism, racism and ethnocentrism. It was recognition of the importance of Afro-Brazilian cultural creations.”

Recife, 20 April 2014.
Translated by Peter Leamy, April 2015

sources consulted

IPHAN. Processo de Tombamento n. 1.067–T-82 “Terreiro da Casa Branca”. Salvador, 1982. v. I.

SERRA, Ordep. Ilê axé Iyá Nassô Oká/Terreiro da Casa Branca do Engenho Velho -Laudo Antropológico de autoria do professor doutor Ordep José Trindade Serra da Universidade Federal da Bahia. 2008. Available at: <>. Accessed: 10 mar. 2014.

______. O tombamento do Terreiro da Casa Branca do Engenho Velho Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká. In: IPHAN. Políticas de Acautelamento do IPHAN para Templos de Culto Afro-Brasileiros. Salvador, 2012. p. 37-53.

how to quote this text

Source: MORIM, Júlia. Casa Branca Yard/Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <>. Accessed: day month year. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.