Somaliland: archaeology in a breakaway state

Dr Sada Mire

Somaliland is not Somalia. Somaliland is in the northern part of Somalia, occupying the area of a former British colony. After gaining independence in 1960, it joined with Somalia Italiana to create modern Somalia. But whereas Somalia is wracked with civil war and crippled by piracy, Somaliland has remained peaceful. Now it has re-asserted its independence. Yet despite boasting a stable, grass-roots democracy, the country has not been recognised by the UN and so does not formally exist, leaving it a breakaway state teetering on the edge of a violent region. However, its heritage puts it firmly on the archaeological world map. Few people, either inside or outside Somaliland, are aware of the riches it contains, so I want to tell you about my archaeological work in post-conflict Somaliland.

Archaeology does not figure highly in our education and it is only because of the turbulent times I was born into that I came to appreciate my country’s heritage. In 1978, when I was two, my family moved from our home in northern Somalia to Mogadishu, the capital city. My father, who came from a camel herding family, won a Russian military scholarship and spent several years in Russia. Once trained, he was thrown into the brutal war in Ethiopia. The war did not go well: he was seriously wounded, placed under house-arrest in Mogadishu, tortured by supporters of Siad Barre – the military dictator who had come to power following a coup in 1969 – and denied access to medical aid. My father died in 1989. By then many people were fleeing Somalia to escape the massacres. My family left in 1991 and, after a year of wandering, we arrived as refugees in Sweden.

The Swedes are justly proud of their Nordic heritage, and for the first time I realised the importance of the past to a people’s identity. Around the same time, I came across a book titled Africa: the Story of a Continent by the British historian Basil Davidson. This was a turning point for me, and I began to ask, ‘What is Somali heritage? What is Somali history and archaeology?’ There was nowhere I could study this but, by attending courses on African Archaeology at SOAS and University College London, I developed the skills I needed to establish this knowledge for myself. Since graduating I have become Director of Antiquities in Somaliland, and devoted myself to Somali heritage. This is what I have discovered.

Few countries are as prominent on a map as Somalia. It is the Horn of Africa, jutting out into the Indian Ocean from the highlands of Ethiopia, with the Red Sea and Arabia to the north and the Indian Ocean to the east. Somaliland lies on the north-western half of the horn, and covers an area slightly larger than England. The terrain is varied, and there are mountains, forests, fertile plains and desert. Precisely when humans first settled there is uncertain, but there is ample evidence that they have been carving a living out of the region for thousands of years. Some of these early inhabitants have left striking and beautiful traces of their presence.

Ancient artists

The magnificent cave paintings at Laas Geel are Somaliland’s most famous archaeological monument, and also one of its oldest. Ten granite rock shelters perched over a great grass plain contain vivid paintings that for centuries were known only to nomads. They spurned the site, believing the shelters to be ‘Devil’s caves’ haunted by evil spirits. This superstition had the fortunate side effect of preventing their livestock from damaging the fragile murals. In 2002, a French expedition led by Prof. Xavier Gutherz, of the University of Paul-Valery Montpellier III, visited Somaliland and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture took them to the site of Laas Geel, which had been earlier located by Mohamed Abdi Ali. Amazed by what they saw, the team returned in 2003 with the specific goal of studying the intricate rock art scenes.

The paintings depict a range of animals, but it is the cattle that are most prominent. Distinctive horns curve up above their heads, mirroring a style found over much of North Africa. It is also characteristic of the Nile valley in the predynastic period (the 4th millennium BC). Of course, dating art on stylistic grounds is a dangerous game and suggestions that Egyptian parallels allow the rock painting to be attributed to the 4th millennium BC have always been taken with a pinch of salt.

The cows are worshipped by stocky humans, with stylised peg-shaped heads and arms. These are probably the Neolithic inhabitants of the area. What is certain is that the paintings give a fascinating insight into the artists’ priorities. Most of the cattle are female, but rather than simply depicting the udders, the paintings often render them in cross section, showing them engorged with milk. A similar technique may explain the colourful patterns on the cows’ distinctive thick necks. These are sometimes interpreted as mystical decorations, but it is more likely that the striking bands of red and white depict juicy strips of meat and fat. Sometimes the cattle are represented as simply necks or horns, a pictorial shorthand that was evidently still sufficient to convey meaning to its audience.

Recently, I was privileged to be involved in the discovery of another spectacular site. Two local residents visited my office and asked if I would be interested in seeing some even more beautiful rock paintings. I drove out immediately and was greeted at Dhambalin by one of the finest rock art sites in North Africa. Not only were there horned cattle similar to those at Laas Geel, but also a whole menagerie of exotic beasts. Flocks of sheep mingle with antelopes and goats, and these sheep are white, not black headed like modern Somaliland breeds. Similar white sheep appear on rock art in Libya, but this is the only appearance of such animals in Somalia. Some of the goats have distinctive white bands around their backs and stomachs that could be associated with domestication and farming, or ritual traditions. Eerie headless creatures also roam the scene. Sometimes viewed as supernatural, a less romantic explanation is that their heads were painted in a longvanished perishable material, leaving only the tips of their horns hanging in space. Elsewhere on the panel, giraffes prance and snakes are poised to strike. There are also hunting scenes featuring men with dogs and, most interesting of all, a man on horseback – one of the earliest known depictions of a mounted huntsman.

The rock at Dhambalin clearly served as a canvas over a prolonged period, for there were many superimposed paintings in a range of colours including white, grey, yellow, brown, red, and even pink. The site itself seems to have been carefully selected. The rock formation is rather like an old-fashioned cathode-ray television set, with a pyramidal projection from the back and a flat screen at the front. It was this natural focal point that was dedicated to paintings, and it is highly likely that the site was selected for ceremonial purposes. There is also a cluster of cairns located right in front of the mountain. Could these be related to the prehistoric painters? Are we glimpsing a wider ritual landscape, of which the rock art is but a part? It is in the 2nd millennium BC that the Somali region probably enters the realms, if not of history, then at least of mythology. A number of Ancient Egyptian records refer to the Land of Punt, a kingdom to the south of Egypt that

was the source of rare luxuries and curiosities. The finest representation of this land is in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, at Deir El-Bahar. A great painted scene recounts the story of an expedition to Punt, where incense and spices are grown, and exotic animals could be obtained to amuse the pharaoh’s court. But where was the Land of Punt? Sudan, Ethiopia and Arabia all claim this honour. And so does Somalia. It is a strong candidate, with both a coastal location and a wealth of the frankincense, myrrh, and animals celebrated at Deir El-Bahar.

There is archaeological evidence to support the Somali case. Alabaster vessels and sherds of Egyptian pottery have been found at various sites, proving the existence of some kind of trading contacts with Egypt. More would undoubtedly be learnt if the circumstances of the recovery of this material were more auspicious. Unfortunately, Egyptian material of any kind is a prime target for looters. Fed by the murky world of the antiquities market, the people stealing this material are not locals desperate to feed their families, but organised gangs from outside the region. Destined for the Gulf States, Italy, and Britain, witnessing the aftermath of looting is an all too familiar heartache for me. It brings home that our heritage really is vanishing before our eyes.

Another ancient civilization that appears to have traded with the Somali are the Phoenicians. On the Red Sea coast, the French explorer Georges Revoil found glass beads and painted glass in the early 1880s. One of the pieces depicts a female figure in distinctive Phoenician style.

The dawn of history

The Somali region emerges into history with the Romans. In the 1st century AD a merchant, probably from Alexandria, jotted down detailed instructions for sailing from the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean in a document called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. This identifies a site named Opone, which should lie on the Somali coast. It is described as a crucial source of cinnamon (imported from Sri Lanka), and ‘slaves of the better sort’. Opone has been identified as modern Ras Hafun, which lies at the extreme eastern end of the country, right on the Horn of Africa.

This remarkable site consists of a 40km long rocky outcrop connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of sand. The outstanding natural harbours this created have long been exploited, and when Neville Chittick dug here in the 1970s he discovered the stone blocks of a courtyard building, and a midden of Murex shells. Such molluscs were a prized source of purple dye, and probably represent industrial waste. More important was the modest pottery assemblage, which provided the first independent confirmation of ancient sources alluding to pre-Islamic trade along the coast. Dating back to the 1st century BC, the various wares testify to the presence of sailors who had access to the Roman and Ptolemaic ports on the Red Sea, and their equivalents on the Gulf. There is even a scatter of Indian material.

This casts Ras Hufan as a nodal point on a sophisticated international trading route. Voyages would have been governed by the prevailing wind, which blows from Somaliland to India from April to June, before reversing through October to November. This allowed for a year-long journey, beginning and ending at the Roman Red Sea ports. Today Ras Hafun lies across the border in Somalia proper. Unfortunately, the archaeological site was ravaged by the 2005 tsunami, while the natural anchorages have attracted the pirates who currently plague the region. It is far too dangerous to visit.

During the Roman period a new power was rising in north-east Africa: Aksum, the forerunner of modern Ethiopia. This Empire minted its own coinage and strengthened trading links in the coastal regions, so that the Somali ports renewed contacts with the east and with the Persian empire. In AD 330 the Aksum empire became an early convert to Christianity, and the Ethiopian church claims to be the oldest surviving one in Christendom.

As it faces Arabia, Somaliland was also an early recipient of Islam. Its precocious embrace of the religion is reflected in the apparent presence of a rare Qiblatayn mosque at Seylac (Zeila). The Qibla wall allows worshippers to orientate themselves towards Mecca, and is usually distinguished with a niche. A Qiblatayn mosque contains two Qibla walls, and belongs to the transitional period in the early 7th century when mosques originally faced Jerusalem, and were then re-orientated to face Mecca. Sadly, the Seylac mosque has been severely robbed.

The balance between the extent to which Aksum and Islam have shaped the modern Somali countryside is controversial. It is often stated that Islam took hold so completely that Somalia is little more than an extension of Arabia. On this reading, therefore, modern Somali’s should look to the Arabian peninsula for their ancestry. However, there are indications that the reality is more complex. The Somali language, for instance, is also the main language of southern and eastern Ethiopia, suggesting residual Aksumite influence. Elsewhere, pre-Islamic customs appear to survive in the Somali religion.

Place of pilgrimage

I have been studying a 12th century AD pilgrimage site known as Aw-Barkhadle, 10 miles north east of Hargeysa, the capital. This is one of the most important Islamic pilgrimage sites in the Horn of Africa, with visitors travelling from as far as Oman. It is here that the eponymous Muslim saint Aw-Barkhadle is supposedly buried. Credited with converting the Somalis to Islam, some believe that three pilgrimages to Aw-Barkadle’s tomb are equivalent to the Hadj to Mecca.

Important burials are still made in the vicinity (including one of the British administrators of Somaliland), and the site’s ideological importance has remained undiminished from the Medieval period down to the modern day. Such saint’s sites are common in the Sufi tradition of Islam, the main form of the religion in Somalia, but are anathema to the Salafi version, which is becoming popular among the more fervent Muslims.

There are indications Aw-Barkadle was also an important pre-Islamic site. It is surrounded by a number of burial mounds, dolmens, standing stones and stelae. Until relatively recently, female fertility rituals were reportedly practised here: the participants washed themselves in a well, and then proceeded to a chalk pit where they daubed a white cross on their forehead, before entering a sacred enclosure and sitting on the fertility stone. This superimposition of revered landscapes has created one of the most archaeologically important sites in Somaliland, and it is high on our list of potential World Heritage Sites.

For much of the Medieval period, from the 11th to 17th centuries, Somaliland was at war with its Christian neighbours in Ethiopia. Most of the historical evidence for this period comes from the writings of the ‘enemy’, including the earliest recorded use of the word ‘Somali’. An important relic of this fractious era is the group of ruined towns either side of the Somali/ Ethiopia border. The crumbling remains were investigated in the 1930s by the British administrator A T Curle, who visited ten towns that were more or less already known, and discovered 11 new sites in both Ethiopia and British Somaliland. Curle published a valuable account of his discoveries in Antiquity for 1937, detailing how one by one the towns was “traced and visited as leave permitted”.

It is fortunate that he had time to explore. I have revisited several of the sites Curle documented, including the most famous at Amud, near Borama. The impressive ruins he photographed there have subsequently been comprehensively levelled. The fabric of the Medieval houses has been carted away to build new homes, and there is on-going looting of the Muslim graves. Islamic burials do not normally contain grave-goods, but those at Amud are sufficiently rich to have attracted the attention of robbers. Rows of despoiled graves lie broken open and surrounded by piles of smashed pottery. Whether there were any other grave goods I do not know: if so, they have all been plundered.

The ruined town at Maduna in mountainous Sanaag province is both better preserved and more mysterious. The site, consisting of several hundred drystone buildings and a large rectangular mosque, complete with mihrab (the niche in a Qibla wall facing Mecca), slips through the historical record without comment. The architecture of this major Islamic period site looks early Medieval, and it seems likely the town dates to the 15th–17th centuries. Amongst the standing house structures are roofed rooms, and even compounds of unexplained dome-shaped structures without doors or window. The only entrance was via a small opening on the top. Could these be rooms of imprisonment?

Shadow of Empire

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the emphasis changes. This is a time of colonists from the north. The port city of Seylac was incorporated into the Ottoman empire as early as the 16th century. Ottoman influence percolated the region, and the surviving architecture in cities such as Seylac testifies to craftsmanship that has endured even the Somali civil war. The prosperity such buildings reflect was not shared equally, and it is at this time that Amud entered the spiral of decline that would lead to its abandonment.

In 1884 Egypt seized the Ottoman possessions in the region, which were in turn colonised by the British. Somaliland was established as a British protectorate, and an improvement scheme upgraded roads and bridges throughout the country. Physical evidence of the British rule of Somaliland also remains in the form of architecture and the war cemetery, once a tranquil oasis of peace and quiet but now a sadly neglected wasteground littered with broken gravestones.

When Somaliland became an independent state in 1960, it chose to unite with the newly independent Italian Somalia. Today, Somaliland once again claims independence, based on the British protectorate borders. British organisation is profoundly evident in the structure of various social sectors such as health and education. English remains the most important foreign language.

When I started investigating Somali heritage, I was interested in how shared cultural heritage could contribute to the reconciliation of a country, and reach beyond nation-state politics. In 2007, I returned to Somaliland after an enforced absence of 16 years to see what I could do to promote the study of our past, and to try to ensure the preservation and study of our cultural heritage. I have been fortunate that the government has given me full support, and as Director of the Department of Antiquities I am busy trying to raise awareness of Somaliland’s fascinating heritage.

Today’s Somaliland has its own flag, passport, and memorials to mark its claim to legitimacy. The main monument, in the centre of the capital city Hargeysa, is a memorial to the political turmoil of the Barre regime: a Russian MIG fighter, which crashed nose down in the town. This has been erected on a plinth and is a poignant reminder of our recent history. I hope that the future will bring more vibrant memorials to Somaliland’s past.


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