The study of the medieval period in the Horn of Africa and more specifically south-east Ethiopia and Somalia has traditionally been linked to the study of Islam, its expansion and the history of its ruling dynasties. Although some attempts to define the geography and the History of the region were made as earlier as the end of the 19th century (Paulitschke 1884), the attention paid to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia placed the region in a clear secondary position even considering the important contributions made by Enrico Cerulli in the 1930’s, including the discovering of the so-called Chronicle of the Walashma, an important document referring the history of this dynasty which ruled on southern Ethiopia during the 13th-16th centuries (Cerulli 1931). By the 50’s, a first reconstruction of the history of the region was presented from the perspective of the arrival, consolidation and expansion of Islam in the Horn of Africa (Trimingham 1952), setting the foundations for further studies as those of Couq (1981) and especially Braukämper (2002). All these studies had a common perspective: the study of Islam in south-eastern Ethiopia y Somalia; and shared similar methodologies: the use of written texts, linguistics and the establishment of a historical geography which focussed on the identification of sites mentioned in the medieval texts and the emplacement and boundaries of the different Muslim medieval principalities (Huntingford 1989). Archaeological references were extremely scarce at that moment, usually limited to a well known article of Alexander T. Curle on the medieval towns of Somaliland (Curle 1937) or the results of the research conducted in the 1920’s by François Azäis and Roger Chambard (1931).
Mosque at Derbiga (Ethiopia) documented by François Azäis and Roger Chambard (1931). After Fauvell-Aymar and Hirsch 2011b: 35
By the 1980’s the approach based exclusively on the analysis of written texts and the similarities between ancient and modern toponymns had been exhausted (although published in 2002, Braukämper book summarized a series of articles written in the 1970’s and 1980’s), without new texts and with the few publications of archaeological (Chittick 1982, Jönsson 1983, Warsame et al. 1975) poorly distributed and difficult to access. Political instability (Ogaden war, Somaliland struggle for secession, collapse of Somalia’s government) also prevented further research in large areas of the region. It wasn’t until the late nineties a new interest grew in the region through a series of projects directed by Bernard Hirsch and François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar which laid the foundations of a more balanced, better integrated study of the medieval period in the Horn of Africa (Fauvelle-Aymar & Hirsch 2008, 2011a). Although the scope of these projects was still based on the study of the Muslim polities that occupied the region and the written sources are systematically used in the study, the methodologies used included a significant use of archaeology (Fauvelle-Aymar et al. 2006a, 2006b) and other material resources, as the epigraphic information of Muslim stelae found in the region (Fauvelle-Aymar & Hirsch 2011b). It also included the first updated information about Somaliland, where the last information about the medieval period was published in the 80’s.
Zeila’s 16th century mosque, documented by Bernard Hirsch and François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar in the early 2000’s. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland.
The work initiated by Bernard Hirsch and François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar has been continued by Timothy Insoll, who in 2003 published a book on the archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa with a specific chapter on the Islamic Horn of Africa (Insoll 2003) and who has recently launched a long term archaeological projects based in Ethiopia (Insoll et al. 2014, 2016, Insoll 2017). The project “Becoming Muslim: Conversion to Islam and Islamisation in Eastern Ethiopia” has focussed on the important cities of Harar and Harlaa and keeps Islam as the main research thread of research, although paying also attention to the role of trade networks in the history of the city of Harar and its hinterland. In 2015, a parallel project run by the Institute of Heritage Sciences (Incipit) of the Spanish National Research Council (González-Ruibal et al. 2017, González-Ruibal & Torres 2018, Torres et al. forthcoming) was launched putting for the first time put the focus on the trade as a longue durée process which constitutes the underlying force beyond many of the deep changes that have happened in the region. This project has for the first time started to document comprehensively the archaeology of medieval sites in Somaliland.
Mosque at Harlaa (http://www.becomingmuslim.co.uk/images/). ©Timothy Insoll
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