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Medieval Landscapes in the Horn of Africa

A Marie Skłodowska-Curie IF project

The enviroment

The geography of Somaliland –and to some extent, all Somalia- can be divided into three main, well differentiated geographic areas, named Guban, Ogo and Haud. The first one correspond to the desert coastal plain (Guban coming from the Somali word gub, to burn), running from the French Somaliland where it reaches a maximum length of 95 km to the Cape Guardafui, where in some cases it narrows  to just 200 meters (Hornby 1907: 3). It is a desiccated area which only receives scattered rain during the –relatively- cool months of October to March. However, the presence of numerous tug (seasonally dry riverbeds) crossing the coastal plain can lead to sporadic episodes of floods when it rains heavily in the highlands. These seasonal episodes of rain make –contradictorily- water relatively abundant in the Guban, thanks to shallow-wells that can be easily dug to get the water contained below the sandy topsoil (Lewis 1999: 33).

EnvironmentMain geographic areas in Somaliland. Adapted from ©GoogleEarth
Wadi after rainA tug (dry riverbed) flooded during the rainy season. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland

Behind the Guban lie a series of mountain ranges generically named the Ogo highlands, extending southwards from the escarpments which limit the Guban to the border with Etiopia, and running parallel to the coast until the Cape Guardafui. These series of Mountains reach the highest altitudes at the escarpment edge (about 2400 meters in the Erigavo region). Rainfall varies with altitude, but it’s enough to sustain limited agriculture to the west, and in general the Ogo highlands can be considered well watered throughout the year (Lewis 1999: 33). To the south, the Ogo highlands slope down gradually to the Haud, a plateau which constitutes the main grazing area of Somaliland and a key element for the seasonal movements of the pastoralists. This region characterized by red soils lacks permanent water, but after the rainy season is covered by tall grass which constitutes an excellent fodder for camels (Lewis 1999: 35). The Haud area is interspersed by valleys and natural depressions which after the rain become natural pools for several months, until they get dry and have to be abandoned.

Guban-Ogo MountainsGuban plain, with the mountain ranges in the background. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland

As whole and regardless of these geographical specificities, the environment in Somaliland is far from promising, with most of the country being considered a semi-desert region with poor and uneven rainfall rates, vegetation consisting mostly in scrub bushes and acacia trees. In this context, the key for the pastoralists’ survival is an adequate strategy of seasonal movements which allow them to take the best advantage of this challenging environment. This strategy is directly related to the annual cycle which distributes rains and conditions the places which can be inhabited throughout the year. Somaliland have four seasons (Hornby 1907:75): the main rain episode (Gu), which takes part around April-May; the dry season of Hagaa running from June/July to August/September, the autumn rains (Dayr) around September/October to December and the harshest dry season of Jilaal (January to April/May). These seasons have a variable impact in the different geographic areas of Somaliland (for example, in the Guban the autumn rains are usually stronger than those of the Gu season), but in general they establish a very strict pattern of movement for the Somali pastoralists.

Ogo mountainsView from the Sheikh pass. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland

This cycle starts with the Gu rains of April, when the groups wintering in the Ogo and northern Haud move to the south to take advantage of the new grazing which will shortly grow, following scouts, the groups move their herds to the southern Haud and establish temporary camps moving around the area as the grazing becomes more and more scarce. At the same time, the groups in the Guban move to the Ogo, filling the empty spaces left the southern groups and benefiting from the comparatively cooler environment. After two or three months, the grazing areas start to dry and the hot season (Hagga) starts. Groups start to move progressively to the north, although camels are usually kept grazing at longer distances –returning to be watered in permanent wells. This period of the Hagga is potentially a conflictive one: if the rain has been scarce the south, the groups will come back earlier and can find the northern groups still occupying the highlands. The pressure of these southern groups returning to their home-wells presses the northern groups to return to the coast, at a moment in which the autumn rains (dayr) start to fall (Lewis 1999: 41). By the end of the dayr season, most of the groups occupy their home-wells and prepare for the winter dry season, the jiilaal. At that moment, only the permanent wells keep water, the Haud is deserted and depending on the total amount of rain during the year subsistence can be especially challenging (Lewis 199: 41). With the arrival of the new rainy season in April the cycle commences again.

NomadNomads on the move. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland

This annual cycle of movement not only conditions the economic life of the Somali nomads, but it also has a deep impact in the social life of these communities. For example, Gu season is considered a season of plenty and joy, and when meetings and councils are called to discuss political matters, make sacrifices to the ancestors, settle debts and contract marriages (Lewis 1999: 43-44). On the contrary, Jiilaal (the winter season) is a harsh period when the progressive desiccation of the wells leads to conflicts over the scarce pasture and water (Lewis 1999:45). The overlapping system of Somali nomads has also an impact on the way in which landscape and territory are perceived. Only to the highest levels of clan organization there is some degree of identification between people and a certain territory, smaller groups within a clan merge and overlap. There is no sanction on the use of pastures, and the right to graze relies on the effective occupation of the area and the capacity to repel enemies by force. Wells, on the contrary, are paramount in the nomads’ strategies, and rights of use are established and made known to everyone, acting as I.M. Lewis put it, as “anchors” for the nomadic distribution (Lewis 1999: 49).

As climatic conditions haven’t changed significantly during the last 500 years, the nomadic strategies regulating seasonal movements and access to water are now basically the same as during the medieval period. Understanding these movement patterns is therefore key to understand the ways medieval nomads used the landscape and related to the inhabitants of the towns and villages scattered along the Ogo Mountains. Unlike the pastoral life, the network of settlements which dotted the Somaliland was severely disturbed after the collapse of the Sultanate of Adal in the 16th century. When urban life started to emerge again, it was under a very different pattern related to the needs of the colonial powers in the 19th century. Therefore and quite paradoxically, the fluid movements of the nomads constitute the most permanent human feature in the region, and the foundations of any territorial study in Somaliland.


Lewis, I.M. (1999): A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. LIT Verlag, Münster.

Hornby, M.L. (1907): Military Report on Somaliland. General Staff, War Office. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode.

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