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Medieval Landscapes in the Horn of Africa

A Marie Skłodowska-Curie IF project

Historical context

The reconstruction of Somaliland’s history during the 13th to the 16th centuries presents some contradictions. Although medieval and modern texts that refer to the region (Arab, Ethiopian and European) are relatively abundant, most of these texts focus on the region located to the south of the Ethiopian highlands or the cities and sites by the coastknown by Arab and Portuguese sailors. The interior of Somalia is poorly described in these written sources, although Zeila is considered one of the most important cities in the Red Sea and even the capital of some of the kingdoms that ruled the region. Moreover, most of the references to the region are related to the military conflicts that confronted the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia with the Muslim principalities located to the south of the Ethiopian Highlands. Thus, we lack key information about how the territory was organized, the economical bases of the region and even the ethnicities than inhabited Somaliland during this period.

From a general perspective, Somaliland was closely linked to a series of Muslim principalities that arose since the end of the 9th century to the south of the Ethiopian highlands (Braukämper 2002: 12), whose islamization had probably followed the trade routes linking the coast of the Red Sea with the interior of the Horn of Africa (Fauvelle-Aymar2004: 42). The existing Arab texts of authors provide a general if sparing outline of the history of the region, and show how by 1285 AD the Walashma dynasty of Yfat (or Awfat), became the major political actor in the region although its position in relation to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia was often precarious (Braukämper 2002:25). According Braukämper (2002: 27) by 1300 Yfat controlled several Muslim countries and extended to the Somali coast, although the information about this latter region is terribly scarce. The history of the kingdom was marked by an increasing conflict with the Abyssinian kingdom, which ended in 1415 when the sultan Sacd al-Dîn was killed in Zeila by the Ethiopian king Yeshaq and the Yfat territory occupied.

Islamic principalitiesPolitical and ethnic entities in the medieval/modern Horn of Africa ©Jorge de Torres

This occupation was short-lived, and soon afterwards a new kingdom –the sultanate of Adal- was established, controlling all the previous Ifat territory and extending to the Cape Guardafui (Braukämper 2002: 31). The history of the Sultanate of Adal is well known thanks to the Ethiopian chronicles and the biography (Stenhouse 2003) of its most important leader, Ahmed ibn Ibrãhim al-Ghâzi, better known as Ahmed Gragñ or the “left-handed” (1506-1543), who unified the Muslim territories and led a reckless Holy War against the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia which almost led to its disappearance. The death of Ahmed Gragñ in 1543, the blockage of the trade routes by the Portuguese control of the Red Sea Straits (Trimingham 1952: 77) and the invasion of the Oromo peoples from the south led to the definitive collapse of the kingdom by 1577 (Braukämper2002: 32).

collapse-of-the-sultanate-of-Adal-1.jpgCollapse of the Sultanate of Adal in the 16th century ©Jorge de Torres

It is surprising, considering the importance of Zeila and the trade routes between this town and Harar, the lack of references to the region in the Ethiopian, European and Arab texts (Braukämper 2002: 32-33). There are no descriptions of cities or villages in Western Somaliland apart from Portuguese references to Zeila (Barros 1777: 54-61),Berbera and Mayt and the references to a “land of Sacd al-Dîn” within the Sultanate of Adal (Trimingham 1952: 75) are so vague that could be referred to the immediate area east of Harar or encompass parts of Djibuti and Somaliland. The same can be said about the Somali people, which are named for the first time in an Ethiopian text in honour of the King Yeshaq (1414-1429) (Lewis 1966: 30), are usually differentiated from other Muslims in the Sultanate and represented as warlike but troublesome in the biography of Ahmed Gragñ (Stenhouse 2003). They are also represented as a foreign group in the region of Harar (Stenhouse 2003: 102), while their status in Somaliland is less clear and some texts point to their allocation within the territory of the sultanate (sometimes acting as bandits), rather than being the dominant group (Stenhouse 2003: 28). The regions farther to the east seem to be entirely of Somali control, as the visit of Ahmed Gragn to the chief of the Marraihan clan to recruit troops seems to imply (Stenhouse 2003: 44).

The lack of specific information about the territory contrasts with the numerous archaeological remains scattered throughout the region, many of which can be ascribed to the period of the Sultanates of Ifat and Adal. Although Richard Burton (1894: 139) described some ruins during his travel to Harar as early as 1854, the first archaeological work was made by Alexander T. Curle, who identified20 archaeological sites, most of them in the region of Borama and in the route between Zeila and Harar and ascribed them to the period of the Adal sultanate based on the imported materials found during the excavations (Curle 1937). Curle’s pioneer work was followed by Huntingford’s (1978), who added several sites to the list. Since them, more of these sites have been documented in Somaliland (Jönsson 1983, Fauvelle-Aymar 2011, Mire 2015) although only recently a proper study of these settlements has been launched by the Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland (González-Ruibal et al. 2017).


Fauvelle-Aymar, F.-X., and Hirsch, B. (eds) 2011. Espaces Musulmans de la Corne de l’Afrique au Moyen Age. Études d’Archéologie et d’Histoire. Paris: De Boccard/Centre Français d’Études Éthiopiennes.

Fauvelle-Aymar, F.-X., & Hirsch, B. (2004). Muslim historical spaces in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa: A reassessment. Northeast African Studies, 2004–2010, 11(1), 25–54.

The Conquest of Abyssinia, translated by Paul Lester Stenhouse; with annotations by Richard Pankhurst. Hollywood, CA :Tsehai, 2003. Pages 100-105

Trimingham, J. S. (1952). Islam in Ethiopia. London: Oxford University Press.

Braukämper, U. (2002). Islamic history and culture in southern Ethiopia.Hamburg: LitVerlag.

Barros, J. de (1777): Tercera Década do Asia. Lisbon: Régia Officina Typografica.

Lewis, H. (1966): The Origins of the Galla and Somali. The Journal of African History, 7 (1): 27-46

A.T. Curle (1937): The Ruined Towns of Somaliland. Antiquity 11 (43): 315-327

Huntingford (1978): The town of Amud, Somalia. Azania13: 181-186

Mire, S. 2015. “Mapping the archaeology of Somaliland: religion, art, script, time, urbanism, tradeand empire”. African Archaeological Review 32: 111–136.

Jönsson, S. (1983): Archaeological Research Co-operation between Somalia and Sweden: Report on a Three-month Visit to Somalia in 1982. Stockholm, Central Board of National Antiquities.

González-Ruibal, A.; Torres, J. de; Franco, M.A.; Ali, M.A.; Shabelle, A.M.; Martínez, C.  &Aideed, K.A.  (2017) Exploring long distance trade in Somaliland (AD 1000–1900): preliminary results from the 2015–2016 field seasons, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 52:2:  135-172.

Burton, R. (1894): First footsteps in East Africa : or, an exploration of Harar. London: Tylston.

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