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Medieval Landscapes in the Horn of Africa

A Marie Skłodowska-Curie IF project

The Project

“Medieval landscapes in the Horn of Africa. State, territory and materiality of the Adal Sultanate (15th-16th centuries AD)” is project funded by the European Union Marie Skłodowska-Curie  actions (H2020-MSCA-IF-2017) which for two years (2018/2020) will study the cultural landscape of the Sultanate of Adal, a state which during the 15th-16th centuries controlled much of what is now Somaliland and southern Ethiopia and played an important role in some of the most important events in the modern history of the Red Sea. Focused on the region of western Somaliland and using an innovative combination of disciplines and methodologies, from the analysis of 16th century texts to the use of GIS tools, the project will explore the relationships between the different communities (nomads, urban dwellers, international traders) that lived in the region and how they built a shared landscape integrated into international economic systems.

Dameraqad housesMedieval settlement at the religious centre of Dameraqad ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Raising from the previous experience of the in Somaliland the project aims to challenge preconceived ideas such as the dichotomies between urban dwellers and nomads or natives and merchants, or the assumed irreversibility –and desirability– of urbanization processes. It will move beyond the archaeological study of a poorly known medieval state in the Horn of Africa to raise questions directly related to current challenges in the region: religious conversion, environmental stress and climatic change, perceptions of space and territory, and the relationships between rural and urban populations. The relationship of archaeology with long-term changes and the attention paid to the relations between humans and environment make this project an excellent tool to examine the impact of human activities on the environment, and how this balance can be established or broken. Many of these issues were as present during the period of the Adal Sultanate as they are nowadays, and the lessons learnt from the rise and collapse of this state can shed light on some of the problems affecting the region, leading to better ways of understanding and managing its natural and cultural resources. By presenting a successful example of a society based on cooperation, it will also contribute to build a more accurate, historicised discourse on Somalia, a region whose deeper past is poorly known.

The selected case study, the Adal sultanate, was one of the key actors in the history of the Horn of Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries. During that period it controlled much of southeast Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti, organized the international trade routes in the region, and challenged the power of the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia until its collapse at the end of the 16th century. The general outline of the history of the sultanate of Adal is relatively well known due to Arab, Portuguese and Ethiopian texts, but these chronicles usually focus on major events such as wars, conquests and dynastic changes, failing to explain key historical aspects such as the organization of the territory, the material culture, and the role of the trade as the backbone of the sultanate‘s life. We know little about the daily lives of the people that inhabited the region and the materiality of the political, socio-economic structures of the sultanate. Far from a homogeneous entity, much of the Sultanate of Adal territory was occupied by nomadic groups which coexisted with urban centres such as Harar or Zeila. The characteristics of this coexistence are almost completely unknown, as are aspects relative to the ethnic and religious diversity in the region. A complex state inhabited by communities with very different backgrounds and ways of life, the Sultanate of Adal provides a unique opportunity to evaluate how this diversity can be tracked archaeologically.

Unfortunately, the historical importance of the region has not been supported by proper archaeological research. Although interest in the region started as early as in 1882 and archaeological projects were carried on during the 1970s and 1980s by Soviet, British, Swedish and American institutions, a proper research programme was never established due to the combination of political unrest, lack of infrastructure and institutions, and the political division of the region.1 However, those projects conducted during the most recent two decades in stable areas such as Somaliland have shown the incredible archaeological potential of the region, and confirmed the importance of the area. The Adal sultanate has not been an exception to this unstructured research. Although some sites belonging to this period were identified in the 1930s, a more comprehensive study has only started recently.

Abasa HouseHouse in Abasa.©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

There are three main objectives of this project: the first one is to generate new and vital knowledge on the Adal sultanate and its environmental, archaeological and historical context. The second is to develop innovative and interdisciplinary methodologies of work in a poorly studied context, in order to reconstruct its historical dynamics. Thirdly, the project will provide an interpretative framework for the Sultanate of Adal‘s archaeological remains, integrating environmental, historical and archaeological information in order to understand how the different communities living in the territory occupied, used and perceived it. The project is based on three research questions:

  1. What was the geographical and climatic context of the Adal Sultanate, and how did this environment condition the basic structure of the state?
  2. Which are the material remains of the Sultanate of Adal and how are they integrated within the territory?
  3. To what extent do the written and oral sources confirm, refute, or redefine the archaeological evidence?

To answer each of these questions, a series of tasks will be implemented during the two years of the project:

  1. To gather, organize and analyse geographical and topographical information in order to reconstruct and understand the Adal Sultanate territory and the environmental framework within which it existed. The knowledge of the Somali environment is fundamental to explain aspects related to nomadic life (seasonal movements, access to strategic resources as wells or grazing areas), and to understand the position of villages along the caravan routes.
  2. To record and structure the archaeological material culture (artefacts, villages, funerary monuments) characteristic to this period, providing for the first time comprehensive and updated information about the materiality of this region during the 15th—16th centuries.
  3. To collect and analyse alternative sources of knowledge (primary and secondary sources, oral traditions) for the study of the territory. The numerous written texts contemporary to the Adal sultanate have never been approached from the perspective of the material expressions and the territory, while ethnographic records of 19th 20th centuries can provide invaluable information about the nomadic seasonal movements. In addition, the strong oral tradition of the Somalis is essential to understand how they have historically organized and objectivized the landscape.

This website will provide updated information about the development and the main outputs of the project, as well as articles on different aspects of the medieval archaeology of Somaliland and the Horn of Africa

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