NAIROBI – Under the desert sand and mountains of Somaliland is a rich history of global trade and pre-Islamic nomadic civilization(s) which is being unearthed.
Fragments of history have been buried for years, but now the Archaeological Mission in Somaliland and the Ministry of Culture of this self-declared state in northern Somalia have been working to recover it for six years.
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During the last expedition, which ended in late February before the pandemic had escalated, the team worked in the city of Fardowsa, some 50 kilometers from the coast, a bustling commercial hub of wealthy merchants that connected to Berbera, the main seaport of the region.
“The entire town collapsed, so it cannot be seen from the surface,” Somali archaeologist Ahmed Jama Dualeh tells EFE.
“We excavated it and we have found many artifacts, vessels, ceramics, camel bones,” he adds.
Founded in the 13th century, Fardowsa was home to a community that controlled one of the main mercantile routes that connected Berbera with inland Ethiopia.
“What we have found has been a highly developed city, one of the largest in medieval Somaliland, with spectacular stone architecture,” says Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal, director of the mission of the Institute of Heritage Sciences, of the Spanish Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC).
Inside the houses, which probably belonged to merchants “many imported objects from around the world have been found; from Yemen, which was closest, to Persia, India, China, and Japan,” Gonzalez-Ruibal says.
Fardowsa was a civilization of nomadic communities that preferred that way of life and did not invest any efforts into the creation of a large state.
Around 2,000 years ago this nomadic civilization rubbed shoulders with the three great empires of the time: the Roman, Parthian, and Indian Empires.
Fardowsa traded with these empires without ever conquering the Arabian Peninsula, which linked Africa and Asia, and where western rules of civilization did not flourish nor did empires nor states.
“It is a unique case, it is the only society in the entire Indian system, from Egypt to Japan, where being part of these long-distance trade networks did not give rise to cities for most of its history,” Gonzalez-Ruibal said.
For 1,500 of their 2,000-year history, Somalilanders have been a nomadic civilization something that is at odds with the Western concept of a state.
“States have always tried to prevent their citizens from moving from one place to another because it is more difficult to control them,” the archaeologist adds.
According to Gonzalez-Ruibal, these types of societies tend to be more democratic, egalitarian, and anti-authoritarian, while states have hierarchical and authoritarian structures.
The history of the region may surprise many given its recent bloody past, but for the vast majority of history, it has been a land of peace.
Somaliland “has only really had three moments of conflict, which were in the mid-16th century (the war against Ethiopia), anti-colonial resistance in the early 20th century, and then the civil war of the 1980s, which is not bad for 2,000 years,” the Spanish expert muses.
Somalia has never had any conflicts with neighboring Ethiopia and apart from the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century and World War II, it has enjoyed a peaceful history.
When you compare the region’s past conflicts to any European country the contrast is huge, there has been much less war in Somalia and Somaliland.
Today Somalia has been defined by a history of violence and its predominantly Muslim population.
But Islam arrived in Somalia later than other East African countries like Kenya or Tanzania “which may be connected to that nomadic aspect,” the archaeologist says.
Experts found a 13th or 14th-century sanctuary in the middle of the mountains that served as a pilgrimage for nomads from various clans.
Archaeologists think this was a pagan pilgrimage zone with kilometers of ritual avenues flanked by burial sites that led to a central sanctuary where there are tombs and sacrificial spaces at a time when it is widely thought Islam had advanced considerably in the region.
For the moment, the excavation has stopped due to a lack of financing and the pandemic.
Dualeh hopes that the site will soon become like the city of Petra, in Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of international tourists flock each year.
“People can come, there is no problem in Somaliland right now,” the Somaliland archaeologist urges.