In Somaliland, Cornax-Gómez carried out excavations at Dameraqad, located in what was once the principal territory of the Sultanate of Adal, and occupied between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries CE. The preliminary survey of the site, including an analysis of material culture, confirmed that the site served as a religious center.

By Carolina Cornax-Gómez

Institute of Heritage Sciences (Incipit),

Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)


Nyame Akuma, Volume 99, June 2023

Nyama Akuma is published twice per year by the Society of Africanist Archaeologists and provides short research reports, announcements, and editorials concerning African archaeology.


The site of Dameraqad is located at Somaliland (at its western border, abutting Ethiopia), scattered along 12 hectares of a still-used pass, following up the river Abasa to the southeast and, less than 50 kilometers away from the better-known site with the same name (González-Ruibal et al. 2015-2016; González-Ruibal et al. 2017; de Torres et al. 2018b: 69) (Figure 1). The site is located in what was once the core area of the political control of the Sultanate of Adal. The chronology proposed for the site (based on the archaeological materials found) is between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, coinciding with the chronology of this sultanate (de Torres et al. 2018b: 72). The historical development of this sultanate has been the subject of many studies, but it is generally believed to be an ‘heir’ of the Sultanate of Ifat when it fell in 1415 AD. Adal collapsed around 1573 AD due to several factors, including Oromo migrations, military defeats against the Ethiopian Empire and Portuguese colonizers, and the death of Ahmed Gran, leader of the jihad against Ethiopian Christian forces (Braukämper 1977: 31-38).


We have been aware of the existence of medieval sites in the region of Somaliland since the nineteenth century, thanks to the descriptions of Richard Burton (1854: 139-146; de Torres et al. 2018a: 1). Dameraqad was first mentioned by A.T. Curle in his ‘The ruined towns of Somaliland’ (1937). After that, it was not until the works of the Institute of Heritage Sciences – Spanish National Research Council (Incipit-CSIC) project in 2018 when it was more comprehensively described. During that field season, the team took photographs, made drone flights, and collected archaeological materials which are presented in this article.

The site

According to Curle’s brief reference in his report, he and Captain R.H.R. Taylor grouped the sites they documented into various clusters, ascribing Dameraqad to the cluster of towns distributed on both sides of the British Somaliland-Ethiopia (1937: 316). When the Incipit-CSIC team went to Dameraqad in 2018, it was in a relatively good state of preservation, allowing the identification and distinction of various types of structures.

The Medieval site of Dameraqad in Somaliland
Figure 1. Location of the site of Dameraqad (yellow point). (Map by the StateHorn project.)

The Incipit-CSIC team carried out a systematic survey of the site and produced the resulting map (Figure 2). This map shows an accumulation of structures located in the north-western part of the site, apparently on a plain that lies between what appears to be a small hill to the west and a wadi to the east. This accumulation has an area of approximately 9,638.68 m² and is composed of 12-15 structures, of which the walls are still more than a meter high in some areas, carefully constructed with well-placed flat stones of medium size, bonded with mud (see Figure 2). The buildings have two or three rooms, and are sometimes linked by walls defining courtyards (de Torres et al. 2018b: 69).

The Medieval site of Dameraqad in Somaliland
Figure 2. Map of Dameraqad. (Map produced by the Incipit-CSIC team of the StateHorn project, used by permission of Jorge de Torres Rodríguez.)

This type of construction technique does not differ too much from that used in the rest of the medieval sites in the region. More scattered structures can also be seen in the central and western areas of the site, some of them being too small to be interpreted as houses. Some of the buildings show evidence of re-use, including lower, poorly prepared walls that enclosed some of the earlier courtyards or were the foundations of nomadic huts (Curle 1937: 319) (Figure 3).

The site also has a necropolis that the Incipit-CSIC team documented at the eastern side of the site. It is a cemetery with more than 100 tombs which occupies an area of approximately 15 hectares. The predominant type of burial is delimited with flat slabs (sometimes a double line) placed at the edge of the burial, with an east-west orientation (Curle 1937: 319) sometimes marked with a headstone without inscription. There are also small cists, rectangular tombs surrounded by stone circles, small clusters of stones with no clear shape, burials formed only by two stelae marking the head and foot of the tomb, etc. (Figure 4). All the tombs described above appear to have an east-west orientation and some, given their small size, likely correspond to infant tombs. Some of the tombs appear to have small, white or pink stones in their interiors, which create a play of chromatic contrast effect with decorative intent. Many of the burials have stelae.

The Medieval site of Dameraqad in Somaliland
Figure 3. General view of Dameraqad. (Photo by Álvaro Minguito Palo- mares, photographer of the StateHorn project.)

However, what is architecturally most striking about Dameraqad is its mosques, especially because of their number (six). In the 2018 campaign, the Incipit-CSIC team identified 6 mosques, but in subsequent revisions, another three of these structures were documented. These nine buildings are scattered throughout the site, with four in the far west, two in the center (of which the northernmost appears to be Dameraqad’s main mosque) and three in the far east. Of these, three are mawlac or nomadic mosques made up of a simple row of stones outlining the prayer area. One of them is significantly better-constructed, with a double row of rectangular blocks and small white pebbles inside them (Figure 5). Another one has a small tumulus and a burial place inside, according to the plans drawn up by the Incipit-CSIC team. At least one of these mosques has a round mihrab, unlike the square mihrabs of the other mosques, both nomadic and urban from Dameraqad, and unlike the usual square mihrab that characterizes medieval mosques in the region.

Beside the mosques, other nomadic structures are present at Dameraqad, such as circular stone tumuli of considerable size which, although scattered throughout the central and south-central areas of the site over an approximate area of 10,307.3 m², can also be found to the east of the site in the graveyard mentioned above. Some burials can also be seen in the necropolis which do not seem to have the typical Islamic morphology and orientation. Most of these structures seem to be posterior – but not significantly – to the abandonment of the permanent settlement. The architecture of the structures is fairly homogeneous and the constructive techniques are mostly the same at the sites near Dameraqad that were documented by the Incipit-CSIC team and other researchers (Huntingford 1978: 182; Chittick 1976: 128; de Torres et al. 2018b: 76).

Material culture

The materials recovered by the Incipit-CSIC team during the 2018 survey were rather scarce, as happens with most of the medieval sites in the region. However, despite their scarcity, they are a representative sample of the range of material culture characteristic of western Somaliland during the medieval period, which is fairly homogeneous (following also Fauvelle-Aymar et al. 2011: 32). However, and given that neither the Incipit-CSIC team nor the mission led by Curle carried out excavations at this site, the chronology is solely based on surface materials and would likely represent the last period of Dameraqad. Older materials and structures could be found by carrying out excavations in future campaigns.

The Medieval site of Dameraqad in Somaliland
Figure 4. Different types of burials present at the Dameraqad necropolis. (Montage by the author using photos by Álvaro Minguito Palomares, photographer of the StateHorn project.)

Local pottery, the most common material retrieved, is handmade, coarse, and with oxidizing firing pastes with tempering agents that can be seen with the naked eye on the pieces, mainly of micaceous origin. Handles are especially abundant, some curved with oval sections and other smaller, vertical ones with circular sections. Some of these fragments had vertical incised decorations. Some fragments of thickened rims, bowl fragments, globular vessels with a short straight neck, ringed bottoms, and spherical pieces were also collected. Decoration is scarce, usually consisting of simple incised designs. Only in very few cases there were nail incisions or clay appliqués (Figure 6.4). Such findings are consistent with descriptions of material culture collected by Curle and other researchers (de Torres et al. 2018: 33; Huntingford 1978: 186; Chittick 1976: 128).

In terms of imports, the Incipit-CSIC team collected a fragment of speckled-type green glazed pottery dated to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries (de Torres et al. 2018b: 78) (Figure 6.2). and another of the white-yellowish varnished sherd, wheel-made and decorated with incised and dotted motifs (Figure 6.3). Similar examples have been found in Siyaara dated to the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries (González-Ruibal et al. 2021: 1015). The sample of imported materials found during the survey was completed with three cowries (Figure 6.1) with the back removed and a fragment of green glass. In addition, a fragment of softstone likely imported from Arabia is currently stored at the British Museum (ref. Af1935,0709.133) as a part of the materials donated by Alexander Curle in the 1930s. This former material is very common in medieval sites in the region (Curle 1937: 322; de Torres et al. 2018b: 33).

The Medieval site of Dameraqad in Somaliland
Figure5. Main mosque (left) and a nomadic mawlac mosque (right) in Dameraqad. (Montage by the author using photos by Álvaro Minguito Palomares, photographer of the StateHorn Project.)

Other types of imports that also appear relatively frequently on medieval sites in this part of Somaliland were not identified during the 2018 survey. That is the case of fragments of celadon wares and white and blue porcelain from Asia, or glazed pottery from different parts of the Middle and Near East. Bracelets, beads, metal objects, shells, or lithics materials are also common. Occasionally other less usual imports may also appear, such as mother-of-pearl objects sometimes with incised decorations, ostrich eggshells, or even coins. Many of these types are mentioned for example by Curle and the Incipit-CSIC team in descriptions of the material culture encountered during their work (Curle 1937: 320; de Torres et al. 2018b: 33).

Discussion and preliminary conclusion

The medieval site of Dameraqad fits well into the configuration or typology of a typical medieval site of the interior of the eastern Horn of Africa. In terms of material culture, types of structure, and construction technique, this site does not differ much from others of the western Somaliland region bordering the Ethiopian frontier; however, what makes Dameraqad unique is its obvious religious character.

The evidence to support the claim that Dameraqad was most likely an important religious center is both material and testimonial. Firstly, nine mosques have been documented at Dameraqad to date, making it the only known site in the Horn of Africa with such a large number of them. Informants who collaborated with the Incipit-CSIC team in the 2018 campaign referred to Dameraqad as the burial place of Sheikh Osman, a saint from the region who is associated with cultivation endowments (de Torres et al. 2018b: 76). However, these testimonies could not be confirmed because of the lack of evidence of any monumental tomb that can be related to the saint. On the other hand, Dameraqad, like the nearby medieval sites, is close to what was the center of the core area of political influence of the Sultanate of Adal (or Barr Sa’d al-Din, following the primary sources and Braukämper 1977: 30). The careful constructive technique used to build the aljama mosque as well as the rest of the urban mosques of the site reflects this proximity to the central area of the expanding power of the Muslim state. Despite the conjunction of all these factors of high symbolic, cultural and religious importance, Dameraqad does not seem to have become a center of pilgrimage for the present-day populations of the region (de Torres et al. 2018b: 78). Both Lewis (1994: 143) and Hornby (1907: 51) refer to what within Islam are called tariqas or tarigas, which are religious settlements following Sufi Islam, mentioning the presence of several of them at Somaliland, like Au Barkhadle or Sheikh. Given the obvious religious character of Dameraqad, it may have been one of these tariqaduring the Adalite period.

The Medieval site of Dameraqad in Somaliland
Figure 6. Materials found at Dameraqad by the Incipit-CSIC team: 1.cowries; 2.speckled pottery; 3.white-cream Yemenite ware; 4.local pottery. (Montage by the author using photos by Álvaro Minguito Palomares, photographer of the StateHorn project.)

Dameraqad is also a place where the dynamics of coexistence between the new set of Muslim beliefs and the pre-existing traditions in the Horn of Africa prior to their arrival can be observed. At this site, we can see how this occurs in a peaceful manner for several reasons. One of the facts that most supports this assertion is that there are no remains of a surrounding wall at the site. Therefore, this lack of a defensive system could indicate that there were no elements to defend against, i.e., perhaps it is showing us that, despite the introduction of a new religion in the area, it did not rival or replace the pre-existing beliefs, but that both traditions coexisted peacefully and adapted to each other, thus giving rise to processes of syncretism in which, in spite of everything, Islam seemed to predominate.

The arrival of Islam led, among other factors, to a progressive sedentarisation of at least part of the population especially in the western part of Somaliland where some kind of agriculture could be practiced (Levtzion & Pouwels 2000: 12). As a result of this, sites with structures indicating a prolonged occupation began to appear in the Horn of Africa as material expression of the process of sedentarisation. Throughout Somaliland, several examples of sites have been documented where nomadic structures can be found alongside urban elements. This could also be a reflection of the aforementioned peaceful coexistence between the two traditions, although it could also be a symptom of the reuse of sites and habitable areas by various groups over time but without coinciding in time. In fact, there is evidence to support both hypotheses: on the one hand, in the cemetery of Dameraqad one can observe typical Islamic burials with others that seem more nomadic in character, although it is true that the canonical Islamic burials seem to be grouped together; on the other hand, there is evidence of reuse of stones in some structures, which shows a construction of the structures by a certain group at a later time than the site’s occupation by another (de Torres et al. 2018b: 69). –

Dameraqad’s greatest particularity is its religious component. However, its importance is not only due to this factor, as there is also evidence in the archaeological record that this enclave was inserted in the important trade circuits that linked Dameraqad with other coastal locations such as Zeila and other major commercial cities, as well as with the Asian continent and other points of the global geography. Apart from the import finds that support this claim, the local ceramic fragments found at Dameraqad also provide evidence of the well-known use and manufacture of these local ceramic typologies.

The region of the Horn of Africa in medieval times was a very dynamic area that underwent major changes in the geographical, political, and cultural context that completely transformed the East African continent. One of these factors of change was the arrival of a new religion in the region: Islam. This doctrine produced, among many other transformations, the creation of Muslim political entities of a state character that dominated the historical development of the Horn of Africa between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries (Levtzion & Pouwels 2000: 6).

The expansion and consolidation of Islam in the region had an impact in many different areas, such as in the configuration of landscapes in which Islamic tradition and beliefs persist while Islam permeates the collective mentality. Dameraqad is, therefore and in conclusion, a perfect example both of these ‘syncretic landscapes’ in which Islam and pre-existing local traditions seem to coexist and of the material expression brought about by the process of progressive sedentarisation as a result of the emergence of the new Muslim states in the Horn of Africa.


The fieldwork of the Incipit-CSIC Archaeological project was funded by the Spanish National Programme for the Promotion of Scientific Research (Refs. HAR2013-48495-C2-1-P and PGC2018-099932-B-I00) and the Palarq Foundation. The research presented in this paper was funded by the European Union through the European Union Research and Innovation Framework Programme, Horizon 2020, through the European Research Council (ERC StG 853390-StateHorn). The author of this text was also funded by a pre-doctoral grant from the GAIN-Xunta de Galicia (nº IN606A-2021/013). Finally, the author would like to thank the Somaliland national and local authorities for their support.

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