The article carries out an in-depth analysis of a number of ruined towns located mostly in British Somaliland and the Ethiopian adjacent territory. The author identifies four groupings of ruined towns dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, illustrating their peculiar characteristics: location, houses, sizes, building materials, relics, and so on.
By A. T. CURLE
* A debt of gratitude is due to Lieut.-Colonel E. H. M. Clifford, C.B.E., M.C., and the late Fitaurari Tessama Banti, Commissioners of the British Somaliland-Ethiopia Boundary Commission who afforded us every facility and rendered it possible to eliminate the question of frontiers as far as the investigations were concerned.
Periodical references to the ‘Mysterious Ruined Cities of Somaliland’, citing them as an ‘unsolved riddle of Africa’, have appeared in books and articles from time to time. The majority of these ruined towns lie in the west of British Somaliland, within the present administrative district of Borama, or across the frontier in the adjacent areas of Ethiopia, roughly halfway between the ancient port of Zeila and the walled town of Harar. The Somalis of today can throw no light on their history.
A series of investigations were carried out by Captain R. H. R. Taylor and myself during the week-ends available in 1934. The sites of ten ruined towns were already more or less vaguely known, while eleven new sites, off the beaten track and overgrown with bush, in both Ethiopia and British Somaliland, were one by one traced and visited as leave permitted. Circumstances did not permit of excavation beyond the clearing out of two houses and the sinking of a trial trench across a refuse heap, but notes were made and a careful record kept of all surface finds. The representative collection of relics brought home and presented to the Department of Ethnology of the British Museum amounted to several thousand items, mostly fragmentary. The numerous types of objects were classified and made it possible to assign the period of occupation of the towns to the 15th and 16th centuries.
The sites investigated can be divided into four groups (see MAP) which, although geographically distinct, are yet sufficiently homogeneous in character to enable them to be assigned to the same civilization. The first group consists of the coastal town of Zeila and the island of Saad-Din which lies about four miles to the north. The town of Zeila is, of course, still in existence today, although its houses are tumbling down and it has shrunk to a shadow of its former importance. Until eclipsed by the adjacent French town of Jibuti it was the chief center of export for the products of Ethiopia. The Franco- Ethiopian railway now takes the place of the age-old caravan tracks. The District Officer’s house to the east of the town, just outside the line of the old walls, has been built on the ancient refuse heaps, and it is possible to pick up around the house quantities of fragments of Celadon porcelain, and pieces of Arab pottery and glass. It is impossible to get any idea of the plan or construction of the old town as the site has been in continuous occupation for 2000 years.
The island of Saad-Din, now uninhabited and waterless, contains the ruins of many houses with courtyards, spaced far apart, their walls, however, usually not remaining for more than a foot above the ground. A cellar or tank with an arched roof is the only remaining building. All the refuse heaps and relics are found in the southwest corner of the island, and no heaps are visible on the surface near the ruins. Near the refuse-heaps, however, the line of a wall is traceable for several hundred yards.
In the second and largest group are found thirteen towns lying on both sides of the British Somaliland-Ethiopia boundary some hundred miles south of, and inland from, Zeila; namely Amud, Abasa, Au Boba, Au Bare, Derbiga Adad, Biyo Dadera, Damerakhad, Derbile, Gogesa, Qorgab, Hasadinle, Kabab, Musa Hasan, the sites of a religious settlement at Sheikh Barkab and of a single house or villa at Aroqolab.
They are situated some 5000 to 6000 feet above sea level. The four principal towns of this group appear to have been Abasa, Amud, Au Bare, and Gogesa. Each of these is represented by the ruins of some 200 houses. The size of the remainder of the towns varies from upwards of 20 houses. The houses in the larger towns are still standing with walls in some cases as high as 20 feet. Buildings, which because of the presence of a ‘mihrab’ are unmistakably mosques, are usually in the best state of preservation. In the smaller towns such as Hasadinle the walls remain to a height of only one or two feet. All the cities are overgrown with bush, and shrubs grow out of the walls. The air- photograph (PLATE I) shows the site of the town of Amud. The refuse heaps stand out clearly as open mounds on the outskirts of the buildings; a trial trench struck across the largest of these revealed a depth of 4 feet 6 inches of ashes, bones, and general refuse. These towns, although within easy reach of wells in the various riverbeds, are always a little distance away, probably on account of mosquitoes.
The country in the vicinity is generally hilly with thick bushes in the valleys. Only a little agricultural activity could have been possible, but stock in the form of cattle, camels, sheep, and goats thrive at the present day and therefore probably did so in the past. The climate by day is mild and pleasant, the altitude however rendering it unduly cold at nights from November to January and forming an agreeable contrast to the hot dusty plain behind Zeila.
The third group is a small one comprising only the towns of Eil Humo and Eik. They lie about a hundred and twenty miles inland, south of Berbera on the flat plateau 4000 feet above sea level. The houses appear to have been similar in construction to those of the former group. The water which must have supplied the town of Eik has dried up, and even boring to a depth of about 300 feet has failed to find any on several adjacent sites.
The fourth group is a settlement at Rugayi, near Dagahbur in Ethiopia, over 200 miles inland and south-southwest of Berbera. It consists of an ambitiously planned mosque with the site of a nomadic settlement under the shadow of the walls on the west side. It lies well away from the other ruined towns and was probably a religious settlement; but the pieces of Celadon ware, steatite plates, and other relics found justify its inclusion along with them.
The plans of the houses noted on all the sites indicate that their dimensions were governed by the difficulty of obtaining local supplies of roofing timber exceeding nine feet in length, a difficulty still encountered today. Some of the plans adopted for houses of more than one room are shown on FIG. I. The average house was well-built, and, in spite of its somewhat dark interior, must have been cool during the day, and warm at night. The houses varied in size from a single room measuring on plan 9 feet by 10 feet, to a four-roomed mansion with a courtyard (FIG. I, c). The walls were usually about z feet to 3 feet thick, and were well built of roughly dressed stones laid in alternate courses of large and small material bonded with termite earth (PLATE II). The partition-walls were not tied into the main walls. It was difficult to gauge the original height of the rooms, but in some cases that would appear to have been about 10 feet. There were no windows in the modern sense of the word, and lighting and ventilation, other than from the door, must have come in through small rectangular holes, about one foot in height, set in the walls about 8 feet from the ground. The floor was of beaten earth in all the houses that were investigated. The roof was probably formed of brushwood, laid over a framework of rafters of local wood, and covered with earth; this theory is supported by a study of the earth in the houses we were able to clear out. Square or triangular-headed niches (PLATE II) were found in some of the walls and must have served as cupboards. There were no signs of doors having been fixed and it is probable that a cloth or skin, attached to pieces of timber laid horizontally, serving as a lintel, covered the aperture.
On the majority of sites, the mosques were the most ambitiously planned buildings and alone appear to have been constructed with lime mortar. The ‘Mihrab’ of the mosque at Amud has a pointed arch and outside the mosque proper was an antechamber containing a storage well 8 feet deep and lined with plaster to hold the water for ablutions. The mosque at Abasa measured some 60 feet by 54 feet and contained twelve unevenly placed pillars of varying forms; some were round and surmounted by built rectangular capitals, others rectangular with the angles recessed, cruciform in plan, as shown in PLATE III. No arches appear to have sprung from these pillars, which must accordingly have supported a brushwood roof. Some of the pillars had baulks of wood built into them about three feet from the ground which can be seen in the tall pillar in the center of PLATE III. Their purpose was probably to facilitate the attachment of drapery or hangings. The ‘Mihrab’ of this mosque was formed of a series of four recessed rounded arches but unfortunately, the back wall has fallen away. The mosque at Rugayi is perhaps the most elaborate building of all and is more carefully constructed than any of the others. It consisted of a rectangular building with an inner court, the wall of which is pierced on each face by two arches, the ambulatory having been roofed over with sun-dried tiles while the court was probably left open. On both occasions I went there it was unfortunately impossible to take any measurements. Between 1930 and 1934 two of the arches collapsed and the remainder are probably in a perilous state by now, unless the Italians have restored them.
In none of the towns did there appear to be any town-planning or orderly arrangement of the houses. The sites of the inland towns were not chosen for defense, nor were they surrounded by protecting walls. The only uniformity of plan is shown in the positions of the refuse- heaps and graveyards, which are always on the edge of the towns.
The cemeteries contain no inscriptions and no elaborate tombs, except at Au Boba, where a conical-shaped tomb has been erected over what is reputed to be the grave of the name sheik of the town (PLATE IV). The usual type of grave is oriented east and west, thus probably allowing the body to lie on the right side with the face turned towards Mecca. The graves are outlined with stones set on edge and occasionally there is a low uninscribed headstone.
A large quantity of objects of porcelain, pottery, glass, metalwork and stone were recovered from the surface of refuse-heaps and amongst the ruins of eighteen towns, approximately similar types being found in all four groups of sites.
Fragments of Celadon vessels were found on every site, and pieces large enough to date have been assigned to the Sung and Ming dynasties in the region of the 12th to 15th centuries. Fragments of blue and white porcelain came to light on every site; these while difficult to date are generally attributed to the 16th and 17th centuries. One fragment of thin ware, blue outside, from Abasa, has been identified as Ming of the 16th century. The base of a grey glazed pottery vessel from Zeila with a floral design has been attributed to the 17th century.
One piece of a small bowl from Aroqolab with a fine green internal glaze is believed to be Egyptian of the 15th century or earlier. Quantities of fragments of various types of brown, blue, grey, and white, and mottled colored glazed pottery came from all the sites and it is impossible to assign them to any period more definitely than from the 13th to the 18th century. A group of rather larger fragments from Saad-Din Island are put down as suggestive of the 15th century. One piece of delicate cream-colored ware, also from Saad-Din Island, has been classified as probably 12th century. Numerous pieces of grey-biscuit porous vessels were recovered, some bearing interesting patterns resembling Coptic interlacing work. It is naturally impossible to assign a period to these as such vessels are in use down to the present day in the Near East, the majority coming from Spain and India, but their use is confined to the Asiatic and European populations.
All the sites yielded a quantity of coarse hand-made pottery sometimes on the refuse-heaps associated with the Chinese and other wares. Pieces of a variety of types of vessels were found, superior in design and construction to those in use by the natives of Somaliland today; they included a plate-like type with small handles, pottery, water- bottles, etc. The only complete item was a flat pottery lid measuring 6 inches across and ¾ inch thick with a small raised semicircular handle in the center. Some of the coarse pottery from Abasa and Saad-Din Island had the appearance of having been wheel-made, a technique no longer in use in Somaliland.
A small roughly-made pottery lamp came to light during the digging out of a house at Qorgab. It is primitive in design, being oval-shaped with a flat base and a spout protruding upwards from one end to take the wick. Traces of soot were found in the spout.
Pieces of burnished pottery were found on most of the inland sites. The fragments were brownish or black in color and in some cases showed simple incised ornamentation. One piece, the ribbed neck of a black jar, was found 4 feet 6 inches below the surface in the refuse-heap at Amud. It is similar in type to a jar I saw used for storing honey in Harar in 1935. No burnished pottery is in use in Somaliland today, but it is in general use in Ethiopia.
All the sites produced a number of fragments of glass vessels; they were thin and of various colors including blue, yellow, and green. It is impossible to date the fragments beyond two pieces, one with a blue line across it and the other with white lines and raised dots about the size of a pin head, which are attributed to a period not later than the 15th century.
One small glass bottle blackened by contact with fire, but whole except for the mouth, was picked up at Zeila associated with Celadon ware.
A number of beads came from the various inland sites and were specially prolific at Sheikh Barkab mosque, where they appear to have been left as offerings. The following types were identified:-Varieties of glass trade beads at the latest 100 years old, others earlier; cobalt blue glass rings similar to Bechuana and Mashona beads; ‘cane’ beads of drawn glass in white, green, pink, blue, and yellow from seven sites, the yellow similar to a type from Malay and early in date; one glass segmented bead; some round rock crystal beads typical of African make; two rock crystal ones with a hexagonal barrel; cornelian beads more akin to those from Romano-Egyptian sites than African. One agate bead was found. Some small flat ostrich-eggshell and marine shell pierced disks were recovered whose technique gave the impression that they might have come from the sites of an earlier civilization a1 together.
All the sites yielded fragments of glass bangles. Unfortunately, it is impossible to date them. They vary from simple black or blue drawn glass, plain or simply ornamented, to elaborate and highly colored varieties made in three pieces. Samples of twisted glass bangles in variegated colors were included in the fragments.
Portions of steatite platters were found on all the inland sites. They were about an inch thick, with a narrow, shallow raised rim. When complete they must have measured about a foot in diameter and in most cases they showed signs of considerable wear. Pieces of the base and rims of steatite bowl-shaped vessels also came to light; they varied from One fragment of the rim of a vessel was decorated with small holes incised within circles.
Stone finds included 43 objects of steatite and other soft stone, probably spindle-whorls or in some cases beads. They vary in size and shape, some being conical, others flat, but all pierced with a hole in the center; their diameter varies from ½ inch to 1½ inches. Three pottery whorls were also discovered.
Seven round stones of limestone and quartz were revealed together on the floor of a house which was cleared out at Qorgab; they varied in weight from 6 to 28ozs and bore marks indicating their use as hammer-stones. They were lying in close proximity to a steatite platter. A similar collection of four pebbles was discovered on the floor of a house at Abasa.
Six coins were recovered and it has been possible to identify two of them from Derbi Adad as belonging to Kait Bey, Sultan of Egypt, 1467-1495. The other four are undecipherable. Two gold coins were found by a Somali woman herding goats amidst the ruins of Eik in 1935; they were purchased by a European official for a rupee and sold to Messrs Spink in London for £2 10s on their gold value. Fortunately, I was able to get impressions and they have been identified as having been minted in Egypt in the reign of Selim II, 1566-1574. Coins are often reported to be found at Eik following on rain and there is little doubt that pieces from hoards come to light from time to time.
One silver finger-ring was found at Au Bare; it measured about ¼ inch wide and was ornamented with a debased pattern of interlacing. Five other pieces of metal rings of various types came to light.
A single barbed iron arrowhead 2 ¾ inches in length was picked up at Abasa.
A bar, probably copper, 3 inches long and ¼ inch thick, rounded at one end, came from Qorgab.
A quantity of black obsidian flakes and small cores were common on the surface of some inland sites, especially at Derbiga Adad.
Ostrich eggshell appeared on all the sites.
Two fragments of mother-of-pearl shell came to light; one, clearly the portion of some ornament, had a design of incised rings.
A piece of wood 3 inches long, with the appearance of having been turned, was found at Amud and might have been half the handle of a knife.
A disk of pottery, round in shape and ¾ inch in diameter and over ½ inch thick, glazed on both sides, came from Amud and has the appearance of being a playing piece. A steatite disk of about the same dimensions, and some slightly larger, were found on other sites.
The general weight of datable evidence indicates that these inland towns flourished between the 15th and 16th centuries. It is impossible to say without excavation whether there were only one or several occupations during that period. The finds at Saad-Din Island tend to be earlier than those from the inland sites and point to a date as early as the 12th century.
The size and number of the towns, the comparatively elaborate mosques, and the lack of defensive precautions show the existence of prosperous and peaceful Mohammedan communities.
The Celadon porcelain, Egyptian glazed pottery, thin glass fragments, porous water-vessels, mother-of-pearl ornaments, and coins from Egypt, all indicate that their users must have been a comparatively cultured people carrying on a trade which had connexions with the outside world from Egypt on the one hand to China on the other. The interlacing pattern on the silver ring and the design of incised circles on the mother-of-pearl ornaments indicate a connexion with Coptic art. The steatite platters and vessels and obsidian chips found show that primitive utensils must have been used in conjunction with the modern. Travelers’ accounts tell of slaves, gold, ivory, and musk which was exported from Zeila, and there can be no doubt that the finds give a clue to what was received in return.
The numbers of spinning weights or whorls indicate a considerable spinning of wool or cotton, presumably for clothes. The cotton or wool was probably brought from Ethiopia where the same process of spinning is carried on today. Coffee beans found in the refuse-heaps, and the grind-stones from other regions go to indicate further that a comfortable standard of living was attained. The bones found in the refuse-heaps show that camel and sheep or goats formed items of diet; the numerous cooking pots would be used for stewing while the hammer-stones would serve to break up the bones for marrow. One can picture the food being poured from the coarse cooking-pot on to the Celadon bowl and served to the family sitting round dipping their fingers into the bowl. The saddle-querns and grind-stones show that cereals were used and the product was no doubt made into some sort of bread. The finding of coffee beans indicates that coffee was taken either as a beverage or fried in fat in the berry. If taken as a beverage one can picture it being served in Chinese, Arab or Egyptian cups. Cool drinking water would be available from porous jars hanging from the roof. The flat steatite platters would serve the cook as a board on which to prepare the bread or meat and although no knives were found the cuts on the steatite platters point to their use.
The history of Ethiopia throws light on the events which occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries in the area in which these towns are situated. Although none of the inland sites investigated can be identified for certain with anyone mentioned in the histories or chronicles, it seems probable that they formed part of the seven Mohammedan provinces which existed in the 14th century in the east and south of Ethiopia, and two of these, namely Hadya and Adal, can be recognized as the ancient counterpart of Harar and Zeila. As most of the ruined towns lie between Zeila and Harar it is impossible to say to which of these provinces they belonged but one can clearly associate them with the trade of Zeila, which served as their port.
The relationship between the port of Zeila and its adjacent island of Saad-Din is not clear; probably the island served as an overflow and auxiliary trading base for the merchants and would certainly offer security from land attack.
There are many references in early chronicles to the penetration of the Moors or Mohammedans, and one account describes these immigrants as a people pre-eminently commercial who had at an early date settled along the coasts of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean and established centers of commerce for the transport of merchandise from and to India. The kings of Abyssinia to whom their presence was necessary for the exchange of merchandise, gave them land on which they lived peacefully and occupied themselves with their own affairs; from being tributaries they became in time masters of the provinces they occupied and refused to pay the taxes due unless the army came and took it by force.
In 1402 Zeila was besieged and taken by the Ethiopians; the defender Saad-Din was killed. He is buried in the southeast corner of the island which bears his name. The Ethiopian occupation was not of long duration and the 15th century saw the start of a series of constant raids and wars between the Mohammedan provinces, with Zeila and Harar on the one side and the Christian Ethiopians on the other. It must have been during the intervals between these wars that the inland towns flourished.
In 1503 the traveler Bartema visited ‘ Zeila in Ethiopia ‘ and comments on the great extent of its commerce and the marvelous abundance of gold, iron, and the innumerable black slaves sold for small prices. They were carried into Persia, Arabia Felix, Babylonia of Nilus, or Alcair or Mecca.
Another account mentions that the king of Ethiopia, Lebna Dengel (I 508-1 540) early in his reign sent some merchants into the country of the Mohammedans with the gold, ivory, musk, slaves, and much wealth which belonged to him. They sold the merchandise in Mohammedan territory and then crossed to Aden.
In 1516 Zeila was burnt by the Portuguese fleet under Lopez Suarez Alberguiera and the following year the Turks, who under Selim I had overrun Arabia, seized Zeila, established a customs house, and fitted out a fleet of small cutters to attack merchant vessels.
The Turks being Mohammedans reached a ‘modus vivendi’ with their co-religionists, the people of Adal.
In 1527 Lebna Dengel, king of Ethiopia, invaded the country of Adal, burnt the towns, and laid waste the king’s castle in Zankar. The Mohammedan invasion of Ethiopia followed and by 1540 the greater part of the country was in their hands, but by 1544 they had been driven out and their leader Mohammed Gran was killed by the Ethiopians under the Emperor Claudius who attacked the country round Harar and destroyed the towns. The Mohammedans rose again and were finally defeated in 1575 and, as one account states, all danger to the eastern frontiers of Abyssinia was over, both from the Gallas and the Moors, ‘The kingdom fell partly into the hands of the Gallas, partly into the power of the Turkish janissaries who guarded the coast. Of all this powerful kingdom, which had been the terror of Abyssinia, only the capital Aoussa remained. Not long after its name too was forgotten ’.
It can be conjectured that the towns of Adal burnt by Lebna Dengel in 1527 comprised certainly some of these ruined ones of Somaliland. Others may have met with a similar fate at the hands of Claudius in 1544. No other group of towns is known to exist near Zeila and with the weight of evidence of the finds it is safe to associate the principal group as forming part of the kingdom of Adal.
There is no direct evidence, however, either to prove or disprove the fact that this main group may have been again occupied at a later date. In the case of the ruins of Eik, in the light of the coin found there and assigned to Selim II (1566-74), it seems probable that it survived the destructions of 1527 and 1544 and perhaps finally passed out of occupation on the fall of the Mohammedan kingdoms in 1575. It is unlikely that the Eik and Eil Hum0 were included in the kingdoms of Adal or Hadya; being in more direct communication geographically with Berbera they probably formed part of one of the five other Mohammedan provinces.
Ethiopian accounts give certain indications regarding the inhabitants of the Mohammedan provinces. It is clear that most of the merchants or traders were immigrant ‘Moors’ or Arabs. Nevertheless, from 1529 onwards there are frequent references to the Somalis who took an active part in the various Mohammedan wars and incursions into Ethiopia; some eight tribes are mentioned by name, all of whom still exist and it seems probable that some of them occupied the country in which the ruined towns are situated. It is further apparent from the details recorded that they were a purely nomadic people then, as they remain today, and thus would have taken no part in the general life of the towns. A similar state of affairs is found in modern times in British Somaliland, where the trade in the towns is in the hands of the Indian and Arab merchants and the Somalis content themselves with the camel transport of goods, the brokerage of stock brought in for market, and petty trading.
I wish to thank Messrs. Braunholz, Hobson, and King, of the British Museum, for their assistance in dating and classifying the finds; Mr. Adrian Digby for all the help he has given me and Miss Cecil Mowbray for assistance with the references.
 See also ‘An unsolved Riddle of Africa: mysterious ruins in Somaliland’, by John Parkinson.
 Azais et Chambard, Cinq Annkes de Recherches Archkologiques en Ethiopie, part I, chap. 2.
 Place–names are spelt in accordance with the R.G.S., 11 system.
 A son of a Sheik Boba is mentioned as being one of the Mohammedan commanders with Somalis under him in 1529. Ahmad ibn Abd Al–Kadir,Histoire de la Conquète de I’Abyssinie,xvi siècie, p. 118. (Publications de l‘cole superieure des lettres d’Algers)
 I am indebted to Mrs E. P. S. Shirley for her help in the collection of objects from Zeila and Saad–Din Island.
 I am indebted to Mr H. Beck, F.S.A. who very kindly examined the whole collection of beads and identified them.
 Kait Bey was one of the Mameluke Sultans of Egypt. His reign was a continual struggle with the Ottoman invaders with whom he eventually compromised.
 Selim II, an Ottoman Sultan who led an expedition against Yemen.
 Captain Taylor observed similar types of obsidian flakes at Aghresalam in the Sidamo province of southern Ethiopia in 1936. Reference to his interpreter revealed the fact that lumps of obsidian were brought by caravans and sold in the market to be split up for scraping and cutting purposes. [I have read somewhere that freshly–struck flakes of flint (or obsidian?) were used by barbers as razors for shaving. The statement was made in a book of travels. Unfortunately I did not make a note of it, and cannot now remember the source. Perhaps some reader may be able to trace it? If the practice still survives anywhere it would be worthwhile recording in this journal. O.G.S.C.].
 Histoire des Guerres d’Amda Syon, roi d’Ethiopie,translated by Jules Perruchon, P. 5.
 Ahmad ibn Abd Al–Kadir.Histoire de la Conquéte de l’Abyssinie,p. 70.(Publications de l’cole superieure des lettres d‘Algers).
 Not identified.
 Marius Saineano, op. cit. p. 28. Leipzig 1892.
 The Darod group of tribes are represented by the Giri, Marehan, Herti, Bersuk, Bartire, Hawiya, Yebirand Harla, who are now a section of the Esa but recognize their Darod affinities. The Ishaak group is referred to as ‘the people of Mait’, Mait Island being the burial place of Sheik Ishaak their founder. They had not at that time reached the position of importance as one of the principal Somali groups. The Giri provided the Cavalry, the Herti and ‘people of Mait’ were armed with cutlasses, while the Yebir provided the bowmen.Ahmad ibn Abd Al–Kadir, op. cit., pp. 45, 118,121, 152, 173.
Source: Antiquity, Volume 11, Issue 43, September 1937, pp. 315 – 327
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 January 2015
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