Somaliland: Cultural Heritage Management- Study Report

From above National museum in Hargeisa destroyed by Somalia army during the civil war and below model of new Somaliland national museum under construction in Hargeisa

Somalilandsun:.  Since Somaliland is not a recognized state, it cannot sign or ratify the 1972 World Heritage Convention.

Hence, heritage in Somaliland is suffering this lack of status. However, on a national level, cultural heritage is being put into the national agenda by the creation of the Department of Tourism and Archaeology which has a number of programs for implementation and development of heritage management strategies and for sustainable development. This involves, among other things, cultural resource management for sites, monuments, and development of museums.

This is according to study published by the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London UK which authored by archaeologist Dada More and edited by Claire Smith


The Somali peninsula has a rich heritage relevant to the world. Many ancient world civilizations have left their mark on this area, a connection facilitated by the region’s strategic location, connecting Arabia, Africa, and Asia through the Red Sea Coast, the Indian Ocean and hinterland routes to North Africa, and the Swahili Coast. Ancient long-distance trade is confirmed by archaeological finds from Ras Hafun that demonstrate a Greco-Roman trade affiliation (Chittick ; Smith and Wright ). Furthermore, historical sources in Greek, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (translation Schoff 1995), and Chinese (Freeman-Grenville ) also verify long-distance trade, and Somali’s own seafaring traditions in different prehistoric periods (Hourani ) attest to contacts with India, China, North Africa, Arabia, Persia, and Eastern Africa, with which Somalis share Swahili culture (Chittick ). Arabic (Gibb ) and Portuguese sources provide accounts of medieval coastal towns such as Muqdisho, Merka, Baraawe, Berbera, and Saylac. The commercial and cultural contact network in the hinterland is reflected both in archaeological remains (Smith and Wright ) and other sources such as oral tradition and historical records. Recent unpublished archaeological discoveries show links with ancient Egypt, Roman, and Greek world, South Arabia, India, and Ming and Yuan dynasty China. It is therefore clear that the region is a cultural crossroads.

President Bihi gets a briefing on Somaliland archaeological status by officials from the Horn Heritage Organization, in Hargeisa . Sada Mire led the team – file photo

Key Issues/Current Debates/Future Directions/Examples

In the last two decades, a man-made disaster has led to the destruction of an entire people’s heritage. Somali cultural heritage property has become one of the irreplaceable victims of the longest recorded civil war in the world (Brandt and Mohamed ; see also Jama ; Abungu ). The commencement of the civil war triggered looting of the museums. The Garesa National Museum in Mogadishu and the Hargeisa Regional Museum have both long been emptied. Warlords commission systematic illicit digging of sites. Also the intangible heritage has recently been threatened by strict interpretations of Islam which prohibit the traditional performance arts, dances, songs, and dresses. Somali tangible and intangible heritage continues to suffer the ongoing civil war.

The failed state of Somalia is officially under the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government, but the country has in fact since 1991 been divided into at least three parts; the northwestern region is reclaiming independence in a quest for re-recognition of Somaliland (a country that existed for a week in 1960 when it gained independence from Britain and joined Italian Somalia voluntarily). Somaliland is now a de facto state and enjoys peace and security. Puntland is semiautonomous but is devastated by piracy, and South-Central Somalia is mostly controlled by Islamist groups.

In addition to the war, however, other factors have also contributed to the neglect of Somali tangible heritage both by Somalis and the international community (Mire ). One major issue is the approaches to cultural heritage before the war. Prior to the war, Somali tangible heritage was not managed properly. The Italian colonial administration set up the first sub-Saharan ethnographic museum in Somalia, but after the Italians left, this museum was allowed to deteriorate. The reason seems to be that Somalis did not understand the need for an ethnographic museum when most of the population was living still with the objects that the museum displayed. One of the former directors of this museum suggested that content was “backward” objects from the countryside, things that his grandparents were still using (Mire ). This is confirmed by Italian exhibition publications of the time, such as Caroselli () and the exhibition catalogue Museo della Garesa. More recently, UNESCO tried to develop this museum by providing museum development experts (e.g., Posnansky ; Crespo-Toral ), but UNESCO’s approach was not endorsed, and its recommendations were neglected by the Somali government. UNESCO failed to understand that the Garesa Museum was not a self-representation of the Somali people. It displayed objects from the nomadic lifestyle as the only identity of the Somali, and this approach was not popular in a time of struggle against colonial mentality and rule. Also the Somali dictatorship failed to ratify the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, and it did not draft any national heritage laws or policy. Heritage legislation was far from sufficient and in fact almost useless (see Jönsson  for examples; Brandt and Mohamed ; Mire ). Also archaeological research material was taken out of the country with no reports (Jönsson ). Only a few people (Curle ; Chittick ; Brandt ) had attempted systematic archaeological survey before the current civil war. A few Somalis (External institutions that made effort to train local archaeologists were too few (see bibliography for references to the Swedish Aid Agency, the SAREC project 1982–1990 by Jönsson ; Broberg , Broberg and Säfvestad ).) were involved with archaeological work (e.g., Jama ), but it seems all eventually ended up leaving the discipline altogether. All of this contributed to the lack of engagement of Somalis with the significance of their tangible heritage.

Pre-historic Rock paintings in Las GEEL Somaliland are among oldest in the world

There was no infrastructure put in place for dealing with the notion of a museum and its local potential. Furthermore, archaeological research remained almost totally alien as very few locals were involved in it before the war. Hence, one of the reasons for the failure to preserve Somali tangible heritage over the few last decades is also due to the fact that Somalis do not associate archaeology with their heritage and identity. When studying Somalis’ views on cultural heritage management and the significance of archaeological remains, it was noted Somalis have their own perceptions of heritage and methods of preservation. Somali have a knowledge-centered approach to heritage and its preservation (Mire ). Understanding of this indigenous local approach to heritage and its preservation is paramount to any future and current involvement. Intangible and tangible heritage has been preserved through oral traditions and oral transmission of knowledge. Since there was no writing until 1973, Somalis have developed profound skills in transmission of knowledge and traditions through oral means. Somalis have strong intangible knowledge flowing from their experience in the landscapes in which they live. All aspects of life – cultural, social, and ritual – are maintained and developed through oral history, poetry, traditional performance art, and crafts production. Somalis regardless of where they reside (countryside, city, and diaspora) seem to keep their knowledge and skills acquired through experience as their heritage. To understand why Somalis do not preserve objects and monuments, it is important to understand their lifestyle. As nomads are always on the move, people carry very little, and instead it is vital to have the knowledge and skills to produce things when needed, to know the landscape and where to find raw materials, and so on. Hence, preservation of objects is not important if one knows how to make these objects. This knowledge helped Somalis when they become refugees and fled their comfortable houses in the city and found themselves in the nomadic landscape. They were able to build portable organic huts and find water as well as use their ethnobotanical knowledge to treat illnesses. This holistic approach to heritage preservation as knowledge is key to Somali nomadic culture.

In post-conflict Somaliland (Mire ), cultural heritage is key for development. The Knowledge-Centered Approach is used here to engage communities in heritage management (Mire ). Although archaeology is alien to them, through this Knowledge-Centered Approach, Somali communities have a role to play in the preservation of both their tangible and intangible heritage. However, the main obstacles in Somaliland are institutional capacity building and policy and strategy development. Since Somaliland is not a recognized state, it cannot sign or ratify the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Hence, heritage in Somaliland is suffering this lack of status. However, on a national level, cultural heritage is being put into the national agenda by the creation of the Department of Tourism and Archaeology which has a number of programs for implementation and development of heritage management strategies and for sustainable development. This involves, among other things, cultural resource management for sites, monuments, and development of museums.

The Local Education and Safeguarding Program (LESP) aims to assist communities and government staff to acquire basic knowledge of the significance, protection, and preservation of cultural heritage. The Department of Tourism and Archaeology has recruited local people in various areas, particularly to safeguard the most prominent archaeological sites. The program provides capacity building for the staff and communities based in different areas of Somaliland. The Knowledge-Centered Approach is critical here, because it assists in the acknowledgement that the locals possess knowledge about their heritage and can provide insights to its preservation. This empowers locals and after having established mutual interest in a particular site, the government appoints a local person as a custodian of the site. These local ideas are recorded and incorporated into the actual work taking place at the sites.

There is also the National Inventory List (NIL) program in which both tangible and intangible elements and history of the sites are recorded. Recent archaeological interest in Somaliland has produced important sites including the rock art sites of Laas Geel (Gutherz et al. ), Dhambalin, Haadh, and Jilib Rihin (Mire ). However, except for conventional surveys of sites, the Knowledge-Centered Approach has facilitated the investigation of what the locals see as significant heritage. Many times there are sites and features in the landscape that the archaeologist does not recognize as something important, such as mountains, springs, or even trees. Such seemingly insignificant landscape features are often more significant to the locals than archaeological sites. When carrying out archaeological survey of selected areas of Somaliland provinces, local people are often involved in the initial creation of data about the sites.

The Department of Tourism and Archaeology runs public education and heritage awareness media programs. Since the Somali culture is basically oral culture, media such as radios, television, and recently the Internet play an important role in the awareness raising. Through TV programs, the department explained the problem of illicit diggings of archaeological sites and the archaeological excavation process to demonstrate the damage being done to archaeological context and how this impacts the results and history writing of the Somali past. Particular attention was given to the possible benefits of archaeological sites for local populations and measures that stakeholders (governments, communities, business people, etc.) need to take to safeguard cultural property. Photographs are used to show the Somali people the destruction inflicted on their heritage by fellow Somalis. Also, international media have recently been given a role to spread the information about Somali heritage and the work taking place in Somaliland. Awareness films featuring the department’s work have been televised by Somaliland National News as well as international news agencies such as National Geographic TV, CNN, and BBC.

Based in Hargeisa saryan-museum which is the only fully functional institution of its kind in Somaliland was founded and managed by the Hargeisa Cultural centre

The Department of Archaeology and Tourism invests in training of its staff in tourism management. Although infrastructure is poor in Somaliland, the department managed to profile sites near the main cities to become tourist sites. In particular, rock art sites provide a ready resource for income generation through tourist activities. Somaliland receives cultural and environmental tourism, although in small groups. Also the department has students in universities in the Horn of Africa who will be joining the department after completion of their studies. The Department of Tourism and Archaeology’s strategy for protecting sites prone to looting is by engaging the elders of the villages in awareness programs. Such awareness programs have prompted the elders to take up their own search of stolen objects. One example of such local initiative is some stolen decorated stelae near the town of Burco that were returned by the locals on their way to Boosaaso to ship the material to the Gulf and sold on the black market.

However, since there are no museums currently in Somaliland, most objects are recorded and documented by the department, and local people are registered as the official custodians of the objects until there is an official museum. The lack of museums contributes to the disappearance of artifacts. Potential collection- and artifact-repatriation projects as well as archaeological-rescue projects are extremely challenged by this lack of storage and research space. The Hargeisa Museum building is awaiting development, although it has been utilized as a hospital since the war. Also in Sanaag region, there are a couple of cultural educational centers. The Department of Tourism and Archaeology has hired some of the local women artists and craftswomen for these educational centers. This enables the local people to engage with their heritage and transfer skills and knowledge to the younger generations. Also the women produce material culture which they can sell to generate their own income. Recently, Horn Heritage Organization, a nongovernmental organization, has been set up to promote awareness and preservation of Somali heritage.

Read full report Somaliland Cultural Heritage Management HERE