Towns in a Sea of Nomads: The Archaeology of Urban Settlements in Medieval Somaliland

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hotograph of a house of the important town of Amud taken y A.T. Curle in the 1930s. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Although Somaliland has been historically considered a land of nomads without permanent settlements, there have been at least two periods in its history when a significant part of the country was also dotted with towns and villages coexisting with the ever present nomadic culture. One of them is the contemporary period since the 19th century onwards, which saw the appearance, growth and consolidation of the main cities of Somaliland such as Hargeisa, Berbera or Borama. The other, much less known period corresponds to the medieval and modern ages, when a flourishing network of urban sites and smaller villages covered much of western Somaliland and became part of the Sultanates of Ifat and Adal. It’s not yet completely established when, how and why these settlements emerged, but the research conducted during the last five years points to a direct relation with the development of state structures in the region. During these next five years, the StateHorn project will examine carefully this urban life and its impact on the hierarchization and organization of the territory, the setting up of trade networks and their role as interaction nodes between nomads and urban dwellers.

Medieval settlement of Hasadinle.©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

Although Somaliland has been historically considered a land of nomads without permanent settlements, there have been at least two periods in its history when a significant part of the country was also dotted with towns and villages coexisting with the ever present nomadic culture.

The existence of medieval towns and villages in Somaliland is well known since Alexander T Curle published his seminal work “Medieval towns of Somaliland” in 1937, where he described a number of sites in four different regions of Somaliland but especially in the area around the city of Borama. This area was and still is the best suited for cultivation and irrigation in Somaliland, allowing the establishment and growth of permanent settlements in the area. Further research in Somaliland has however nuanced this predominance of the Borama region: with the years, many more sites have been found in the Sheikh and Burao areas and even in far more eastern regions as Sanaag, where the development of urban structures should have been really challenging in the medieval period. Research has also showed a far more complex world than the originally described by Curle, where size was the main differential criteria to organize the sites. After the last five years’ research by the Incipit team, we know that some of these settlements there were in fact caravan stations, fortresses, religious centres or nomadic meeting points. This variety adds layers of complexity to the history of the region, which are just beginning to be explored but which will enrich substantially our understanding of the religious, economical, social and historical bases of the period. To the moment, around 40 sites have been identified, although in many cases the information about them is really scarce, often reduced to the name of the site.

“After the last five years’ research by the Incipit team, we know that some of these settlements there were in fact caravan stations, fortresses, religious centres or nomadic meeting points”

Medieval settlements of Somaliland and the nearby region of Ethiopia. ©Jorge de Torres.

Regardless of their function or size, all the medieval settlements in Somaliland show an astonishing uniformity which points to a shared identity. All of them have an identical constructive system, the only differences being the size of houses, the type of stones used and the care given to its construction. Leaving aside a few exceptions, the sites lack any traces of urbanism, the houses being scattered along the landscape. However, this doesn’t mean a lack of any spatial ordering: mosques, cemeteries and the topographic position of the sites probably organized the space, and some of the empty spaces between houses were probably public areas –market places, squares, and so on. Houses are made of well laid flat stones of middle size, bound with mud, and have rectangular or square shapes. Sizes vary but are usually around 20 to 40 sq. meters and partition walls clearly visible defining two or three rooms per house. There are some exceptions though: the recent discovery of two large houses in Fardowsa measuring around 100 sq. meters and six rooms each points to the existence of privileged groups in these communities.

The state of preservation of the structures is variable, with some of them very well preserved and still standing more than two meters of height while others are much more eroded and just about 50 cm of the walls remaining. There are not significant differences in the size and quality of the houses among the sites, with the buildings of small settlements often being as carefully built as those of big towns as Abasa or Amud. Significantly, almost none of the sites has walls or other protection, the exception being the main port of Zeila (were the now lost city walls were described by early travelers in the 19th century), the fortress of Derbi Cad and a small bastion located by the Incipit team in the city of Abasa in 2018 (Torres et al forthcoming). This lack of fortifications contrast with the almost permanent state of war between Christians and Muslims described by the medieval chroniclers, and also points to a pacific coexistence between nomads and urban dwellers in the region.

Mosques are the most important building in all the settlements, the larger sites having more than one. They are built with the same construction technique as the rest of buildings and have square or rectangular shapes, square mirhabs and in some cases perimeter walls surrounding the building. In the bigger mosques as those of Abasa and Hasadinle, circular, square or cruciform pillars have been used to support the roof which seems to have been flat. Significantly, neither minarets nor minbars have been documented in any of the mosques, and this could mark a difference with the examples from the Somaliland coast as the 16th century mosques of Zeila which have this feature.

Main mosque of Abasa. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

Cemeteries show less uniformity than houses, although the most widespread type of grave correspond to square or rectangular cists defined by plain slabs (sometimes, two of them lying parallel), which have been found in all the sites where graveyards have been documented. In some occasions these cists have two or three small stelae marking the tomb, and are organized in rows. Other types of burials have also been documented –two simple stelae at both sides of the grave, a line of slabs defining one of the sides of the tomb or even small cairns with stelae on the top- all of them following Muslim burial conventions. Without excavations which are evidently unfeasible is difficult to discern if these differences can be explained by changes through time or could be related to different Muslim traditions or ethnic groups. That could be the case of some cairns –a typical nomad burial- which could be explained by the presence of people from these communities in or around the settlements.

Cemetery of Aroqolab. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

Regarding the economic bases of these sites, for a long time it has been accepted that these settlements flourished along the main trade routes that crisscrossed the region. Without denying the important role of trade in the medieval period, the Incipit research in the region of Borama has showed a significant low amount of imported goods in many of the sites (no more than four fragments even in the biggest sites as Abasa), although they are always present along with cowries, another evidence of trade in that period. Agriculture rather than trade seems to have been the main activity of the sites surveyed during 2018 and most of those around Borama visited in previous years. The position of the settlements close to cultivation fields but slightly away from the main routes, the scarcity of imported materials, the abundant presence of querns in all the sites and other objects related to cultivation –as weights of digging sticks- and structures possibly linked to agricultural activities (as round stone platforms to prevent the construction of termite mounds close to the crops) reinforce this interpretation. Far from amending the previous view on trade networks, this agriculture-like orientation of many medieval sites enriches our vision of the Sultanate of Adal economy and helps to explain the military expansion of the kingdom. This expansion would be difficult to understand without a densely populated area which provided levies and implements for the increasing armies of the sultanate of Adal. From a different perspective, it also introduces an interesting territorial analysis where a clear size hierarchy of settlements arise, and explains the position of many sites in the region. The StateHorn project will delve into these important topics, which can modify substantially our.

Cultivation fields close to Iskudarka Dayeergalka Kifiile. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

Fragments of querns found at the village of Hasadinle. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

Although the knowledge of medieval sites in Somaliland has grown exponentially in the last decade, there are still enormous gaps in the information that we have about these sites. Many of those referred by Curle are only known just by name, and not a single long term excavation has ever been conducted in one of these settlements. The StateHorn project will conduct, for the first time, a systematic study on these places which often face serious threats due to increasing development and other human activities. That is the case of Amud, one of the main sites described by Curle in the 30’s and the most famous medieval site in Somaliland, now completely disappeared.

Photograph of a house of the important town of Amud taken y A.T. Curle in the 1930s. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The site of Amud in 2017.©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

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