THE SOMALIS: THEIR ORIGINS, MIGRATIONS, AND SETTLEMENT
Shaykh Abdulaziz Mosque, ninth century, Mogadishu
Courtesy R.W.S. Hudson
A paucity of written historical evidence forces the student of early Somalia to depend on the findings of archeology, anthropology, historical linguistics, and related disciplines. Such evidence has provided insights that in some cases have refuted conventional explanations of the origins and evolution of the Somali people. For example, where historians once believed that the Somalis originated on the Red Sea's western coast, or perhaps in southern Arabia, it now seems clear that the ancestral homeland of the Somalis, together with affiliated Cushite peoples, was in the highlands of southern Ethiopia, specifically in the lake regions. Similarly, the once-common notion that the migration and settlement of early Mus,lims followers of the Prophet Muhammad on the Somali coast in the early centuries of Islam had a significant impact on the Somalis no longer enjoys much academic support. Scholars now recognize that the Arab factor--except for the Somalis' conversion to Islam--is marginal to understanding the Somali past. Furthermore, conventional wisdom once held that Somali migrations followed a north-to-south route; the reverse of this now appears to be nearer the truth.
Increasingly, evidence places the Somalis within a wide family of peoples called Eastern Cushites by modern linguists and described earlier in some instances as Hamites. From a broader cultural-linguistic perspective, the Cushite family belongs to a vast stock of languages and peoples considered Afro-Asiatic. Afro-Asiatic languages in turn include Cushitic (principally Somali, Oromo, and Afar), the Hausa language of Nigeria, and the Semitic languages of Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic. Medieval Arabs referred to the Eastern Cushites as the Berberi.
In addition to the Somalis, the Cushites include the largely nomadic Afar (Danakil), who straddle the Great Rift Valley between Ethiopia and Djibouti; the Oromo, who have played such a large role in Ethiopian history and in the 1990s constituted roughly one-half of the Ethiopian population and were also numerous in northern Kenya; the Reendille (Rendilli) of Kenya; and the Aweera (Boni) along the Lamu coast in Kenya. The Somalis belong to a subbranch of the Cushites, the Omo-Tana group, whose languages are almost mutually intelligible. The original home of the Omo-Tana group appears to have been on the Omo and Tana rivers, in an area extending from Lake Turkana in present-day northern Kenya to the Indian Ocean coast.
The Somalis form a subgroup of the Omo-Tana called Sam. Having split from the main stream of Cushite peoples about the first half of the first millennium B.C., the proto-Sam appear to have spread to the grazing plains of northern Kenya, where protoSam communities seem to have followed the Tana River and to have reached the Indian Ocean coast well before the first century A.D. On the coast, the proto-Sam splintered further; one group (the Boni) remained on the Lamu Archipelago, and the other moved northward to populate southern Somalia. There the group's members eventually developed a mixed economy based on farming and animal husbandry, a mode of life still common in southern Somalia. Members of the proto-Sam who came to occupy the Somali Peninsula were known as the so-called Samaale, or Somaal, a clear reference to the mythical father figure of the main Somali clan-families, whose name gave rise to the term Somali.
The Samaale again moved farther north in search of water and pasturelands. They swept into the vast Ogaden (Ogaadeen) plains, reaching the southern shore of the Red Sea by the first century A.D. German scholar Bernd Heine, who wrote in the 1970s on early Somali history, observed that the Samaale had occupied the entire Horn of Africa by approximately 100 A.D.
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The expansion into the peninsula as far as the Red Sea and Indian Ocean put the Somalis in sustained contact with Persian and Arab immigrants who had established a series of settlements along the coast. From the eighth to the tenth centuries, Persian and Arab traders were already engaged in lucrative commerce from enclaves along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean as far south as the coast of present-day Kenya. The most significant enclave was the renowned medieval emporium of Saylac on the Gulf of Aden. In the sixteenth century, Saylac became the principal outlet for trade in coffee, gold, ostrich feathers, civet, and Ethiopian slaves bound for the Middle East, China, and India. Over time Saylac emerged as the center of Muslim culture and learning, famed for its schools and mosques. Eventually it became the capital of the medieval state of Adal, which in the sixteenth century fought off Christian Ethiopian domination of the highlands. Between 1560 and 1660, Ethiopian expeditions repeatedly harried Saylac, which sank into decay. Berbera replaced Saylac as the northern hub of Islamic influence in the Horn of Africa. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Saylac and Berbera had become dependencies of the sharifs of Mocha and in the seventeenth century passed to the Ottoman Turks, who exercised authority over them through locally recruited Somali governors.
The history of commercial and intellectual contact between the inhabitants of the Arabian and Somali coasts may help explain the Somalia's connection with the Prophet Muhammad. Early in the Prophet's ministry, a band of persecuted Muslims had, with the Prophet's encouragement, fled across the Red Sea into the Horn of Africa. There the Muslim's were afforded protection by the Ethiopian negus, or king. Thus, Islam may have been introduced into the Horn of Africa well before the faith took root in its Arabian native soil. The large-scale conversion of the Somalis had to await the arrival in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries of Muslim patriarchs, in particular, the renowned Shaykh Daarood Jabarti and Shaykh Isahaaq, or Isaaq. Daarood married Doombira Dir, the daughter of a local patriarch. Their issue gave rise to the confederacy that forms the largest clan-family (see Glossary) in Somalia, the Daarood. For his part, Shaykh Isaaq founded the numerous Isaaq clan-family in northern Somalia. Along with the clan (see Glossary) system of lineages (see Glossary), the Arabian shaykhs probably introduced into Somalia the patriarchal ethos and patrilineal genealogy typical of Indo-Europeans, and gradually replaced the indigenous Somali social organization, which, like that of many other African societies, may have been matrilineal (see The Segmentary Social Order , ch. 2).
Islam's penetration of the Somali coast, along with the immigration of Arabian elements, inspired a second great population movement reversing the flow of migration from northward to southward. This massive movement, which ultimately took the Somalis to the banks of the Tana River and to the fertile plains of Harear, in Ethiopia, commenced in the thirteenth century and continued to the nineteenth century. At that point, European interlopers appeared on the East African scene, ending Somali migration onto the East African plateau.
Emergence of Adal
In addition to southward migration, a second factor in Somali history from the fifteenth century onward was the emergence of centralized state systems. The most important of these in medieval times was Adal, whose influence at the height of its power and prosperity in the sixteenth century extended from Saylac, the capital, through the fertile valleys of the Jijiga and the Harer plateau to the Ethiopian highlands. Adal's fame derived not only from the prosperity and cosmopolitanism of its people, its architectural sophistication, graceful mosques, and high learning, but also from its conflicts with the expansionist Ethiopians. For hundreds of years before the fifteenth century, goodwill had existed between the dominant new civilization of Islam and the Christian neguses of Ethiopia. One tradition holds that Muhammad blessed Ethiopia and enjoined his disciples from ever conducting jihad (holy war) against the Christian kingdom in gratitude for the protection early Muslims had received from the Ethiopian negus. Whereas Muslim armies rapidly overran the more powerful empires of Persia and Byzantium soon after the birth of Islam, there was no jihad against Christian Ethiopia for centuries. The forbidding Ethiopian terrain of deep gorges, sharp escarpments, and perpendicular massifs that rise more than 4,500 meters also discouraged the Muslims from attempting a campaign of conquest against so inaccessible a kingdom.
Muslim-Christian relations soured during the reign of the aggressive Negus Yeshaq (ruled 1414-29). Forces of his rapidly expanding empire descended from the highlands to despoil Muslim settlements in the valley east of the ancient city of Harer. Having branded the Muslims "enemies of the Lord," Yeshaq invaded the Muslim Kingdom of Ifat in 1415. He crushed the armies of Ifat and put to flight in the wastes along the Gulf of Tadjoura (in present-day Djibouti) Ifat's king Saad ad Din. Yeshaq followed Saad ad Din to the island off the coast of Saylac (which still bears his name), where the Muslim king was killed. Yeshaq compelled the Muslims to offer tribute, and also ordered his singers to compose a gloating hymn of thanksgiving for his victory. In the hymn's lyrics, the word Somali appears for the first time in written record.
By the sixteenth century, the Muslims had recovered sufficiently to break through from the east into the central Ethiopian highlands. Led by the charismatic Imam Ahmad Guray (1506-43), the Muslims poured into Ethiopia, using scorched-earth tactics that decimated the population of the country. A Portuguese expedition led by Pedro da Gama, a son of Vasco da Gama who was looking for the Prester John of medieval European folklore--a Christian, African monarch of vast dominions--arrived from the sea and saved Ethiopia. The joint Portuguese-Ethiopian force used cannon to route the Muslims, whose imam died on the battlefield.
Mogadishu and Its Banaadir Hinterlands
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the southern city of Mogadishu became Somalia's most important city. Mogadishu, Merca, and Baraawe, had been major Somali coastal towns in medieval times. Their origins are unknown, but by the fourteenth century travelers were mentioning the three towns more and more as important centers of urban ease and learning. Mogadishu, the largest and most prosperous, dates back at least to the ninth century, when Persian and Arabian immigrants intermingled with Somali elements to produce a distinctive hybrid culture. The meaning of Mogadishu's name is uncertain. Some render it as a Somali version of the Arabic "maqad shah," or "imperial seat of the shah," thus hinting at a Persian role in the city's founding. Others consider it a Somali mispronunciation of the Swahili "mwyu wa" (last northern city), raising the possibility of its being the northernmost of the chain of Swahili city-states on the East African coast. Whatever its origin, Mogadishu was at the zenith of its prosperity when the well-known Arab traveler Ibn Batuta appeared on the Somali coast in 1331. Ibn Batuta describes "Maqdashu" as "an exceedingly large city" with merchants who exported to Egypt and elsewhere the excellent cloth made in the city.
Through commerce, proselytization, and political influence, Mogadishu and other coastal commercial towns influenced the Banaadir hinterlands (the rural areas outlying Mogadishu) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Evidence of that influence was the increasing Islamization of the interior by sufis (Muslim mystics) who emigrated upcountry, where they settled among the nomads, married local women, and brought Islam to temper the random violence of the inhabitants.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the locus of intercommunication shifted upland to the well-watered region between the Shabeelle and Jubba rivers. Evidence of the shift of initiative from the coast to the interior may be found in the rise between 1550 and 1650 of the Ujuuraan (also seen as Ajuuraan) state, which prospered on the lower reaches of the interriverine region under the clan of the Gareen. The considerable power of the Ujuuraan state was not diminished until the Portuguese penetration of the East African coast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among Somali towns and cities, only Mogadishu successfully resisted the repeated depredations of the Portuguese.
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