The Somali social order has been marked throughout Somalia's history
by competition and often by armed conflict between clans and lineages, even
between units of the same clan or sub-clan. Among the Samaal, the search for
pasture and water has driven clans and lineages physically apart or pitted them
against each other. Within each unit, Somali males considered better warriors,
wiser arbiters, or abler speakers have commanded greater respect in council.
However, pastoral Somalis have looked down on sedentary ones, and both have
looked down on non-Somali clients of the sedentary Somalis and members of
despised occupational groups, who have made up only a very small proportion
of the population.
Located in the Horn of Africa, adjacent to the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia is
steeped in thousands of years of history. The ancient Egyptians spoke of it as
"God's Land" (the Land of Punt). Chinese merchants frequented the Somali coast
in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and, according to tradition, returned
home with giraffes, leopards, and tortoises. Greek and Roman merchant ships
and Arab dhows plied the Somali coast. For them it formed the eastern fringe
of Bilad al-Sudan, or "the Land of the Blacks". More specifically, medieval Arabs
referred to the Somalis, along with related people, as the Berberi.
Still, it is unclear from this Arab reference who are the Somali people and
where they originated from. Due to a lack of written evidence of the early
history of the Samaal, numerous historical perspectives on their origins have
been presented. According to Arab historical sources, the ancestors of the
Somali people migrated south from the shores of the red sea into the Cushiticspeaking
Oromo region from approximately the tenth century, with the Oromos
displacing the Bantu-speaking people further south. .
Based on a hybrid of archaeological, anthropological and historical linguistic
evidence, it is now widely asserted that the Samaal originated in the lake regions
of current day southern Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, as sub-group of the
Cushitic peoples. In the first millennium BC, it is believed that the sub-group
known as Omo-Tana moved northwards from the lake highland areas until
reaching the Tana River and the Indian Ocean. Some settled along the Lamu
peninsula, situated near the northern Kenya and southern Somalia border, while
others continued to move northwards into 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
Omo-Tana group who came to occupy the Somali Peninsula were known as the
so-called Samaale, or Samaal, a clear reference to the mythical father figure of
the main Somali clans, 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.
The expansion into the Somali 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, both 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 Somali connection with
Islam. Early in the Prophet Muhammad'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 Muslims were afforded protection by the Ethiopian negus,
or emperor. Thus, Islam may have been introduced into the Horn of Africa
well before the faith took root in its Arabian native soil. .
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 north to south. This massive movement, which ultimately took
the Somalis to the banks of the Tana River and to the fertile plains of Harar,
in Ethiopia, began in the thirteenth century and continued to the nineteenth
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 the Sultanate of 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
Harar plateau to the Ethiopian highlands. The Sultanate of 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, good relations had existed
between the Muslims and Christian Ethiopia. One tradition holds that Prophet
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 emperor. Whereas Muslim
armies rapidly overran the more powerful empires of Persia and Byzantium
soon after the birth of Islam, there was no Jihad conducted against Christian
Ethiopia for centuries.
However, Muslim-Christian relations soured during the reign of the
aggressive Emperor Yeshaq (ruled 1414-29). Forces of his rapidly expanding
empire descended from the highlands to attack Muslim settlements to the east
of the ancient city of Harar. Having branded the Muslims "enemies of the Lord,"
Yeshaq invaded the Muslim Kingdom of Ifat in 1415, killed its king, Sa'ad al-Din
compelled the Muslims to offer tribute, and also ordered his singers to compose
a 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 Sultanate of Adal was tributary to the
Ethiopians. By then, the Muslims had recovered sufficiently to break through
from the east into the central Ethiopian highlands. Led by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim
al-Ghazi (1506-43), nicknamed Gragn, or Guray in Somali (the left handed), the
Muslims poured into Ethiopia, using scorched-earth tactics that decimated the
population of the country and brought three-quarters of Ethiopia under the
power of the Sultanate of Adal between the years 1529 – 1543. In desperation,
the Ethiopians were forced to ask for help from the Portuguese, who landed
at the port of Massawa on February 10, 1541, during the reign of the emperor
Gelawdewos (1540 – 1559). Knowing that victory depended on the number of
firearms an army had, the Imam sent to his fellow Muslims for help. Imam
Ahmad received 2000 musketeers from Arabia, and artillery and 900 picked
men from the Ottomans to assist him. Finally, after suffering some defeats, the
joint Ethiopian-Portuguese force, drawing on the Portuguese supplies, attacked
Imam Ahmad on February 21, 1543 in the Battle of Wayna Daga, where their
9,000 troops managed to defeat the 15,000 soldiers under Imam Ahmad, who
was killed by a Portuguese musketeer.
This was the first conflict in the Horn of Africa that pitted Somalia and the
Arab world against Ethiopia and Muslims against Christians. Ethiopia, which
in that period was an island of Christianity encircled by Muslims, had no choice
but to ask for help from the closest Christians at hand, the Portuguese. By then,
the Portuguese ruled the Indian Ocean littoral and tried to dominate the Red
Sea. Imam Ahmad, however, asked for the Ottomans' help. Then, the Ottomans
ruled the Red Sea and struggled with the Portuguese over the domination over
the Indian Ocean and tried to prevent the penetration of the Portuguese into the
Thus, this regional war turned out to be another battlefield between the
Ottomans - who in the sixteenth century advanced in Europe until Vienna
and struggled with the Portuguese on the hegemony over the Red Sea and the
Indian Ocean and seemed to be unstoppable – and the Christian powers, who
tried to block its rapid advance, and, in this case, to prevent the fall of Christian
Ethiopia to the Muslims' hands.
In this sense, this conflict serves to illustrate the strategic location of Somalia
and the Horn of Africa and its growing importance in global affairs as from
the sixteenth century onwards following the expansionist policy of Ethiopia
towards the sea and the arrival of the European powers at the Indian Ocean.
Moreover, it must be mentioned that many modern Somali nationalists consider
Imam Ahmad Guray a national hero and the first great Somali nationalist, who
emerged on the scene just on time in order to defend the country from foreign
invaders like the Christian Ethiopians and the Portuguese.
Later on, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Omanis exercised
a shadowy authority over the Banaadir coast. Omani rule over the Somalis
consisted for the most part of a token annual tribute payment and the presence
of a resident qadi and a handful of askaris (territorial police). Whereas the
Banaadir coast was steadily drawn into the orbit of Zanzibari rulers, the northern
coast, starting in the middle of the eighteenth century, passed under the sharifs
of Mocha, who held their feeble authority on behalf of the declining Ottomans.
The Mocha sharifs, much like the sultans of Zanzibar, satisfied themselves with
a token yearly tribute collected for them by a native governor. Farther east on
the Majeerteen (Bari) coast, by the middle of the nineteenth century two tiny
kingdoms emerged. These were the Majeerteen Sultanate of Boqor Ismaan
Mahmud, and that of his kinsman Sultan Yusuf Ali Keenadiid of Hobyo (Obbia).
While acknowledging a vague vassalage to the British, Ismaan Mahamuud kept
his desert kingdom free until well after 1900. In the 1870s, Keenadiid carved
out the small kingdom of Hobyo after conquering the local Hawiye clans. Both
kingdoms, however, were gradually absorbed by the extension into southern
Somalia of Italian colonial rule in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
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