There are two overwhelming, and ironically contrasting, images Westerners (“The Global North”) have of the Horn of Africa: one is a region wracked by armed conflict, political instability, persistent drought, tittering on the abyss of famine, and a hotbed of Islamic Jihadism that continues to require the presence of African Union forces and American interventionism.
The other view of the Horn is pure historical romanticism. The Horn of Africa was home to the fabled ‘Land of Punt’. This magical place in the eastern corner of the continent was the Tiffanys of its day; a land where luxury goods such as gold, ivory, valuable hardwoods such as ebony, leopard skins and ostrich feathers, eye make-up cosmetics, exotic fragrances and aromatic gums and resins like frankincense and myrrh could be had and traded to peoples of Ancient Greece, Imperial China, Pharaonic Egypt, the Persian Empire, Arabs on the Arabian peninsula and Zanzibar, Ancient Rome, and India.
Sada Mire is an award-winning, Somali-born, Swedish archaeologist, art historian, and presenter. She holds a PhD from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, London, and currently is the only active Somali archaeologist, working in Somalia and Somaliland.
In 2020, she published Divine Fertility: The Continuity in Transformation of an Ideology of Sacred Kinship in Northeast Africa- an interdisciplinary feast of archeology, anthropology, and ethnohistory that uniquely investigates an African ideology through material culture in Northeast Africa while providing insight into the foundations of state-building ideologies of Africa.
Much of Sada’s archeological research and writing revolves around her native Somaliland. Historically, the area covered today’s Somalia and neighboring Djibouti, but in modern times it refers to the self-declared Republic of Somaliland in the Horn of Africa.
Between the 7th and the 12th century CE, when the roots of the European Renaissance were taking hold, cities such as Seylac and Berbera on the Gulf of Aden and Marka, Baraawe, and Mogadishu along the Indian Ocean served as trading ports in a region that the Arab Islamic world called bilad al-Barbar (“country of the Barbar”), Barbar (also Berber, Barbaroi) being a name for the Somali people of the region based on the descriptions of the inhabitants of the area found in the Greek document Periplus Maris Erythraei (1st century CE; “Navigation of the Erythrean [i.e., Red] Sea”).
Those medieval cities, among other activities, waged war against the Christian Ethiopians of the interior. The Somalis, who occupied those areas alongside other groups, had begun adopting Islam in the 7th century, and the religion became firmly entrenched in the centuries that followed. The occupants of the cities organized themselves into sultanates such as Adal, centered at Seylac, and Ajuran, centered at Mogadishu.
The people who inhabited these regions were Cushites, tall, dark-skinned indigenous herders who spoke one or more of the various 40 Cushitic languages and whose ancestral origins is said to be somewhere in the Ethiopian Highlands. The Rendille, Borana, and Oromos, for example, are all Cushitic-speaking nomadic livestock herding communities (there are also minority Cushitic-speaking tribes in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, and Tanzania).
(One key distinction of these languages is their tonal nature. In other words, they incorporate two or three, high, middle, and low, pitches to distinguish among words that are otherwise identical-contrast this with, for example, the English language which is based on intonation whereby meaning is provided by rising and falling pitch changes across the entire sentence).
Identity, past and present, is a major theme of Sada’s book (“know thyself” or nosce te ipsum, the ancient Greeks instruct us). The book reiterates the fact that prior to the arrival of Christianity and Islam to the Horn of Africa, there was an indigenous ideology, a local system of beliefs that guided life life-affirming rituals and traditions of the region’s inhabitants. The Cushites were followers of a complex polytheistic belief system that embraced various deities who were all governed by a single supreme figure called Eebe also known as Waaq, from where their ancient religion draws its name.
Belief systems such as the above die-hard and often become integrated into any newer, charismatic religion. As Sada points out, several of the Somali rituals particularly, but not exclusively, related to women’s fertility and childbirth contain remnants of ancient pre-Islamic and pre-Christian belief systems of Cushtic-speaking peoples of the Horn of Africa.
The Siti is an ancient sacrificial ritual of adoration, for example, that occurs during the seventh and ninth month of pregnancy as well as after childbirth. It’s exclusively an all- women activity where all female religious ancestors are called upon and praised for their Baraka (divine blessing) of the mother and the infant. According to Sada, although the Siti seems to pre-date Islam, these venerated ancestors are still associated with Islam itself.
Sada’s research into neglected Somali material culture has also led her to other Cushitic rituals, which she argues were practiced prior to the adoption of Christianity and Islam in the Horn of Africa but which have continued in modern times within an Islamic framework. The wager is a sacred wooden object, carved out of the African Olive tree (Olea africanus) (oddly, the only tree held as sacred in northern Somali culture) and is part of both fertility and child protection rituals with the aim of averting evil spirits away from its owner.
In her groundbreaking book (the first in the field of archaeology by an ethnic Somali), Sada also investigates the sacred shrine of Saint Aw-Barkhadle (the area was known as Dogor in earlier times) and introduces us to what she calls ‘Ritual Landscapes’, an area used exclusively for ritual purposes and which has natural and cultural features that possess ritual meaning.
Founded in the 12th century AD, Saint Aw-Barkhadle is said to be the burial place of the rulers of the first Muslim Ifat (a medieval Sunni Muslim state in the eastern regions of the Horn of Africa that encompassed Ethiopia, Djibouti and ancient Somaliland between the late 13th century and early 15th century) and Awdal dynasties in this region (a kingdom that was established by the local Somali tribes in the early ninth century around its center at Zeila, a historical port town in Somaliland’s western Awdal region, which attracted merchants from around the world). Saint Aw-Barkhadle is also rumored to be the lost first capital of Awdal kingdom before Harar. According to oral history, starting from the twelfth century it became an important site of pilgrimage and ritual hub for Somalis in the region.
Saint Aw-Barkhadle’s (Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn) was a 10th century scholar and traveler (“the most outstanding saint in Somaliland”). Legend has it that he was from Arabia, but some experts caution that, “Arabian origin stories pertaining to ancestral saints such as Yusuf are regarded as a myth by scholars and an Islamification of a prior pagan origin story that relates back to Waaq and ancestor worship” (Waaq or Waq/Waaqa is the ancient name for the sky God in the Cushitic languages of both the Oromo people and Somali community). However, it’s worth noting that genetic studies of various populations in the Horn of Africa have identified a substantial amount of non-African ancestral elements in their genetic make-up particularly from North Africa, but mainly from West Asia, particularly Saudi Arabia.
In truth, Yusuf is described by some scholars as a native and a Somali who studied in his city of Zeila and later in Iraq. According to political scientist David D. Laitin of Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Science, among Yusuf’s considerable achievements is devising a Somali vocabulary for Arabic vowels that later evolved into Wadaad’s writing ( Laitin’s book, Politics, Language and Thought: The Somali Experience reflected his experiences in Somalia while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer). Yusuf is also accredited in certain areas for the introduction of black-headed fat-tailed sheep also known as Berbera Blackhead.
The Horn of Africa, as reflected at Saint Aw-Barkhadle, was multi–cultural, multi-lingual and a region of many faiths (perhaps the result of expanding ancient kingdoms in the region). Nevertheless, there were certain cultural aspects of these various communities that were universal.
Archeological artifacts, such as the wagar and phallic gravestone, that have been discovered at Aw-Barkhadle and in other parts of the Horn of Africa, point to a shared belief in a Sky-God with an ideology rooted in fertility argues Sada.
The sky often has important religious significance. Many religions, both polytheistic and monotheistic, have deities associated with the sky (Uranus was the primordial sky god in Greek mythology, for example, but was ultimately succeeded by Zeus, who ruled the celestial realm atop Mount Olympus). In antiquity, several sky goddesses who were prominent in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Near East were called “Queen of Heaven”. Hathor was originally a sky goddess as were Nut and Mehet-Weret.
Sada explores the shared cultural heritage of Northeast Africa and beyond, and the rituals that shape African identities. For example, she presents a study of the wagar, a sacred wooden sculpture kept by Somali women. This study explores the wagar and its significance as a sacred medium within fertility rituals and the religious syncretism in which such indigenous and non/pre-Islamic practice is appropriated and applied for reproduction purposes. The wagar seems to denote a Cushitic symbol of belief in sacred trees within Somali society. The book further explores the potential link between the wagar and during the practice of Christianity and Islam.
Sada puts Somali cultural practices such as spirit possession, stick fights, material culture production, and female circumcision in a cultural and historical context.
“For example with FGM, people do not understand that it is just one piece in a puzzle and that it is not simplistically just a savage thing,” she told me. “but that there is an underlying ideology that has governed for often reasonable argument in the cultural context. This is not to condone the practice but it is to understand the practice and therefore be better at tackling it to end it.”
In a 2020 interview with Eshe Lewis, Wenner-Gren Project Director and anthropologist, Sada explained the blowback of being a female Somali researcher exploring, among other topics, pre-Islamic culture in a region where Islamic extremism (i.e. al Shaabab militants) and misogynistic paternalism still exists
“In 2009, my Ph.D. dissertation was put under restricted access because I was threatened by extremists. As soon as my book was published in 2020, I faced fresh threats from ideologues who are not interested in scientific research or common sense.”
Sada Mire grew up in the 1980s in the Medina area of Mogadishu, a multicultural east African town with Somalis, Kenyans, Italians, Arabs and descendants of Chinese merchants (the entire Somali region has had a long history of multicultural contact since its coastal areas participated in long-distance trade with Pharonic Egypt, Zanzibari Arabs, the Roman Empire, Ancient Greeks, Gujaratis from the Indian sub-continent and Persia).
Her police officer father and mother, a midwife, endured the many hardships including the ever-present threat of violence at the hands of the Mohamed Siad Barre dictatorship (her father was arrested and tortured several times while she and twin sister Sohur, now a medical doctor, were expelled from school due to clan discrimination).
The Barre government committed acts of genocide against the Isaaq clan (it’s estimated that close to a quarter million Isaaq clansmen were killed in a two year period between 1987 and 1989. Sada’s family belong to the Isaaq clan)
And yet, there were times that seemed normal enough where she and her siblings could enjoy playing football and watching Bollywood films. But when civil war broke out in 1991, Sada and her family made a harrowing escape from Somalia (first by walking out of Mogadishu with an elderly granny in tow via wheel barrel and then atop a crowded lorry clinging for dear life with the ropes holding down the vehicle’s payload). The family eventually found asylum in Sweden where an elder sister had made home. It was here where her interest in archeology blossomed.
“The idea that the remains of past cultures could be excavated and history could be written based on this was very appealing,” Sada told me. “The recording of African history and heritage has been hampered and sometimes destroyed by slavery, colonialism, wars and pillaging. I wanted to be part of rescuing and writing about the rich heritage of Africa.”
Following her establishment of the Department of Tourism and Archeology in Somaliland, Sada’s work really came to prominence over a decade ago with a series of archeological discoveries. In 2007, Sada returned to Somaliland to carry out archeological research for her doctorate. She traveled through Hargeysa, Berbera, and the Dhaymoole region, the home area of her maternal family. From there she headed south and west, crossing the Ethiopian border. During this period Sada located rock art sites, ruined towns and decorated stelae cemeteries, ancient Christian burials, and sites with Himyaritic and Sabaean writing. She would also spend considerable time at the site of Aw-Barkhadle in Hargeysa region, which was the basis for her doctorate research on archaeology, art, religion, rituals, and statehood.
The discovery of 5000-year old rock paintings at Dhambalin was particularly significant. Dhambalin is a fragile sandstone rock shelter located in the desert about 60 kilometers from Berbera to the east and 30 kilometers from the coast of the Red Sea in the vicinity of Togdheer region (the word Dhambalin in the Somali language means ‘half mountain cut vertically’ referring the massif’s unusual shape).
It’s a vast, thirsty landscape occupied by sand dunes and sandstone rock shelters. Unsurprisingly, its sparse population keeps few livestock, perhaps frequent and intense droughts have slimmed herds down to size, or maybe herders have literally fled to greener pastures (a similar process perhaps as when early herders began migrating into the Nile valley and eastern Africa when the Sahara’s grasses, trees and lakes started vanishing.) The region appears in the throes of desertification.
The most striking element of the Dhambalin paintings is the multi-color paintings (including hues of blood red, red-brown, red-yellow and even pinks among others) of domestic animals such as cattle (hump-less cows with some portrayed as headless), dogs, goats, sheep (it’s the only site in the region that depicts sheep) as well wildlife images of giraffes, antelopes, turtles, snakes and possibly lions and baboons. Many of the animals depicted sadly no longer exist here-perhaps they were hunted to the point of extinction or were the victims of a changing climate that left little water and vegetation for their survival.
The Dhambalin rock art site also depicts hunting scenes with images of people (ancient livestock herders) holding bows and arrows and wearing headgear or masks. There are also images of human figures apparently worshipping cattle with big udders, which provide some information about past symbolism of fertility and spiritual beliefs in the region according to Sada.
Archeologically, the site has some characteristics with Europe’s New Stone Age (Neolithic) or proto-historic Arabian-Ethiopian Style in the Horn of Africa. The colorful paintings are themselves quite similar to paintings found in some parts of North Africa (headless cattle are also represented at Gilf el-Kebir, a plateau of sandstone spanning southwest Egypt and southeast Libya.) Sada’s discovery has helped shed further light on the mystery of what the day to day existence and spiritual life of the various archaic herding communities was like in this region thousands of years ago.
Sada has also discovered ruined early or medieval Islamic towns, burial sites with decorated upright stone monuments of pre-Islamic origin called steglia, and pre-Islamic Christian burial sites. The ruined towns tell us about ancient trade between the Horn of Africa and Arabia, India and China.
“We have found Chinese pottery from the Yuan and Ming dynasties, which is important since it brings the dating of the sites back to the 13th century. This helps us understand the period of seafaring and maritime interaction.”
(Archaeologists and historians are unsure exactly when China established contact with Africa, but according to Li Anshan’s A History of Overseas Chinese in Africa, it is believed that 138-126 BC, prior to the Qin Dynasty in 221-206 BC, is the historical starting point of Sino-African relations.)
But perhaps her most important discovery is what she calls the Knowledge-Centered Approach, the notion of preserving knowledge and skills rather than objects.
“It is a distinctive method amongst the Somalis for preserving heritage as knowledge rather than heritage as objects in museums and monuments. This perspective totally blew me away since it was completely different to what I had learned at university. I now use this methodology as a way of engaging local communities with material heritage such as objects and monuments.”
In the past, most Somalis during colonial and post-colonial periods apparently cared little for the preservation of cultural objects. Such items were perceived as commonplace and therefore uninteresting and “backward”. Somalis at this point were progressive and forward-looking and desperately wanted a Western lifestyle.
Sada is deeply committed to heritage management. In 2011, she established The Horn Heritage Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Horn of Africa, particularly Somali-speaking areas. One of her most recent projects is the creation of a digital museum that displays Somali material culture.