In a recent post on the ancient and medieval civilizations of Somalia, we looked at the importance of the Horn of Africa in international trade. The Somalis acted as middlemen, supplying the Eastern Mediterranean, India, and China with goods from the African interior. One of the major ancient civilizations in east Africa that was producing exports was the Empire of Axum.
Axum is a little-known civilization. It didn’t leave much in the way of writing and its sites have not been extensively excavated. Even its capital city has been little explored. We do know that it was founded in the fourth century BC and became a major power by about 100 AD. It came to control most of what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea, and then hopped over the Red Sea in the third century to take over parts of what is now Yemen and Saudi Arabia. For a time, it controlled trade through the Red Sea and acted as a link between the Roman Empire and India. Axumite coins have been found as far away as China. Greek writers noted Axum as one of the world’s great civilizations.
Due to its location on the Red Sea, the northern Somali region has always been part of an international trade network. For many centuries, however, the main focus of the trade was in what is now Eritrea, which was the coastline of successive Ethiopian empires that traded with Egypt and out into the Indian Ocean. Two eastern outlets are in what’s now Somaliland, the port of Zeila and Berbera. Trade routes led east from the Ethiopian highlands and crossed a short stretch of desert to get to the coast.
When we think of Somalia, we usually think of the endless civil war and the rise of the militant Islamist group Al-Shabab. That’s all that gets in the news, after all. But Somalia has a rich past that’s been all but forgotten thanks to its sad present. Back in 2012, I went in search of it.
I visited Somaliland, an independent state that makes up the northern third of the former Somalia. While it remains unrecognized by any other nation, it has established a viable government with free and fair elections, a growing economy, and the rule of law. Visiting Somaliland gives outsiders a chance to get to know Somali culture and see some of the best prehistoric painted caves in Africa.