Recent contributions of several scholars have introduced
different point of views in the debate on the East African
coastal cities. Somalia's coastal cities have never been the
subject of careful and detailed researches. Previous
governments didn't recognize the importance of preserving
and enhancing this heritage.
Cultural heritage plays an irreplaceable role in national
identity and pride in the common ownership of its diversity,
especially during war and rapid social change. Understanding
its historical foundations will provide a basis for this
analysis in order to establish further analysis into
Somalia’s tangible heritages. It will be necessary to start
filling up the gap, to re-read the history of Somalia
without falling into the temptation of misinterpretation as
it happened before.
It will be necessary to take into consideration working
toward setting up a Department of Antiquities and
Conservation within the Banadir Administration. This could
represent the first operational support of protection,
introduction of restrictive-clauses in the future building
code, restoration and conservation. Today, the process of
frequent transformation has impacted Somalia’s historical
cities. Mogadishu is in a state of utter neglect and
destruction. Some of the historical cities along the Somali
coast (Warshiikh, Jesira, Marka, Barawa, Kisimayo, Zeila,
Bosaso) are in the same situation.
This above-mentioned frontier may begin an actionable
processes consisting of deeper and more specialized studies
with the active involvement of UNESCO in a more justified
way to the defense and valorization of Somalia Tangible
Heritages. The historical awareness of oneself and one's own
past is equivalent to the knowledge and protection of proper
cultural heritages. It is a matter that concerns the
collective consciousness of the Somali people.
Key Words: East Africa, Somalia, Coastal Towns, Mogadishu,
Cultural Heritage, Conservation.
1. Background of the Paper
The civil war in Somalia has affected all layers of Somali
society. This war has also been associated with the massive
displacement of people. Massive destruction, damage to
historical sites and old town centers, looting of private
sector assets and public infrastructure have been other
prominent features of this war. While the war has its root
in political factors, it has gradually shifted character
into war economy. It is now centered on the control of
economic assets, which provide the source for both financing
the war and private enrichment. Indeed, the gain to be made
from the control of these assets has become the main
obstacle in the efforts to bring an end to this ethnical
For the past 21 years, the civil war in Somalia has
cancelled even further all remaining traces of the past.
Henceforth, an approach is needed that focuses on
rediscovering of present potentialities in the cultural
2. The Link of Somalia’s Cultural Heritages to the East
African Coastal Towns
The cultural heritages of every people are memories of human
creativity that combines past and present in continuity. A
civilization’s memories consist of various historical
developments since its inception— diversity of identities,
cultural achievements, and land cultivation. Its
conservation and improvement are an essential component of
every cultural policy. Also, it will be difficult to know,
to establish what, to whom, how to plan and build without a
sufficient awareness of that culture.
The medieval archaeology of East Africa is still, in great
part, an unexplored field. The principal reasons are that
linguistic and social problems have gained scholarly
attention, hence historical documents are abundant. Yet,
scholars have not considered that it is only through
archaeological analysis that might, at least in part, be
possible to rebuild the events of past centuries. Documents
regarding historical sites of the East African Coast are
fragmentally supported by travelers, explorers, geographers
and conquerors up to the 18th century until the 19th century
when documentation is made available. To these should be
added the oral testimony and other document of literature.
Only at the beginning of the 20th century the descriptions
of the ruins sites become accurate and, especially, to those
sites in Kenya and Tanzania. This achievement came through
the contribution of the following scholars: Kirkman,
Chittick, G.S.P. Freeman-Greenville, Matthew, Garlake,
Horton and Sutton. Their studies revealed knowledge required
to interpret and, in some cases, to exploit the importance
of the sites’ historical, architectural and environmental
culture (Kirkman: 1964 , Chittick: 1969; G.S.P.
Freeman-Greenville: 1962; Matthew: 1975, Garlake: 1966;
Horton: 1986; Sutton: 1990).
Part of Somalia's past culture consists of historical roots
linked to East African's history. It is well known that
along the Eastern African coastal cities developed a culture
that displays in its archaeological features a common
architecture with local variation; significant traces and
archaeological findings of these cultural values exist
prominently in Somalia resulting in historical-critical
character studies. Following these studies, there were many
campaign of archaeological excavation and land surveying.
Somalia’s architectural and environmental heritage were
neglected in the past. They were subject to degradation and
deterioration, to a violent transformation and destruction
during its previous regimes. The dramatic events of past
years have produced further alterations and devastation
hardly noticeable in the actual situation and long
protraction of tensions between the warring parties. We
could affirm without compromise that Somalia’s past has been
systematically destroyed in period of peace and war; for
example, the deep wound inflicted on the old Mogadishu
center of Shingaani, razed almost to the ground, is a vivid
testimony of human madness.
3. Brief History of Somalia’s Main Historical Towns
Somalia is considered an integral part of the East African
history and, specifically, its major centers located on the
coast of the Indian Ocean such as Mogadishu.
Mogadishu is the most important town of the Banadir coast.
It was one of the city-states founded more than ten
centuries ago along the East African coast, which flourished
on commerce with the Arabic Gulf countries, Persia, India,
China together with other commercial cities such as Barawa,
Mombasa, and Malindi etc. It is recognized as one of the
most interesting historical centers on the whole coast of
Mogadishu knew a period of magnificence as a maritime trade
center from the 13th century. It was at this time that the
Mosque of Fakhruddin and the Minaret of Jamia were built in
Hamarweyne. Sultans were the rulers of Mogadishu. Copper
coins were found with the names of sultans, comparable with
the coins of Kilwa, Tanzania and, of a later dynasty known
as the Mudhaffars. The Mudhaffars lasted until the middle of
the 17th century (Freeman-Grenville: 1963). Mogadishu never
submitted to Portuguese rule. Alpers adds, that Mogadishu in
the nineteenth century was a shadow of its former splendid
is a general accepted fact. One has only to compare the
famous description of Ibn Battuta of the town in 1331 to
those of its visitors five centuries later to realize that
its heyday was long since past (Alpers, 1983, p.441). But,
the Portuguese policy, headed for an exclusive control along
the route of the Indian Ocean, aggravated the decline of
Mogadishu along with the other Banadir coastal cities in the
15th century. Mogadishu was under the control of Zanzibar in
the 18th century, the capital of the Oman Sultanate during
that period. Since then, Mogadishu became involved in the
politics of European colonialism. At the end, the Oman
Sultanate led Mogadishu to the Italian rule in 1889
(Cerulli:1957; Corni: 1937)
Whatever the pattern of urban development in Mogadishu in
earlier times may have been, it
confirms the wider coastal East Africa dynamics during the
nineteenth century. The intensified penetration of Indian
merchant capital under the protection of British India and
the Sultan of Muscat in Zanzibar began the process of
transformation that would lead ultimately to the Italian
administration. Many features of Mogadishu, particularly its
urban morphology, illustrate the influences of the different
periods. The old, original urban centers, Hamarweyne and
Shingaani, still stand on Mogadishu's initial site; however,
they became extensively damaged during these years of civil
war. Shingaani suffered the most damage of the city itself.
Arab influence in architecture is widespread. The Italians
were the first to formulate and effect urban planning in
their area of residence in Mogadishu. Before the collapse in
1990, it was the dominant national urban center in terms of
governmental activities and military positions.
As the old towns of Marka and Barawa, Mogadishu retain
memories of an evolved urban culture, there lived the
numerous waves of migration and centuries of inter-oceanic
trade and inter-mingling. They were subject of interests to
the new waves of researches undertaken by various
institutions (i.e. Polytechnic of Milan, Faculty of
Architecture) and scholars of different disciplines to
overcome the lack of knowledge in their historical
development, urban structure, functions and patterns of use.
They were evolved as city-states with a civilization having
a character of their own, not least in respect of their
architecture (Molon and Vianello: 1990).
4. The Role of UNESCO
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) works in favor of the conservation and
protection of the humanity's common cultural heritages and
their value are universal. The Convention of 1972 regarding
the protection of World Cultural and Environmental Heritage,
is based on the fundamental concept that this protection
does not compete only to the State in which territory the
"object" to be protected/saved is located, but, firmly to
the whole human being, who is the indivisible keeper and
depository of the whole greatest creations that ploughed
through the human waves and adventures.
Today the world heritage activities are no longer designed
merely to restore old buildings but are very often geared to
strengthening or even building a common identity among
groups with different affiliations. The same concept applies
to environmental initiatives, which no longer seek merely to
preserve natural resources and biodiversity for future
generations but are also aimed at sparing present
generations' potential management conflicts.
The change in UNESCO’s constitutional mandate to accommodate
emerging issues in pre-conflict and post-conflict societies
with the Medium-Term Strategy for 1996-2001 highlighted the
difficulties of the organization to succeed in Somalia. In
the case of Somalia, UNESCO was unable to go beyond
emergency educational assistance. The transdisciplinary and
the intersectoral approach adopted in changing the
conception of human security, cultural identity to cultural
integration, conflict prevention and post-conflict
peacebuilding have helped the development of national plans
for education for a culture of peace. But what are the
procedures to use in order to have a real and sustainable
impact in countries where legitimate governments are not in
place and cultural heritages site are left abandoned or in
UNESCO efforts led to the protection of sites where
civilization has left important and highly visible traces
throughout Kenya and Tanzania. It has contributed decisively
to the recreation of the historical period of the area. The
International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)
divides Cultural Heritage along thematic lines. Namely:
archeological, historic towns, religious properties,
architectural monuments, technological ensembles and
cultural landscapes. Also, cultural heritages are
testimonies, products or work of science, art and the
culture of past civilization of a country. Knowledge and
protection of cultural heritages mean acquire an experience,
conciseness and past awareness. This could perform an
important role in the constitution of a cultural identity.
It is a fundamental support for the civilized progress. It
gives meaning, sense and reason for the work of a whole
To achieve the UNESCO campaign of the culture for peace
initiative, there must be a guideline for in-depth and
specialized activity such as a systematic surveying campaign
strategies, technological studies and a recovery program.
These guidelines may consist of diverse support for cultural
activity towards a future institution that may facilitate a
cultural and peace perspective. The international
organizations together with Somali people who do care about
the preservation of their culture could be involved in
defense of Somalia's Cultural Heritages with UNESCO to
promote peace and reconciliation among warring factions in
The main difficulties for such endeavor are the
bibliographical sources, the cartographic basis for a
research work, the possibility and consistency of data
control, which are not available in Somalia; however, a lot
could be done if a research project is established with
UNESCO to survey Somalia's Cultural Heritages. More than a
century has passed since the colonial period to the collapse
of its dictatorship and subsequent intervention consisting
of preservation and protection of the cultural heritage;
unfortunately, the export of cultural property is
inexistent. In the handbook of national regulations
concerning the export of cultural property prepared for
UNESCO Somalia was reported as a nation without legislation
on the matter. It was not a party to any international
instruments concerning unlawfully exported cultural
So far, the only noteworthy activities undertaken till 1990
are listed below:
• In 1933 the Italian colonial administration transformed
the building that was the representative residence of the
Sultan of Zanzibar into Museum, the Garesa. It became the
National Museum after the independence. Laws that should
protect the past cultural heritages and the becoming ones
did not follow such act. Today, the Garesa is destroyed and
all "objects" looted.
• In 1966 UNESCO sent Dr. Reynolds to carry out a research
on the Somalia cultural heritages. He came to the conclusion
of the necessary steps to be implemented and recommendations
on how to act for a serious administration of the past
• In 1977, upon the request of the authority, UNESCO sent
Dr. Nazimuddin. He submitted a detailed report on the
gravity and seriousness the archaeological and monuments
sites were. He observed, suggested, entrusted and emphasized
the imperative necessity of legislative acts that should
protect Somalia past heritages for the future
• In 1978, UNESCO sent Dr. Cole-King with an objective
similar to his predecessors. He gave methodological advises,
recommendations already known but never implemented
although, to be presumed, were accepted to implement in
order to not interrupt the flow of funds-aids, and appear,
therefore, to international agencies-donors consenting and
willing to the policy address granted previously (Cole -
• At the end of '70s Dr. Posnansky, again from UNESCO,
visited Somalia. As well as his predecessors, he left his
advises, recommendations to be followed in the
archaeological sites, the necessity to build other museums,
their supposed organization and administration (Posnansky:
• In August 1968 N. Chittick undertook an archaeological
exploration along the Southern Somalia Coast from Mogadishu
to the border of Kenya. It was a stay of short length: two
weeks. Therefore, the results achieved were necessarily
approximate (Chittick: 1969).
• In March 1983, Hilary Costa Sanseverino set out on an
archaeological exploration from the Southern Somalia coast
of Bur Gavo to the border of Kenya at Ras Kiambone (Sanseverino:
1983). She visited, also, Barawa in her second trip. She
described its relationship with the other settlements along
the coast and together with the historical link to the East
African settlements, stating that "it should not be a
surprise that they have a common cultural heritage's,
religious and architecture" (Sanseverino, 1985, p.18).
• Researches and thesis were conducted in the Somali
National University. Prof. Marina Molon is one of leading
authority on Somalia's Cultural Heritages. Her activities
included an amplified stage within a research on the entire
"East African Architecture, from the Southern Somalia to
Mozambique" at the Polytechnic of Milan from 1992 to 1994 (Molon:
The will to consider Mogadishu as a city of art and to be
saved emerged recently. Even though UNESCO has acted with
laudable actions, the list compiled by its "experts" for the
World Cultural Heritage Sites in Danger doesn't include
Somalia, its history and its people. Somalia with its
present political situation can be included and its
historical coastal towns and archaeological sites considered
as part of the list of World Cultural Heritage Sites in
Danger. The international community may act to save the rest
of the past of this country. As a result of the civil war,
Somalia’s cultural heritage is entitled to the attention and
emergency conservation action of UNESCO.
Methodological Approaches for Future Action
International conventions exist for the sole purpose of
cultural promotion for less developed countries that are not
favored economically that are undermined by the elimination
of its cultural heritage—a toxic mixture of policy, religion
and tribalism, in the case of Somalia. Without the
foundation of the past, the result is utter failure
developmentally. Moreover, in post-conflict and
peacebuilding situations a project for the past is the best
proof that shows a serious attention towards the future.
Many factors and circumstances have contributed to threaten
the architectural and environmental heritages in this
historic and dramatic period in Somalia. Cultural heritage
represents an integral part of culture and economic
development. Architectural and environmental goods are part
of the cultural heritage. Each of these aspects are critical
for the development of any country—an inevitable resolve for
each country’s development. They are an important
conjunction that unites past and present. In the same time,
they represent the foundation for any cultural change,
strong social interactions as well as the exchange of ideas
and plans for future development. Henceforth, such
protection is able to further the cultural awareness of
future generations in Somalia.
A second problem concerns the selection of "objects" of
interest from a historical point of view and its period of
belonging. These "archaeological objects" belonged to an
ancient period; however, recent architectural production and
the preservation of “archaeological objects” is significant
in the context of urban process and spatial organization.
For this purpose, it should be considered not only the
buildings of XIX century, already known and reported by
scholars, such as the residences of Barawa linked to the
Zanzibar culture, but the architecture of colonial period
with interesting features in Mogadishu old town center
Shingaani (2nd Lido). The public buildings which was a
valued Mogadishu urban landscape (Old Post Office) in
Hamarweyne, and the Old Parliament building. All these are
samples of an architecture that has given form to an
important articulated joint of the urban center of
Mogadishu. The royal Palace of Barqash was more than a
century the royal residence of different Sultans and Princes
of Mogadishu. Unfortunately, the Italian colonialization
changed it into the Municipality of Mogadishu in the '50s.
Likewise, this national monument of priceless and historic
value has been demolished by the dictatorship regime and
substituted to Hotel Uruba, today completely unrecognizable.
There are examples of minor architecture, forms and
landscapes that belong to the native culture, wielding
significant cultural value. There has been heavy
transformation in lifestyles as well as its economic roots
in the primary sector. The entire territorial balance has
been endangered by these transformations: 1) drastic
reduction of wild animals , 2) reduction and impoverishment
of the flora, 3) the concept of space in the nomadic society
and 4) the sedentary communities currently living in the
inter-riverine banks and in the coastal areas. Most of these
areas of naturalistic interest and landscape along the Juba
and Shebelle rivers are endangered.
The uncontrolled use of land has compromised some stretches
of incomparable beauty, a similar fate occurring shortly in
Jesira. Such land abuse has resulted in the mismanagement of
Lido, the best beach in Mogadishu. Due to ecological
disasters, it has become necessary to question the
definition of the "object" to be protected, thus the need to
a delimitation of the field–an essential consideration
should be to enlarge the survey's foundation. The
methodological approach would be to deal with classifying
not only the monuments as the famous mosques of Mogadishu (Hamarweyne
Jamia, Fakhruddin, Arba'rukun, Abdulaziz), but, also, the
others religious architecture in other towns in the country.
The tombs considered are either those prestigious in the
Southern Somalia in the Bajuni islands such as the
pillar-tombs or those enclosed in a field such as the
cemetery/mosque of Sheikh Sufi. Historical urban old centers
are Hamarweyne, Shingaani in Mogadishu, Marka and Barawa,
and the remaining almost disappeared town of the Old
Warshiikh, Gendershe, Munghia, and El-Torre.
These archaeological sites belonged to the pre-Islamic
period, the primary reason of archaeological excavation,
although minimal compared to the sites scattered in
Somalia’s landscape. In addition, the pastoral systems are
severely fragile, graffiti overwhelms Bur Heybe and the
ruins of Baydhabo require immediate preservation and
protection. Beautiful areas are abundant along the coastal
dunes of Somalia as well as the rivers where ravines are
formed with aging trees of particular beauty awaiting to be
classified and protected. Thus, many places contain
significant traces of material culture; for example, the
wells, the cemeteries along the coast those are inevitably
doomed to disappear along with actual economic life. While
scholars do not wield adequate power to protect and
facilitate initiatives, the Cultural Heritage must designate
which must be respected, protected, restored–a concern
consisting of Somalia’s collective consciousness. However,
the recovery, rehabilitation and requalification of
historical cities are an aim of great complexity and will
require a long-term period. The preposition formulated will
be considered from their methodological work and criteria
that shape them than the specific project results.
In conclusion, the classification and filing of the
architectural and environmental heritages are the essential
preamble towards the protection and conservation: doing it
now, even in a summary procedure, does not seem an
insurmountable task and could avoid errors of judgment or
oversights. This preliminary project-study would prevent
further degradation of archaeological sites and historic
urban cores, thus ensuring their sustainability for future
generations. It would help lay the foundation for coherent
cultural heritage management.
Somalia’s cultural assets were subject of a sporadic survey
from archaeologists while the architecture remains not much
renowned, documented and even protected. It is presumable
that the differentiation and vicissitudes of Somalia's
cultural heritage had its origin in the colonial period, in
the post-independence governments, in the pseudo-revolution
period, and, at the end, during the civil war. The Somali
cultural heritage wasn't protected. The Somali authority
neglected it since the achievement of the independence. They
lacked in guidance, management and inspiration of valuable
culture. The reasons behind that being the resources
available were used in other sectors considered erroneously
more serious. At present there is no complete information or
data on the extension of destruction in the old coastal
towns of Somalia.
There is the old question of the management of historical
centers in Somalia: cultural heritage and witnesses’ values
cannot longer be disregarded in the process of peace and
post-war reconstruction. It is necessary to reconstruct and
prequalify the past of Somalia in order to reach a reversal
tendency of the declined process and identify a solution of
the problem. The consideration of the proper past could play
a key role in the research for a solution of Somalia's
crisis. The past, the diversified archaeological resources,
explored or not, and the architectural-environmental
heritage's have a deterrent role of restraint into the
degeneration and mystification of tribal concepts. They
could guide in a form of respect, peaceful and life in
common. What to do to save the cultural heritages of a
nation in the absence of reliable intermediaries in civil
society? UNESCO policy on the World Cultural Heritage Sites
in Danger should bring the inclusion of Somalia’s past for
an effective management of cultural assets in terms of
cultural heritage preservation and creation of conditions
for increased economic benefits for future sustainable
cultural development. There is a need to undertake in
partnership with international organizations significant
initiatives to protect, rehabilitate, restore and revitalize
the cultural heritage that survived neglect and damage
during 21 years of civil war. Cultural heritage represents a
set of unique assets that Somali people can leverage to
promote national reconciliation.
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