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The past for the future - the protection and conservation of Somalia historical coastal towns: The Case of Mogadishu

Author: Arch/Planner Mohamed Abdulkadir Ahmed

Affiliation: Department of Urban Planning and Heritage Management
Correspondence: Banadir Administration, Municipality of Mogadishu - Somalia

Presentation: Cultural Heritage at Risk: Challenges and Opportunities


December 2, 2012


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 conflict.

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 meanings.

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 Somalia.

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 constant deterioration?

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 society.

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 country.

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 property.

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 culture.

• 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 (Nazimuddin:1977).

• 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 - King: 1979).

• 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: 1979).

• 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: 1994).

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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The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and it does not represent the editorial opinions of kacadeey online


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