The last days of Mogadishu’s old town


MuqdishoBy Abdulkadir Khalif

Africa Review

A picture of ruined buildings in Shangani in Mogadishu. ABDULKADIR KHALIF | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Mogadishu’s Hamarweyne and Shangani areas are what you could call the old town of the Somali capital. In fact, Hamarweyne literally means the big city or old town.

The two districts, both facing the Indian Ocean, are the nucleus of what over the centuries grew to become Mogadishu.

They host the oldest buildings, the largest number of colonial monuments, the most ancient mosques and arguably the remains of the biggest Roman Catholic Cathedral in eastern Africa.

But all these landmarks that contain unique architecture have suffered over the past two decades through looting by vandals and shelling from the country’s motley of fighters in their long-drawn battle for supremacy.

Debilitating hostilities have continued to blow up as opposing sides in Somalia, especially in Mogadishu, squabble over power and the control of resources.

Yet the danger to Mogadishu’s Hamarweyne and Shangani districts is unlikely to come from militants including loyalists of Al-Shabaab, the radical Islamist group that doggedly wages war in the city.

The real risk comes from an ‘attack’ by developers and estate investors who are competing for space to put up their structures.

To make matters worse, officials from Mogadishu’s Municipality sent out a startling message in December 2013: They ordered the owners of the buildings in Hamarweyne and Shangani districts facing the main roads to rebuild their properties or otherwise suffer the consequences.

“Those who fail to rebuild the roads-facing premises within 90 days will have their properties confiscated by the Municipality,” said the officials. They were essentially saying the properties would be given to those who can build–and are deep-pocketed.

It was also seen as a green light for people to erect structures on the land hosting historic buildings in an unplanned manner. The order was a major blow to those who have always appreciated the historical significance of the Somali capital and other coastal towns.

The authorities are giving the nod to the pulling down of the old buildings instead of their renovation, to be replaced by new shiny hotels, office blocks, shopping malls and other structures.

The new buildings would be host to fast food restaurants, supermarkets, executive offices, hotels with cosy rooms and air-conditioned conference halls, among other facilities.

Some of the hotels in Hamarweyne built in the last couple of years, like Malayka and Al-Hindi, are seen as modern developments at the expense of old buildings.

If there are people who appreciate the buildings in Mogadishu’s oldest districts and the history they contain, it is the authors Rasna Warah, Mohamoud Dirios and Ismail Osman. Together, the trio authored Mogadishu Then and Now, a pictorial tribute to what they called Africa’s most wounded city.

They effectively portrayed Mogadishu which literally meant ‘The Seat of Shah’ (from the Arabic Maq’adul Shah). It is a city also affectionately called by its inhabitants as Hamar (Xamar in Somali language), which means Tamarind Tree or Tamarind colour.

Over the years, what impressed the city’s visitors and even its inhabitants is its long history, some say dating back 10th century.

The unique buildings in Hamarweyne and Shangani districts maintain records that illustrate the city is indeed a very old place. The residents in these places demonstrate the much passed on stories that Mogadishu was formed on Arab and Persian traders settling in the coastal areas.

Preserve legacy

According to the authors of Mogadishu Then and Now, the city went through various stages of its history first as a sultanate, a city-state, an-important sea-trade hub, then capital of a colonial administration and an independent nation-state.

No places in Mogadishu preserve that entire legacy as well Hamarweyne and Shangani districts, the very neighbourhoods that are now threatened by developers.

It is a pleasant experience to learn that these places are where historians and travellers set foot on the Horn of Africa region. These include Syrian historian Yaqut al-Hamawi, Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta and Vasco da Gama, and the Portuguese explorer and ship-captain.

Historically, it is said that Mogadishu was well known for its weaving and textile industry. Amazingly, Hamarweyne and Shangani are the only places in Mogadishu where weaving and cloth dying by manual means are still practised.

The clothes produced are traditional or Alindi (or Al-Hindi), a notation that the crafts and techniques were probably introduced by Indian weavers.

Mogadishu’s historical ties with Muscat, Zanzibar, Lamu, Mombasa and other coastal towns in the Eastern Africa region is etched on its architecture.

But soon, people with cash – local, foreign or Diaspora Somalis – but with little care for history and conservation who acquire the buildings and other sites could soon convert them into modern premises. They may end up in the possession of people disinterested in the legacies of those who shaped the history of one the greatest cities–at least culturally– in the region.

Observers like Mr Abdikadir Haji Awes, an economist, protest the possibility of the Mogadishu Municipality confiscating the old buildings in line with the December 2013 proclamation.

On, a web site that reports news about Somalia’s coastal areas, Mr Awes on December 10, 2013 wrote: “Any order regarding confiscation of properties must have legal and official permission from the higher structures of the state.”

While Awes and others who contacted the media were concerned with the issue of properties per se, Mr Osman Yusuf, president of the Somali Academy of Science and Arts, is worried about the gradual destruction to Somalia’s heritage, especially in Mogadishu.

“Destruction is mainly affecting Hamarweyne, Shangani, Hamar Jabjab and Abdulaziz districts of Mogadishu,” said Yusuf, hinting the remaining 12 districts in the Somali capital are relatively newer settlements with little historical wealth to lose.

“We need a full national review of how we should preserve our history and heritage,” he told Africa Review. He added: “Action by the government is what is needed rather than just words.”

Mr Yusuf urges the Somali government, international bodies, local institutions, and state and non-state actors to join the effort to restore, among others, the ancient buildings, the unique landmarks, the damaged monuments and rundown places of worship.

Dreadful realities

Those who appreciate the priceless national heritage, have singled out the Somali Ministry of Higher Education and Culture and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for failing to be alive to the dreadful realities in Mogadishu.

Mr Aidarus Qalli Mohamed, a resident in Hamarweyne, reminisces the days when decorated horses used to be the taxis in the city. “We need to tell the new generations of what our fathers, mothers and ancestors went through,” said Mohamed.

Meanwhile, Ally Muridi, a native of Hamarweyne, knows that money is coming fast. He stated that some of the houses that belonged to Indian families who left the country, following the onset of the civil war, were bought and converted into hotels and shops.

“I hope that Jaamacadda and Fakr-ad-Din mosques in Hamarweyne remain intact,” Muridi told Nation. He continued saying, “Jaamacadda mosque is mainly built as a basement and stories say that an underground tunnel used to lead to the Indian Ocean. The entrance to the tunnel is now sealed.”

The buildings, the history and the heritage they contain surely need preservation.

Going by current trends, the building in Mogadishu’s Shangani district from where the representatives of Sayyid Sa’eed Barkhash, the Sultan of Zanzibar, ruled Banadir (a change from the Swahili word Bandari or coastal area) may soon be converted into a glass house with shopkeepers selling tobacco, cigarettes, lighters and perfumes among other items.