OLD HAMAR OBSERVED: Some notes on Urban Life and the Built Environment



Some notes on Urban Life and the Built Environment


By Anita Adam



Huddled between the coast and the post-independence modern commercial and public buildings of the city, Old Hamar (i.e. Hamar Weyne and Shingani) had for centuries a visual and physical definition that kept the community within well-defined boundaries, and as a distinct social,  economic and political unit  The physical structure of the enclave is characterised by a network of narrow passages and alleyways between stone buildings several storeys high. There are a few open spaces where the large congregational mosques are located, but houses are built close together, and the largely unpaved streets are not wide enough for cars to pass through. In places, by leaning out of the upper storey windows, neighbours on one side of the street may touch hands with neighbours opposite. The many small local mosques that are interspersed with domestic buildings are almost indistinguishable from them, except perhaps for the presence of a row of sandals on the steps to the entrance of the one.

Typically the houses are occupied by several generations of the same family, and what may long ago have started off as a single storey dwelling will have acquired additional floors to create another family unit as the family expanded; thus two or three generations may be occupying different floors of the same house. In the crowded town most buildings are two storied or three storied (three being the structurally safe limit).  The usual flat roofs provide a further common and versatile space: for talking, sleeping, cooking and hanging clothes to dry.[1] Part of the ground floor fronting on to the main street will often be a small shop, maybe run by the family of the building or rented out. The grander houses of the enclave are on the whole in the central and oldest part of the settlement, whilst on the periphery the dwellings may be simpler or smaller.

Elements of community rituals and festivals are elaborated with reference to the surroundings, as for example the tradition of carrying a new young bride to her husband’s home (which in times past would predictably have been close by), through the labyrinth of streets. On the seaward side of the enclave and along the shoreline are three beaches (xeeb), and these too are of importance as social spaces: one, the inlet called  Aw Uweyska, is the site of the shrine of Sheikh Uweys al Qarni where an annual siyaaro, or pilgrimage takes place; two other beaches, Maanya Ayeey (used especially by women) and Maanyo Nimeedka, also known as Manyada Abo Xuseynka , are each associated with performance of other annual community rituals.

Such stone towns as Mogadishu have occupied the same land for perhaps 1,000 years, and although it is not proposed that the buildings existing here into the present century are the same ones of earlier centuries, and although not everybody agrees as to the date of Mogadishu’s founding, the point is that this is a town with a long history, a history which is reflected in the architecture and the social life of the community. Archaeological investigation of the city is almost non-existent, a notable exception being a short exploration by a British archaeologist, Neville Chittick in July 1980. But Chittick’s investigation is of limited scope, and leaves unanswered many tantalizing questions, not least about the extent of city boundaries in earlier times. Future archaeological exploration will undoubtedly have much to reveal about this, and indeed other Banaadiri stone town settlements.

The dating of the founding of Mogadishu as a tenth century town has acquired wide acceptance among Banaadiri and non-Banaadiri Somalis alike. The date, as proposed most notably by the distinguished Italian scholar Enrico Cerulli[2] is inferred in part from the information provided by the Kilwa Chronicle, and on the oral traditions offered by genealogies. Both sources speak of immigrant Arabs settling along this coast in the 10th -12th centuries. As a further and unique source of record, we have mosque and gravestone inscriptions in Arabic, which are the oldest local written records of the history of the region. Inscriptions in Mogadishu’s three earliest mosques record their having been built as follows: the Jaama’ Hamar Weyne mosque in AH636 (1238CE), the Fakhrudiin and the Arba’-Rukun both built in AH667 (1269CE) some thirty years later. Dated inscriptions are in a category of their own in bringing the past to light, and indicate here that Islam had by the mid-thirteenth century already taken root. By the following century, a detailed eyewitness account tells of Mogadishu as a flourishing Muslim city-state with a Sultan who was literate in Arabic. Since we know from earlier documents that trading at Mogadishu and other settlements of this coast existed long before the 10th century, ‘founded’ or ‘founding’ may better be understood, therefore, as the Islamisation and development of a city-state that had embraced imported Arab and Islamic ideas and influences. Such a process had many precedents in Arab-Persian trading centres that were established in the western Indian Ocean; and finds historical resonance more widely, for example in the Romanisation of towns in Britain after 54 BC, and the Norman-French influences on language, culture, and urbanization post-1066 CE.

The limited excavation of Chittick was in the vicinity of Jaama’ Hamar Weyne, chosen because it is the Friday mosque with the earliest date inscription and hence a likely area of early settlement. At about 1.5m depth the floor of a collapsed building was found, at roughly the same level as the floor of the mosque itself (which is below ground level today), and so presumed to be of a similar date. At a higher level, the excavations revealed a well-preserved mofa bread oven and much associated charcoal. Some coins and shards from imported pottery were also found. Taking his findings overall, Chittick provided no firm evidence of the existence of a town on the site before the late twelfth century, and so expressed doubt at the earlier dating by Cerulli that the town came into being in around 900 CE. However, the absence of anything earlier than the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries in the two small trenches dug in Hamar Weyne, does not exclude there being earlier material elsewhere, nor would earlier finds invalidate the important heritage contribution from the Islamic period of building.  By the fourteenth century we have a picture of a city-state that is distinctly Muslim in character, and the presence of these stone buildings attests to the prosperity of the city. The Portuguese in the following century spoke with some surprise of the impressive features of Mogadishu’s buildings.

Construction materials and styles. For a distance of at least one thousand miles, this coast is protected along most of its length by substantial coral reefs. Not surprising, then, that coral has been the main building material for mosques, palaces and houses of the old stone towns of the Banaadir. Fossil coral comes from the coastal foreshore, and when quarried it forms rough uneven blocks suitable for load-bearing walls, and is known as ‘coral rag’. [3] Reef coral, in contrast, is live coral and is softer; it was often used for decorative features, such as tracery or mihrab niches in mosques. All the older mosques and buildings in the heart of Old Hamar were constructed from coral rag. Wood is used in buildings as ceiling support, either as round poles or as squared beams. Elaborately carved doors and window shutters are also a traditional feature.

Mosques. The number of mosques in Old Hamar that have been documented at different points in time is arguably a mark of the importance the community assigns to a state of righteousness. The local Banaadiri historian Sharif  ‘Aydarus, writing in the 1940s, records that (at some unspecified time in the past) there had been 114 of these mosques, “but over the years as a result of different authorities taking over the town, the mosques were either destroyed or had collapsed and had become fewer and fewer”. At the time of his writing there were forty-five mosques belonging to the community, he says. In 1990, according to my own sources, that number had reduced further, to less than forty. Therre is an abundance of small mosques in addition to the better known ones of the town, and customarily each descent group has its own favoured and conveniently situated small mosque for everyday use; usually it will have been constructed as a result of the largesse of one of the ancestors of the group. The long-established immigrant residents from the Indian community also had their own mosque. Immigrant Indian families of the Ithn-Ashari shi’a sect lived and worked amongst the Reer Hamar, and had their own neighbourhood within Hamar Weyne until the State’s collapse in 1991.

The Friday Mosque, or congregational mosque, important for Muslims everywhere, is central to community religious life, and for the obligatory communal prayers that are held each Friday, presided over by the Iman or by the khatiib (speaker).[4] The three earliest mosques noted above (Jaama’,  Fakhrudiin and Arba’-Rukun) are all in the category of Friday Mosques, and at the time of writing remain in use, despite the violence and continuing destruction of Mogadishu in the period since 1991.They are all in the Hamar Weyne quarter, which may suggest that Shingani is of later construction.

In the case of the Swahili towns of a similar age – and which have been more closely studied and more extensively written about than those of the Banaadir – they consisted of two complementary units of settlement which were typically separated by an open stretch of land on which stood the congregational mosque that could serve the whole community. Considering the commonality of historical influences along the adjacent East African Banaadir and Swahili coasts, one may wonder if such an arrangement existed in Old Hamar in earlier times. One is mindful, however, that where evidence is lacking it is unwise to speculate.

When Révoil visited Mogadishu in 1882, there was indeed an open space between the two halves of the enclave, which was at the time a market, and in his picture of the space, the distinctive domes of Fakhrudiin mosque can clearly be discerned, not in the middle but on the Hamar Weyne side of the divide. Population expansion over the centuries would inevitably necessitate the need for more Friday mosques to be built, but so too would lineage group rivalries. Indeed, at the time of Charles Guillain’s stay in Mogadishu almost two decades prior to Révoil, the serious rift between Shingani and Hamar Weyne that he reported on would have precluded any praying together of the two neighbourhoods; and in the more recent past we learn from ‘Aydarus that in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Friday prayers were being conducted in nine mosques of the enclave.

Colonial plans and loss of property. Colonial plans for their capital following the acquisition of the Banaadir ports by the Italians would mean not only expansion of the boundaries of the town, but also loss of property and assets by local citizens, as attractive sites were appropriated and existing structures demolished in the interests of modernisation.

Of the period during the colonial half of the twentieth century Stone Town Mogadishu had what some may consider a catastrophic relationship with the Italian colonizers. Although there were some who recognised the importance of preserving the character of the old quarter, others were more concerned with Fascist-cubist-modernist architectural innovation and the external aspects of the new quarter. Such tensions are described by Nuredin Hagi Scikei in his book on the architecture of the Old Town. For example, in March 1940, the Vice-Governor of Italian East Africa, Guglielmo Nasi, from his headquarters at Addis Ababa, ordered the complete destruction of the medieval quarters of Mogadishu. Nasi’s justification was that it would be impossible to convince the world that the Fascist ideology of Benito Mussolini had brought civilization if they left the ancient city standing. But the director of the technical office in Mogadishu (Tumidei by name), was vehemently opposed to Nasi’s directives, and his response to the vice-governor was unequivocal. He felt that the conservation of traditional elements of a city that the Banaadiri had built up over the centuries was for the better, and argued that the elimination and supplanting of the mosques and the old buildings of historical or characteristic interest by new buildings, would change the local character of Mogadishu, which was, in the opinion of some, he said, “singularly pleasant in comparison to other city centres of the [Italian] Empire”. Nasi insisted that even if Tumidei’s point of view could be considered to have some merit, it was in conflict with the political necessity to safeguard certain values and principles “in defence of the race”.  Another Italian, Stefanini, writing two decades earlier and respectful of the Banaadiri architectural heritage, had advised that a detailed plan be made of the city, in which ruins were marked, and so that in diggings of foundations from now on, the materials that came to light should not go missing or fall into the hands of people “who did not understand their historical significance”. I cannot say if this proposal was ever implemented and records kept, but regardless of the different points of view expressed at the time, large sections of the Old Town were appropriated to make way for new and wider boulevards during the colonial period.

An aerial plan, the First Town Plan for Mogadishu (1929), identifies existing buildings, those designated for demolition, and the proposed radial street plans for the expansion of Mogadishu. On the map the separation of Hamar Weyne and Shingani can be clearly seen, but had in the last half century already been paved over and assigned the name of Corso Vittorio Emanuel III. Along this corso, new public buildings were constructed to accommodate government offices, including the post office. Some original buildings of significance remained: on the eastern (Shingani) side of the road stood the Garesa (the old garrison building dating to the time of Omani rule and originally built for the representative of the then-Sultan of Zanzibar), and near to it a small mosque. On the western (Hamar Weyne) side of the divide, the Fakhrudiin Mosque remained.

As the colonial administration got into its stride, the urban Reer Hamar lost control over the physical barriers to pastoral migration. From the early 1920s, the Italian administration began a military build-up in preparation for its assault on Ethiopia, which brought thousands of pastoral troops to the coastal population centres. Then, in 1928, when the Principe d’Piedemonte came to visit, the governor ordered the walls of Mogadishu pulled down.[5]

 Colonial plans for the Benaadir Colony notwithstanding, the ancient quarters of the city somehow survived, and retained an integrity that had an historical depth of at least 800-900 years, and for which there is as yet no evidence of a built environment of similar age anywhere in the Somali interior. However, the changing demography of the city as a whole that followed colonial occupation imposed new and different perceptions of land tenure and spatial organisation on the indigenous town structures, and by the late 1980s (prior to the devastation of the city overall since 1991), Hamar Old Town had become but a small section of the capital city of Mogadishu.

Heritage preservation. The buildings of Old Hamar and of other Stone Towns of the Banaadir tell their own story. But so does the colonial and post- colonial architecture of the new quarter. The modernist civic buildings of Italian imperialism that began Mogadishu’s expansion from the early 1900s, to innovative new buildings that followed independence in 1960 and articulated the city’s cosmopolitanism and the optimism that came with statehood, are part of the story. Without attention to architectural preservation of the evolved urban environment  – much now seriously damaged – the stories that the architecture can tell may be lost, and Mogadishu become a characterless city at the hands of insensitive or unconcerned developers. Mogadishu is surely a city to rescue.



Adam, AnitaS., Benadiri People of Somalia with Particular Reference to the Reer Hamar of Mogadishu; PhD Thesis, London University School of Oriental & African Studies, 2011.

‘Aydarus, Sharif Ali, Bughyat al-amal fi tarikh al-sumal, AFIS : Mogadiscio, 1950.

Cerulli, E., Somalia: Scritti Vari Editi ed Inediti, (Vol. I); Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato: Rome 1957.

Chittick, Neville, ‘Mediaevil Mogadishu’, in Paideuma 1982.

Corni, Guido, Somalia Italiana, Editoriale Arte e Storia: Milan 1937.

Freeman-Grenville, G.S.P. (ed.), The East African Coast: Selected Document: from the First to the Earlier Nineteenth Century; OUP: London 1966.

Gibb, H.A,R.(ed.), Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, Darf (New Impression): London 1983.

Guillain, Captain C., Documents sur l‟histoire, la Géographie et la commerce de l‟Afrique Orientale; Arthus Bertrand: Paris 1857.

Reese, Scott S., ‘ Tales Which Persist On The Tongue: Arabic Literacy and the Definition of Communal Boundaries’:  in Sudanic Africa, 9: 1998.

Révoil, G., ‘Voyage chez les Benadirs, les Somalis et les Bayouns’, Le Tour du Monde, Vols. 49, 50, 56: Paris 1885 & 1888..

Scikei, Nuredin Hagi, Banaadir: The Country Of Harbours; 2002.

Stefanini, G., In Somalia: Note ed Impressione di Viaggio, Felice le Monnier: Firenze 1924

[1] A  certain flat roof in Shingani found an additional useful purpose  for a semaphore exercise by the French traveller Captain Charles Guillain when he visited in 1846. He reports that the stone house where they were to stay had, by good fortune, a flat roof overlooking the bay and the whole town, and from which they were able to communicate with their ship “in the interest of our personal safety”. They had prearranged to keep in touch with the ship, which was anchored in the bay, and had agreed which flag signals to use if they were in danger. But any anxieties were quickly allayed, and he was able to signal of their safety.


[2] Cerulli’s ethnographic material on Somalia collected over 30 yrs is published in a 3 Vols. His work on Mogadishu and the coastal communities has yet to be surpassed.

[3] On the East African coast of the Indian Ocean coral rag became established as the primary building material for monumental buildings. Similar building traditions are also found along the Red Sea coast of Arabia, in Yemen, and the Persian Gulf.

[4] The Khatiib, delivers the sermon during Friday prayer and Eid prayers and may also be the Imam.

[5] Hamud Sokorow, quoted in Reese.