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History of Zayla: A Somali Port Under Theoretical Offence Part I

By Said M-Shidad Hussein


Zaylac or Zayla‘ is apparently objective of what is recently called “a deal” between the Hargeysa-based ‘ Somaliland’ administration of northwestern Somalia and the government of Ethiopia. This is not only because in the Ethiopian government’s rhetorical approach for the issue, a myth of historical maritime right over the regional coast is asserted but also lingering academic speculations suggest that Zaylac’s Islamic influence was minimal before the 13th century, potentially influenced by Abyssinian presence in the 10th-12th centuries. However, this speculation contradicts with the historical records. Although the work for this strange claim is even increasing, it has not been questioned. By comparing historical evidence with contemporary commentary, this article critically examines the nature of this speculation and its apparent political ramifications.


As widely accepted the history of Zaylac date back to the first half of the first century CE under the name Avaliteor Awalite.[i] It could even exist long before that because of also its ancient Egyptian name, Port of Isis, which was recorded by the Roman geographer, Pliny the elder (d. 79 CE). Avalite is identified with the Zaylac’s ancient Somali name, Awtal > Awdal, which means island or bay.[ii] Some early Muslim scholars such as ibn Ḥawqal around 950 and al ‘Umari in 1345 also described it as jazeera i.e., island or bay.[iii] Bayso, an ancient Somali tribe round the Lake Abaya, in the south-central Ethiopia, may also retain the name for they call their island on the lake Odolo or Owdolo.[iv]

What is, however, interested here is the references to Zaylac in the early Muslim records. Through these records, the article has explored developments of Islamization at Zaylac and the resultant Muslim Somali state of Awdal.[1] Comparatively, it summarizes also the political situation of Abyssinia in the same period. The Medieval Abyssinia is seen as synonym of post-Aksumite, southern Christian entities such as that of the Amhara dynasty from 1270.[v] Amhara was also responsible for the medieval Somali-Abyssinian contacts. In this article, ‘Abyssinia’ is thus meant mostly for that dynasty. On the other hand, the name “Ḥabasha’ is reserved for the entire Horn of Africa as Arabs used for it – with the two terms belong to the same Arabic etymology.

Accounts of early Islamization

The first-recorded Muslim Somali ancestors were rising in Zaylac around 750 or before. According to the lineage of their genealogical and geographical nisbah (relation), their descendants split up from that time at Zaylac.[vi] Besides the lineage traditions, the rise of this community, Jabarti Zayla‘i, around that time can be evidenced by the death of one Muḥammad ‘Abdir-Ramaan al-Jabarti from the 9th century as shown by gravestone inscription found in Mu‘alla cemetery of Makka (Mecca).[vii] However, details for their eventual expansion came out from the mid-12th century to 1325. Their presence in places including Zaylac, Sanaag, Nugaal, Awfat, and Bali was recorded for that period.[viii] Recent archaeological investigations also revealed that by the 750 or earlier there were Muslims, apparently from Zaylac, in the pre-Islamic town of Hoobat or Ḥarla, between Harar and Dirirdhabe.[ix] This was also the time in which four Muslim individuals were buried in Maqdisho (Mogadisho) according to their inscribed gravestones.[x]

These accounts are interestingly coincided with information provided by al-Mas‘udi who reported that the Muslims conquered the island of Qanbalu (Pemba), north of the Zanzibar island, in 750, or possibly later. The historian stated that Qanbalu was under rule of a Muslim dynasty at the time of his visit in it in 915 where these Muslims were speaking in Zanjiya or Bantu. He added that the gold mines of Sufala (Mozambique) have already been known to the Muslims.[xi] The creation of the first-known towns in the Lamu archipelago by camel-herding pastoralists in 800 or before,[xii] may have been boosted by trading with these earlier Muslim movements across the region.

Researchers observed that the ancient people of the northern Swahili were Cushitic or Somali who were later joined by Arabs and Bantu where the pastoralists were mostly the ruling class in the region.[xiii] The legacy of this later mix, thus, include the Baajun community, the tradition of Swahili-speaking Segeju, and the linguistic relic of Tunni and Madalle in the Tana-Galana region.[xiv]

It is clear that around these times the Mid-Eastern traders were dealing with peoples of the Horn of Africa. Al-Jaaḥiẓ around 865 noted that the Muslim boats were sailing at least the eastern coast of Somalia.[xv] Al-Ya‘qubi reported around that time that the Arabs were regularly coming into the entire Horn for business.[xvi] Besides the traditional animal and plant products, slaves, and precious stones, other highly interested items included the gold mines of northern Sudan, and the amber of Somalia, mainly in the eastern coast. The Somali amber, with that of Shiḥr in the opposite coast of Yemen, was described as the best in the world.[xvii] References to trade or places of Somalia were thus noted by the other geographers of that time such as ibn Khurdaḋbah,[xviii] and al-Khwarizmi around 840.[xix]

Al-Ya‘qubi, around 880, was also the first-known geographer who recorded the name Zaylac.[xx] The new name suggests involvement of Muslims in the city. During the early period of the Islamization, the names of the ancient towns were changed. For example, Berbera port is identified with ancient Malao in the Greco-Romans records. But in the same records, entire Somalia was called Berbera and the Muslims eventually continued to do so. However, ibn Rustah who completed his work in 902 first used the name for the port, followed by ibn Ḥawqal.[xxi] Similarly, the name Maqdisho emerged in the mid-1100s while the town was previously known as Xamar and Maduna. Of these pre-Islamic names, only Xaafun survived.

An account in Awdali annals regarding 897-1289 supports presence of Muslims in Zaylac at that time. The document reports that a Muslim principality led by Makhzumi descendants began to rule Shawa by 897. Age-old Makhzumis are also found in Maqdisho and Sanaag. This suggests that the Makhzumis split at Zaylac and eventually Shawan Makhzumis advanced from there as did by the Shawan Jabartis. In 915, al-Mas‘udi confirmed that the population of Zaylac included Muslims.[xxii]

In one story, whose geographical details are not in order, captain Ismail-waih and his co-sailors told ibn Shahriyaar around 940 that a coastal town apparently in eastern Somalia accepted the Islam by 920s.[xxiii] This is also the time in which al-Iṡṭakhri noted Muslim presence in Boosaaso-Laasqoray area, where after some years ibn Ḥawqal noted that the area was ruled by a kingdom.[xxiv] Further, al-Maqdasi counted Zaylac in 985 as one of the states of his greater Islamic empire.[xxv]

Looked at in another way, thanks to research projects recently conducted by two European institutions, limited archaeological works show that the archaeology can corroborate with the records. Besides the case of Ḥarla, other new preliminary findings attest presence of Islam and international trade in Berbera area. During the 11th-12th centuries, honoring feasts for Muslim ancestors were held in a veneration site of eight kms to the east of Berbera.[xxvi] Usually, the dates of such venerations is far later than the date of the death of the revered people.

Mistranslation of historical regional names

The history of the Horn of Africa has already been confused by reducing the meaning of the ancient regional name ‘Aethiopia’ to that of Abyssinia and the modern-day one, Ethiopia.[xxvii] So, by that reduction, Somali trade activities, groups, and places including Zaylac and Berbera  were branded as ‘Ethiopian’ in modern records.[xxviii] Moreover, contrary to the above-described background of Zaylac, the historical sovereignty of the port has continually been distorted by alteration of the al-Mas‘udi’s account.[xxix] Al-Mas‘udi traveled for the region twice with the last one was 915 where he, from Oman, reached Pemba, but completed his voluminous work in 943. About the Muslims in the Horn, he said: “In the coast of Ḥabasha, which is opposite of Yaman, there are many cities. These cities of Ḥabasha include Zaylac, Dahlak, and Naaṡi‘ [Massawa‘] in which there are Muslims under the authority of Ḥabasha.”[xxx]  Here, one has to ask: which Ḥabasha?

Citing themselves one after another, a group of scholars have been entertaining for decades a view that Ḥabasha means here Aksumite Abyssinia. Some of them added that this translates that there were Christians in Zaylac so the port was under influence of Abyssinia if it was not tributary to it. In fact, none of these places was under authority of Abyssinia as the records will show here unequivocally. Ignored here is two important set of facts. The base of one set is the fact that neither al-Mas‘udi nor any other medieval writer had ever mentioned Christian presence in Zaylac, nor they confined the name ‘Ḥabasha’ to Abyssinia. From the beginning of the 9th century CE to the end of the 15th century, more than forty Muslim geographers brought out information about Somalia. All of them, but few, used the term Ḥabasha for Somalia as well as the other societies in the Horn, and even East and West Africans.[xxxi]

For example, al-Mas‘udi himself used Ḥabasha for entire Somalia including the region of Jubba-Galana. In his many statements on the region, he made clear that the furthest southern area of Somalia was part of his Ḥabasha as well as Zanj where he mixed up Somali and Bantu aspects together.[xxxii] He apparently collected his information in Pemba for he does not appear that he landed on the Somali coast.

Read the full research: History of Zayla: A Somali Port Under Theoretical OffencePart I

Said M-Shidad Hussein
Email: [email protected] 

[1] Awdal and ‘Adal are totally two different names. Apparently, Shawan communities confused the two names one another in the 14th centuries. Zaylac lent its ancient name to the medieval Islamic empire of Awdal. Ad-Dimashqi c. 1320 named Zaylac and its region Awtal. The term is from the root ‘awt, hawt’: an area covered or surrounded by thicket, hills or water. ‘Adal in the SW of Afar is one of the three historical entities of theirs with the other two are Dankala across the coast and Dube‘a in the west. ‘Adal was a part or an ally of Awdal.

[i] Said Hussein, “Ruined Towns in Nugaal: a forgotten medieval civilization in interior Somalia,” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 56 (2021), 251.

[ii] Said Hussein, “Social and Economic Developments in Pre-Islamic Somalia: Introducing African-Arabian-Mediterranean Interaction” in M.T. Lopes and R.G.G. Pereira (eds.), Antiquity – Including the “East” as “Western Identity” (London: IntechOpen, 2023), 69-70.

[iii] Ibn Ḥawqal Abal-Qaasim, Kitaab uuratul-ar (Beirut: Maktabatul-Ḥayaat, 1964), 49; Aḥmad al-‘Umari, Masaalik al-Abaar fii Mamaalik al-Amṡaar, vol. 1, ed.: Abu-Ḍeyf (Cairo:  Daar al-Kutub, 1988), 36.

[iv] Harold Fleming, 1964, Baiso and Rendille: Somali Outliers, in Ressegna di studi Etiopici (20), 51.  

[v] Trimingham, J.S., Islam in Ethiopia (London: Frank Cass, 1965), 48-49; Yohannes, Okbazghi, Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991), 24-31; Rainer Voigt, “Abyssinia” in Encyclopedia Aethiopica 1, ed.: Siegbert Uhlig (Munich: Harrassowitz, 2014), 59.

[vi] al-‘Aqiili, Aḥmad ar-Raajḥi, Al-‘Aqiiliyuun fil-Mikhlaaf as-Sulaymaani wa-Tihaamah (Medina: Daral-Manar, 1995); Hussein, “Ruined Towns,” 261-62.

[vii] Loiseau, Julien, “Abyssinia at al-Azhar: Muslim Students from the Horn of Africa in Late Medieval Cairo”, Northeast African Studies, 19: 1 (2019), n. 49, p. 15.

[viii] Bahaa’d-Din al-Janadi al-Kindi, Suluuk fii abaqaat al-‘ulamaa wal-muluuk, (ed.) M. al-Akwa‘ (Sanaa: 1989), vol. 2: 36, 111, 114, 126-27, 166-67, 317-19, 383-84.

[ix] Jane Gaastra, and Timothy Insoll, “Animal economies and Islamic conversion in Eastern Ethiopia: Zooarchaeological Analyses from Harla, Harar and Ganda Harla,” Journal of African Archaeology 18 (2020), 1, 25.

[x] Hussein, “Ruined Towns in Nugaal,” 261.

[xi] Al-Mas‘udi, Ali, Muruuj aḌahab wa Ma‘aadin al-Jawhar ((Beirut: Daaral-Kitaab, 1982)), vol. 1: 83-84.

[xii] Chittick, N.H., “Manda: Excavations at an Island Port on the Kenya Coast” 1984,  3, 11, 215; Allen, J., Sawahili Origins, (London: James Currey, 1993), 25-32; Wilson, T. & Athman Omar, “Archaeological Investigation at Pate” in Azania  journal, xxxii, ed.: Sutton, 31-76 (1997), 60-61.

[xiii] Kirkman, J., “Some Conclusions from Archaeological Excavations in Kenya, 1948-1966” in East Africa and the Orient: Cultural Syntheses in Pre-Colonial Times, eds.: H.N. Chittick and R.I. Rotberg (New York: Africana Publishing, 1975), 233-34; Allen, Sawahili Origins, 29-30, 141, 146.

[xiv] Allen, Sawahili Origins, 29-46; Nurse, D., “When Northern Swahili met southern Somali” Paper presented at the 47th Annual Conference on African Linguistics (Theory and description in African linguistics) eds: E. Clem, P. Jenks and H. Sande, 649-665 (Berlin: Language Science Press, 2019); Hussein, Social and Economic, 55-56.

[xv] Al-Jaaḥizh, ibn Bajril-Jaaḥizh, Kitaab al-ayawaan, ed.: ‘Abdul-Salaam M. Haarun (Beirut: Daar Iḥyaa at-Turaath, 1969), vol. 3: 262.

[xvi] Al-Ya‘qubi, Taarikh al-Ya‘qubi, ed.: ‘Abdul-amir Muhanna (Beirut: Mu’assasatul-A‘lami, 1993), vol.1: 236-38.

[xvii] al-Ya‘qubi, Aḥmad, Kitaab al-Buldaan, ed.: De Goeje, (Leiden: Brill, 1892), 366-67; Al-Mas‘udi, Muruuj, v. 1: 193-94; Abu-Zayd al-Siraafi, Accounts of China and India, ed. & tr.: Tim Mackintosh-Smith (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 64-65.

[xviii] ‘Ubaydallah ibn Khurdaḋbeh, Kitaab al-Masaalik wal-Mamaalik, ed.: M.J. De Goeje, (Leiden: Brill, 1889), 61.

[xix] Muḥammad Musaa al-Khwarizmi, Kitaab Ṡuurat al-Arḍ from Geografia of Claudius Ptolemy, reviewed by Hans Mzik (Viena: Leizik, 1926), 5, 112-13.

[xx] al-Ya‘qubi, Kitaab al-Buldaan, 319; Ibn Ḥawqal, Kitaab uuratul-arḍ, 49.

[xxi] Aḥmad ibn Rustah, al-A‘laaq an-Nafiisah, ed.: De Geoje ((Leiden: Brill, 1892), 88.

[xxii] Al-Mas‘udi, Muruuj, vol.1: 93-94, vol. 2: 339, 340.

[xxiii] Buzurg bin Shahriyaar, Kitaab ‘Ajaa’ib al-Hind: Barrahaa, wa Barahaa wa Jazaa’irahaa, ed.: Van Der Lith (Frankfurt: Institute for the history of Arabic-Islamic science, 1993), 50-59.

[xxiv] Hussein, Ruined Towns, 262-63.

[xxv] Al-Maqdasi, Asanut-Taqaasim li-Ma‘rifatil-Aqaalim.

[xxvi] Gonzalez-Ruibal, A., J. de Torres, M.A. Ferandez, C.M. Barrio, and P.G. Juberias, “Asia in the Horn: The Indian Ocean trade in Somaliland”, Archaeological Research in Asia 27 (2021), 1, 2, 6.

[xxvii] For example, see Donald Levine, Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, 1974 (chap. one).

[xxviii] For example, see The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema, (tr.): J.W. Jone, (ed.,): G.P. Badger (New York:  Hakluyt Society, 1863), 37-38, 85-90. The time of publication of this Varthema’s edition, Ethiopia was yet to be made and to adopt the new name. In the Horn, Varthema visited only Zaylac and Berbera.

[xxix] Yule, H. and Cordier H. (eds.), The book of ser Marco Polo, the venetian (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1998 [1929]), vol. 2: 434; Tamrat, Church and State, 38; Alessandro Gori, “Zaylac”, Encyclopedia Aethiopica 5 (Munich: Harrassowitz, 2014), 164-66; Amelie Chekroun and B. Hirsch, “The Sultanates of Medieval Ethiopia,” in S. Kelly (ed.) A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea ((Leiden: Brill, 2020), 96-97.

[xxx] al-Mas‘udi, Muruuj, vol. 1: 340.

[xxxi] See, example, for W. Africa: ibn Khurdaḋbeh, Masaalik, 230-31; and for E. Africa: al-Mas‘udi, Muruuj, v. 2: 330. 

[xxxii] al-Mas‘udi, Muruuj, vol. 1: 70-95, vol. 2: 329-340.

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