All posts by James Dahl

World citizen and humanist, I care about the world and what happens in it. I also run

The Intriguing Gadla Abuna Aragawi: A window and clue into lost Aksumite history

The accurate history of the Empire of Aksum has been lost. This is undeniable for two reasons. The first reason is simply that much of the documentation has been destroyed in the last 1200 years of calamitous wars that have befallen Ethiopia. The second and more significant reason is deliberate rewriting of Ethiopian history to glorify to the dynasty of Yekuno Amlak, which went on to found the medieval state of Abyssinia in 1270 which is, like the Capetian monarchy is the basis of modern France, the basis of modern Ethiopia.

This rewriting ranges from the subtle to the extreme. For instance Yekuno Amlak was a descendant of the son of Del Naod, who reigned before the invasion of Gudit and the destruction of Aksum in the 9th century. The sack of Aksum by Gudit was a critical turning point in Ethiopian history, the significance of which has been diminished as other more recent turning points have come and gone, but about 1100 years ago or thereabouts a woman named Yodit or Gudit, who was a queen of the Beta Israel, sacked Aksum and ruled as Empress of the Aksumite Empire for about 40 years. Now if you study the history, this happened more than a century after the reign of Del Naod, who began his reign in the year 861. We know this because Debre Istafanos Monastary was founded in the 7th year of Del Naod in 868. The Coptic Pope of Alexandria Pope Philotheos sent a new Metropolitan of Aksum to Ethiopia in 985 and Gudit was defeated very shortly thereafter.

The Aksumite dynasty would limp along for another 200 years until the dynasty ended and the Zagwe dynasty would assume the throne through marriage to Terdae Gabaz and take the throne in 1137. The Zagwe rule would last for a little over a century until Yekuno Amlak, a powerful regional lord from the south, would overthrow the Zagwe in a coup d’etat and two year war and seize the throne for himself in 1270.

The rewriting began somewhat immediately, where Del Naod was made the last king of Aksum, after which time there was a 333 year rule of the Zagwe (who were in league with Gudit in this revised history, as the Beta Israel and the Zagwe were of related ethnic groups). Also in this revised history, the dynasty was not just the kings of Aksum but also the sons of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, thus renaming the dynasty the Solomonic Dynasty. This claim is not present in any Aksumite inscriptions or monuments and appears shortly after 1270.

In order to have a dynasty that stretched back to King Solomon’s time and also to erase the senior branch of the Aksumite dynasty from history, the king lists were terminally altered into unintelligibility to the point where they bear no resemblance to the historical coinage, inscriptions or church histories. For political convenience, history was destroyed.

However in the church records, which are a parallel and independent authority, we find grains of historicity. And this is where we come to the Gadla Abuna Aragawi or the Acts of Father Aragawi, one of the church leaders during the active period of the 6th century, in the heart of the era we are discussing, the late Aksumite era. The book is mainly about Abuna Aragawi, as you would imagine, but delves into a very revealing passage of history where it makes an extremely important statement:

“In the 8th year of Emperor Bazen, was the advent of Christ. Between Emperor Bazen and Abreha and Azbeha there were 19 kings and 244 years. Between Abreha and Azbeha and Gabra Masqal there were 9 kings and 124 years, for a total of 368 years.”

Due to the way the king lists have been formatted to stretch into antiquity, the first line has been traditionally interpreted to mean that in the 8th year of Bazen, Christ was born, meaning the beginning of his reign was 8 BCE. However, the early parts of the king lists, around king Bazen, is one of the few areas where recognizable historical kings like Gedur (who reigned in the 3rd century), Afilya (or Aphilas, who reigned after Gedur) and Awsena (Ousanas, who reigned after Afilya and before Ezana) can be found. This offers an alternative interpretation of this passage, that the archaeological records are correct and Aksum is a kingdom founded in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, and Bazen is in fact Ezana.

If one takes this interpretation of the passage and the era of Ezana, the 244 year span between the beginning of Ezana and the end of Abreha and Azbeha becomes very interesting. Azbeha in this scenario is of course Kaleb, the emperor who invaded Yemen to defeat Dhu Nuways, and Abreha is his church-building brother who marched on Mecca and died in the Year of the Elephant, 569. Aksum converted to Coptic Christianity in 333 CE, so if this is the 8th year of Ezana, meaning his reign began in 325, this is exactly 244 years prior to the Year of the Elephant and the death of Azbeha’s (Kaleb’s) brother Abreha, nicknamed “Scarface” or al-Ashrar by the Arabs.

Moving forward in time to the reign of Gabra Masqal, this puts the end of his reign in 693, around the time when the Aksum Empire fell apart into civil war approximately around the year 700 when his descendants and the descendants of his brother Israel (founder of the Beta Israel or House of Israel) began fighting, which circles back to Queen Gudit invading and destroying Aksum 250 years later.

Having made this connection I frantically looked through all the king lists to find one with 19 names inclusive between Bazen and Abreha/Azbeha and no such list exists, and in any case the lists that do exist the names in this era do not match historical records like the pre-Bazen ones do (which were I assume so ancient as to be safe to include in king lists without people noticing chronological discrepancies and so embedded in legend that their absence would be noticed).


History of the Somali Civil War

It’s not one Somali civil war, there have been several. The Civil War is an euphemism for the state of affairs of state collapse. There are 3 distinct and separate civil wars and 3 different “warring states” periods in Somali recent history starting in the early 1980s.

There is the original civil war, which was a revolutionary series of rebellions against the Siyaad Barre government, which began as a northern rebellion and ended with a southern rebel unified army (the Somali Liberation Army) and succeeded in overthrowing Siyaad Barre.

After Somalia’s defeat in the Ogaden War, Ethiopia and South Yemen began harassing the Siyaad Barre government by funding and arming the Somali Salvation Democratic Front or SSDF, made up of Majerteen Harti clan rebels.  The SSDF’s stated goal was the re-establishment of democratic government in Somalia, though after capturing one border down, Ethiopia announced the annexation of said border town, which embarrassed the SSDF and caused them to lose support.  In 1984, Ethiopia and Somalia agreed on a peace agreement and Ethiopia arrested the SSDF leadership, however many of the SSDF members remained free and in 1988, with the civil war raging, the SSDF re-entered the war on the side of the other rebel groups and helped to overthrow the Siyaad Barre government.

Somalia had been a Soviet client state prior to 1977, but when Somalia attacked Ethiopia in the Ogaden War, the Soviet Union sided with newly-communist Ethiopia, so Somalia switched sides and became an American client state, hoping American support would win them the war, which it didn’t as the Carter administration agreed with the Soviets on imposing a status quo peace.  With American clientage came oil exploration in northern Somalia and soon enough Conoco struck oil in northern Somalia, in the Nugaal valley.  This triggered a sudden and dramatic interest from the local northern clans in asserting sovereignty over their territories and getting rid of the Siyaad Barre regime, and the Somali National Movement, an Isaaq clan based rebel group, formed in London in 1981.  The Siyaad Barre government, also suddenly immensely interested in asserting control over northern Somalia, arrested thousands of Isaaq and sent the army to the north.  This sparked a war between the Isaaq clan and the central government which escalated to genocidal war, where a plan was put in place to exterminate the Isaaq and resettle northern Somalia with Somalis from Ethiopia.  This plan was never able to be executed as the civil war had reached every corner of Somalia by 1988.

The Hawiye is one of the largest and most powerful clan families in Somalia, but were second class citizens under the Siyaad Barre government, despite one of the key figures in the dictatorship’s Revolutonary Council being Hawiye, General Mohamed Farah Aidiid.  Hawiye lived mostly in the center of the country surrounding the capital city Mogadishu and were overrepresented in the army.  When Somalia was defeated in the Ogaden War there was an attempted coup against Siyaad Barre in 1978 which failed.  While Mohamed Farah Aidiid was not involved in the coup, Siyaad Barre had grown paranoid and decided to get rid of him by sending Aidiid to India as the Somali ambassador.  In 1986 Siyaad Barre was injured in a car accident and there was speculation he might die as he was treated in a hospital in Saudi Arabia.  In Rome a group of Hawiye dissidents formed the United Somali Congress or USC a month later and began a rebellion against Siyaad Barre in the middle of the country.  Mohamed Farah Aidiid left India to lead and organize the disparate rebel groups into the Somali Liberation Army, including other southern clans into the SLA.  Fighting peaked in 1988 with battles raging throughout the country, and by 1990 Siyaad Barre had lost control of all of Somalia except for Mogadishu itself.  In 1991 after months of planning the SLA stormed Mogadishu and Siyaad Barre fled the country.

After Barre was overthrown his forces (at that point whittled down to pretty much just his own clan, the Marexan) became rebels themselves, the Somali National Front.  The SNF fought to restore Siyaad Barre’s rule until the old dicator finally died in exile in Nigeria in 1995.  With the regime overthrown, the groups which had united to topple Siyaad Barre began immediately fighting amongst themselves. The same day Siyaad Barre was deposed, the USC split and started fighting itself between Mudulood and Habar Gidir factions. The SPM split immediately and started fighting between Ogaden and Harti factions. The SSDF didn’t suffer any splits and internal war which helped them get a head start on other groups, though this is primary due to the fact that the SSDF were all from the same clan.  The SNM in the north, following an attempted genocide from the Somali government and expecting to become a new Dubai with oil riches, declared independence as the Republic of Somaliland, and then had their own civil war inside another civil war as the non-Isaaq clans inside their proposed borders rebelled against Isaaq rule, a struggle which persists to the present day.

With all the internal chaos, the big groups signed a peace accord in 1992 which technically speaking ended the war, but fighting continued.  Mohamed Farah Aidiid, then the leader of the Habar Gidir faction of the USC, tried to resolve the chaos by force and attacked all the groups that refused to acknowledge his leadership, which was pretty much everyone who wasn’t Habar Gidir. His battles with various armies in southern Somalia caused hardships for the local and uninvolved people who lived in the contested highlands of Bay and Bakool who ended up making another rebel group the Rahanweyn Resistance Army who fought against all the groups occupying their lands. When Aidiid died in battle in 1996 the fighting eventually died down and the rebel groups devolved into warlord kingdoms of smaller and smaller size, each warlord commanding a particular subclan or even subsubclan, controlling some neighborhood of Mogadishu and a few towns somewhere else.

The SSDF, which had managed to avoid this fragmentation due to their early unity, formed Puntland in 1998. The peace accords in 1999 made this the legal state of affairs and these warlords were made parliamentarians in a new “Transitional National Government”. Small clans without their own warlord were treated like dirt and most people were abused, the warlord armies extorted money from people, looted what they wanted and acted like they owned the place, which legally they did. In 2000 the new government took power, led by former Siyaad Barre officials who behind the scenes worked to undermine the power of the warlords by encouraging Islamist groups to establish islamic courts and militias as an alternative to warlord power.

The TNG wanted to form a unified Somali state, to put humpty dumpty back together again. The warlords (to preserve their kingdoms) and Puntland (to keep their autonomy) undermined the TNG and formed a unified front to oppose it, the “Somalia Reconciliation and Restoration Council”. Another group of Hawiye and Marehan warlords along with islamist groups decided to support the new government and work towards national unification and formed an alliance to support the TNG, the Jubba Valley Alliance. The SRRC and the JVA then started a new civil war in the south, which the JVA won, kicking the SRRC out of southern Somalia. For various reasons, Somalia’s neighbors decided a fragmented and weak Somalia was in their interests and so they orchestrated a political victory for the SRRC, despite their military defeat, and the TNG mandate was not renewed in 2004.

The SRRC then formed a new government for the country, one based on fragmentation and clan kingdoms, the Transitional Federal Government. The president of Puntland, the ostensible leader of the SRRC, was made president of the TFG. Barre Hiraale of the JVA decided to support the TFG which alienated his Islamist allies in the JVA, and the Islamists, who had been armed and grown under the TNG, started fighting with the TFG. The Islamists formed a unified military command in 2005 under the Union of Islamic Courts, a union of islamic court militias from Mogadishu and throughout JVA territory.   To cash in on anti-terrorism funding from the post-9/11 United States government the SRRC rebranded themselves the “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism”, which worked wonders as US aid and arms poured into the arms of the warlords, most of which would be captured by the UIC shortly thereafter. The UIC defeated the TFG warlords in Mogadishu and rapidly expanded, conquering most of Somalia and had laid siege to the TFG capital Baidoa on 25 December 2006. This is when Somalias neighbors, again alarmed by a unified Somali state, again intervened, and Ethiopia invaded and defeated the UIC, with American air support and heavy weapons.

This started the third civil war.  While the Ethiopian army succeeded in taking Mogadishu and installed the TFG there on the back of Ethiopian tanks, the UIC forces went to ground and the Ethiopian army got bogged down fighting resistance forces in Mogadishu.  The UIC fragmented after their defeat but the conflict continues to this day.

The Rise and Fall of Aksum

The Kingdom of Aksum emerged from the port city of Adulis at the turn of the 3rd century, when the unnamed conqueror of the Monumentum Adulitanum conquered far inland and established a new capital at Aksum, in the geographic center of his new empire within the land of the Aua people.  Within the lifetime of this conqueror, probably the king known as Gadara or Gadarat, the Empire of Aksum emerged from essentially nowhere, conquering a dozen different tribes and small states in the Ethiopian interior and extending his rule across the Red Sea into Najran and deep into Yemen.  For the next 500 years, Aksum would be a force to be reckoned with.

Originally worshiping the ancient south Arabian gods, particularly Mahrem (Mars the war god is the Greco-Roman equivalent) the Empire of Aksum would conquer upper Nubia and the ancient city of Merowe under Ezana, who’s throne name was Ela Abreha, who among his other titles listed “Son of the Invincible Mahrem”.  In the 13th year of Ezana’s reign, in 333, Coptic Christianity would become the official state religion.  A quirk of their conversion was that their kingdom did not have enough bishops to convene their own metropolitan bishop, which was by design in order that the Patriarch of Alexandria retained the power to personally nominate the leader of the Christian religion in Ethiopia.

Little is known of the successors to Ezana and his brother Saizana (throne name Ela Atzbeha) which probably just means that their deeds were confined to the interior of East Africa where classical historians show remarkably little interest.  A few of the kings would take interest in Arabian politics but things would shift dramatically with a series of events brought about by the king of Himyar, Yusuf Asar Yathar ibn Sharhabil, better known as Dhu Nuwas.

Yusuf Asar Yathar was a fanatical devotee of the Jewish religion.  Over the centuries that Aksum had ruled over Najran, a number of churches had been built there and the population had mostly converted to Christianity. Dhu Nuwas was a member of the Tubba dynasty of Himyar, which had both Christian and Jewish branches, but he was fanatically devoted to Judaism and sought to cleanse the heresy of Christianity from the land of Yemen.  His armies attacked and massacred the Christians of Najran and burned the churches in 524.

It is at this point that the most famous king of Aksum enters history.  Kaleb, throne name Ela Atzbeha, was the great-great-great-grandson of Ezana, and himself a very pious man.  When Najran was attacked by Dhu Nuwas, he mobilized the armies of Aksum and sailed across the Bab el-Mandeb, and conquered Himyar.  Dhu Nuwas killed himself by jumping into the sea, and Aksum reached its greatest extent.  This moment marks the high water mark for Aksumite power and influence, ruling an empire from the Danakil Depression, to Merowe in Upper Nubia, to the Blue Nile in the south and the southern Hejaz in the north.

Following the conquest of Yemen, Kaleb eventually abdicated the throne and retired to a monastery.  Kaleb’s successors were not as capable rulers and due to probable incompetence (late or inadequate pay, or perhaps just the charisma of the instigator) a few decades after Kaleb’s retirement, the soldiers of Yemen mutinied and declared their general Abreha to be King of Yemen.  Aksum sent a few armies across the sea to retake Yemen but Abreha defeated them all.  After this point, never again would an Ethiopian state ever hold land in Yemen.

Abreha’s ambitions were not limited to Yemen, and the self-made King of Yemen sent an army of African war elephants against Mecca in an unsuccessful invasion in the Year of the Elephant, the same year that the Prophet Muhammed was born, in 570.  The Tubba dynasty never accepted the rule of Aksum or Abreha, and fought an unsuccessful struggle to retake their family lands from the Tubba dynasty’s northern lands in Kindah, especially the king Yazid ibn Kabshat.  The Sassanid Persian Empire sent an army under the great general Vahriz, but liberation was not forthcoming as the Persians annexed Yemen into their empire instead.

The war of Christian against Jewish in Yemen spread to Ethiopia, where a significant segment of the Aksumite Empire were Jewish, the Beta Israel of the southwest.  In 700, this religious violence led to civil war, when the Jewish and Christian sons of a different Kaleb, throne name Qwestantinos, tore the kingdom apart.  Disorder spread rapidly and the coast of Eritrea became a haven for pirates.  The pirates attacked Jeddah in 714, triggering a strong response from the Ummayad Caliphate who seized most of Eritrea, built a fort at what is now Massawa to keep the pirates away, and appointed a Naib at Arkiko.

By this point, Aksum had declined massively.  In the mid 9th century, the capital was moved from Aksum southeast to Lake Hayq, to a city known in medieval times as Ku’bar.  In the mid 10th century, a succession dispute weakened the kingdom sufficiently that the Beta Israel invaded and conquered Aksum under Queen Gudit.  While the Christian Kingdom would continue on, first under Kaleb’s dynasty and later under the Zagwe and a “restored” Solomonic dynasty from Bulga in southern Ethiopia, the Empire of Aksum was effectively dead, with all of its core historical areas ruled by others.

Monumentum Adulitanum

One of the most mysterious historical records regarding the Horn of Africa involves an inscription that was carved onto a throne at Adulis.  This throne may still be at Adulis but Adulis itself is a ruin buried under the sand and if the throne still exists, it has yet to be excavated.  The reason why this inscription is relatively well known despite being lost for 14 centuries is because the famous Egyptian mariner, geographer and explorer Cosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote down the Greek text of the multi-lingual inscription and copied that transcription into his book, Christian Topography.

The inscription not only transcribes various tribal groups into Greek but also translates various gods into Greek gods.  For instance the text mentions Zeus, Ares and Poseidon, but this is because in the ancient world gods had many names and local “versions” of that god.  “Zeus” refers to Almaqah, the sky god, wielder of lightning bolts.  “Ares” refers to Maher, the god of war.  Son of the Invincible Maher is a favorite epithet of Aksumite kings before Christianity, and the text includes this epithet as the conquerer is referred to as “Son of Ares”.  Finally “Poseidon” refers to Beher, the god of the Sea.  The Aksumite pantheon is a variant of the South Arabian pantheon of gods, and many of the same gods were also worshiped in Yemen by the same names.

This is a version of the text itself:

Having after this with a strong hand compelled the nations bordering on my kingdom to live in peace, I made war upon the following nations, and by force of arms reduced them to subjection. I warred first with the nation of Gazê, then with Agamê and Sigyê, and having conquered them I exacted the half of all that they possessed. I next reduced Aua and Tiamô, called Tziamô, and the Gambêla, and the tribes near them, and Zingabênê and Angabe and Tiama and Athagaûs and Kalaa, and the Semênoi —- a people who lived beyond the Nile on mountains difficult of access and covered with snow, where the year is all winter with hailstorms, frosts and snows into which a man sinks knee-deep.  I passed the river to attack these nations, and reduced them. I next subdued Lazine and Zaa and Gabala, tribes which inhabit mountains with steep declivities abounding with hot springs, the Atalmô and Bega, and all the tribes in the same quarter along with them. I proceeded next against the Tangaitae, who adjoin the borders of Egypt; and having reduced them I made a footpath giving access by land into Egypt from that part of my dominions. Next I reduced Annine and Metine—-tribes inhabiting precipitous mountains.  My arms were next directed against the Sesea nation. These had retired to a high mountain difficult of access; but I blockaded the mountain on every side, and compelled them to come down and surrender. I then selected for myself the best of their young men and their women, with their sons and daughters and all besides that they possessed. The tribes of Rhausi I next brought to submission: a barbarous race spread over wide waterless plains in the interior of the frankincense country. Advancing thence towards the sea, I encountered the Solate, whom I subdued, and left with instructions to guard the coast. All these nations, protected though they were by mountains all but impregnable, I conquered, after engagements in which I was myself present. Upon their submission I restored their territories to them, subject to the payment of tribute. Many other tribes besides these submitted of their own accord, and became likewise tributary. And I sent a fleet and land forces against the Arabitae and Cinaedocolpitae who dwelt on the other side of the Red Sea, and having reduced the sovereigns of both, I imposed on them a land tribute and charged them to make travelling safe both by sea and by land. I thus subdued the whole coast from Leucê Cômê to the country of the Sabaeans. I first and alone of the kings of my race made these conquests. For this success I now offer my thanks to my mighty God, Arês, who begat me, and by whose aid I reduced all the nations bordering on my own country, on the East to the country of frankincense, and on the West to Ethiopia and Sasu. Of these expeditions, some were conducted by myself in person, and ended in victory, and the others I entrusted to my officers. Having thus brought all the world under my authority to peace, I came down to Aduli and offered sacrifice to Zeus, and to Ares and to Poseidon, whom I entreated to befriend all who go down to the sea in ships. Here also I reunited all my forces, and setting down this Chair in this place, I consecrated it to Ares in the twenty-seventh year of my reign.

Monumentum Adulitanum
My theory of 6 separate campaigns over the lifetime of the conqueror.

It has been nearly 1500 years since the Christian Topography was created, and in that time there have been about as many attempts to identify these places and peoples mentioned. Here is mine:

  1. The “Gazê”: Beginning his first campaign, conquering Akkele Guzay, the Gazê are also known as the Agazyan or the Ge’ez.
  2. The “Agamê”: This area is still called Agame, the region around Adigrat.
  3. The “Sigyê”: Considering where he goes next, this is probably a nation who originally lived around Entitcho.
  4. The “Aua”: This is a nation that lived around Adwa. Adwa means “Ad Aua” the city of the Aua.
  5. The “Tziamô”: Starting his second campaign Probably referring to the area of Tziama south of Agame.
  6. The “Gambêla”: This refers to the Jambela valley of Enderta.
  7. The “Zingabênê”: Completely unknown, but probably south of Enderta
  8. The “Angabe”: Other inscriptions of Ezana’s campaigns put Angabe in Agaw country, probably further south again.
  9. The “Tiama”: Also unknown, but again probably south again from Angabe.
  10. The “Athagaûs”: The Athagaûs are the Agaw, so this is probably Bugna or Wag, the heart of their country.
  11. The “Kalaa”: Perhaps Wag or another area adjacent to Bugna.
  12. The “Semênoi”: The people of the Semien Mountains, nowadays called the Falasha
  13. The “Lazine”: Lazen is where King Kaleb is from. Probably the original inhabitants of Waldebba
  14. The “Zaa”: Probably the original inhabitants of Woggera
  15. The “Gabala”: Probably the original inhabitants of Dembeya, challenging territory indeed, centered around Gonder
  16. The “Atalmô”: Probably the original inhabitants of Fogera, along the eastern shore of Lake Tana.
  17. The “Bega”: He’s actually referring to the Bega of Begmeder, not the Beja of Sudan
  18. The “Tangaitae”: He is done with his southern conquests and this is clearly a new campaign, this time in Eritrea.   The border with Egypt was much further south in this time, as the Roman Empire controlled much of Nubia, especially the Red Sea Coast.  The furthest southern Roman port was Limen Evangelis, probably near modern Suakin.
  19. The “Annine”: Between the Tangaitae and the Metine, Probably the original inhabitants of Senhit.
  20. The “Metine”: Mentioned in other inscriptions, the original inhabitants of Hamasien.
  21. The “Sesea”: Probably Debarwa, with it’s forbidding mountains. He doesn’t go any further west, turning east again.
  22. The “Rhausi”: The original inhabitants of the Danakil Depression, probably long since absorbed by the Afars
  23. The “Solate”: The original inhabitants of the northern Danakil coast, perhaps ancestors of the Saho.

The Zeila Golden Age

When pirates from Adulis and the Dahlak Islands attacked Jedda in 714, the ageing Khalifa al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik ordered an expedition against the lawless coast of the Aksumite Empire, which had collapsed into civil war between the two sons of Negus Kaleb, the jewish son Yisrael and the christian son Gabra Masqal. Beja nomads had already taken over most of northern Eritrea and the ancient supply port of Suakin by this time.

The forces of the Khalifa encountered virtually no resistance and the ancient port of Adulis and the Dahlak islands were captured. The Islamic Empire was at this time locked in a struggle with the Byzantine Empire (at the time still very strong and determined to recapture Egypt and Syria) and spent minimal resources on their new African territories, primarily using it as a place of exile. Adulis at this time was abandoned and a new port built at Massawa primarily for Hajj pilgrims, but the Khalifa did not rebuild Aksum’s old dominance over the Myrrh and exotic goods trade. Instead, Massawa’s primary industry was the slave trade, purchasing slaves from inland (probably captured in war by the various combatants in the Aksumite collapse) and selling them in Arabia.

Thus, Zeila entered the scene. In the centuries prior to Aksum’s rise to dominance over the African Red Sea Coast, there had been a number of ports here selling various exotic goods, but Aksum had controlled the trade in Myrrh for hundreds of years, but with Aksum in turmoil and Adulis abandoned, merchants sailed through the Bab al-Mandeb to Zeila.

After the abandonment of Adulis and Aksum, Habesha society had dissolved into a feudal system of warlords on fortified Amba forts scattered across the highlands, Christians in the east, Jews in the west, and the Sidama to the south, some of whom were becoming Muslims such as the Hadiya of Shewa. The Christians were not themselves united, with the Tigray Bahr Negus in the north, and the Amhara Negus in the west, and the Agaw Christians of Bugna in the east. There would be chaos for centuries until the so-called Zagwe dynasty established their authority over Aksum around the year 1000. The Amhara and Agaw, instead of braving the journey through a lawless country and 3 or 4 different kingdoms to get to Massawa, opted instead to simply journey across the Danakil Depression to the port of Zeila. Thus, Zeila rose to prominence as a major trade center.

With a rapid rise in merchants passing through the port, much as it did throughout the Indian ocean, Islam spread out from Zeila and the nearby inland people began becoming Muslims such as the Argobba, who became Muslim in 1108. Other southern tribes like the Hadiya followed suit soon after, introducing a fourth dimension to the already complicated religious landscape of Ethiopia.

The Zagwe retained many of the Aksumite state characteristics, they were primarily concerned with trade and stability, though Emperor Lalibela sent at least one expedition into Gojjam against the Jewish lords of Gojjam, which was the first significant victory for the Christian faction since Queen Gudit was driven from Aksum in 980. Things rapidly changed though when the border lord of Shewa, Yekuno Amlak, overthrew the Zagwe and established a completely military society. Fixed capitals were abandoned, civic society was abandoned, and the Habesha kingdom became more of an armed camp. The so-called Solomonic dynasty began a campaign of conquest which began with Muslims to their south, then the Jews to the east, and continued right up until the 20th century when they invaded the Ogaden plateau.

Emperor Tewodros in 1404 declared the muslims “Enemies of the Lord” and invaded the Muslim lands, intent on capturing Zeila. While the Solomonic Armies were successful in capturing Zeila, Tewodros was killed in battle with Ifat. His successor Yeshaq would turn away from Zeila and invade the Jewish lands of Gojjam, going so far as to invade Shanqella lands beneath the highlands. This gave the sons of Sultan Sa’ad ad-Din of Ifat the chance to recapture Zeila, which they succeeded in doing in 1415. Yeshaq tried to form an alliance with the Kingdom of Aragon in 1428 against Ifat, but it would be over a century before European assistance arrived for the Solomonic kings. When Adal was defeated in 1517, the Portuguese sacked Zeila, and the Portuguese seized control of the trade routes of the Red Sea. Zeila declined and by 1630 it was a vassal of Yemen, it would never reclaim it’s former glory.

When Himyar Ruled the Banaadir

Muqdisho is a very old city, older than most people even realize.  The first dynasty to rule Muqdisho was the Tubba’ dynasty of the Himyar kingdom, with the king “Ascad Karb“.  Ascad Karb is most likely As’ad Abu-Karib ibn Malik-karib, a king of Yemen who ruled between 418 and 433 CE and a convert to Judaism by Yathrib’s Jewish community following a military campaign there, this dates the foundation of the old town of Xamar Weyne to roughly 420-430 CE.

The area of Banaadir (the traditional region including Muqdisho, Baraawe, Marka and other coastal cities) is described in the Greek document the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (written around the year 460 CE) as part of “Azania“, a region subject to Charibael of the Homerites (who can be identified with ‘Amir Sharahbil Ya’fir ibn As’ad Abu Karib, the son of the aforementioned king), so the Muqdisho tradition is backed up with documentary evidence.  Sharahbil was a Christian, as was his branch of the Tubba’ family, and the religious differences in the country of Himyar would seal the doom of the nation.

Himyar was in this time the strongest state in Arabia, and they would remain a strong state for nearly a century, but on the death of ‘Amir Sharahbil’s son Ma’adi’Karib Yan’um ibn Sharahbil in 516, Himyar faced religious turmoil as Christians and Jews fought murderous battles.  A Jewish zealot and member of the Tubba’ dynasty named Yusuf Asar Yathar (better known as Dhu Nuways) seized the throne in 518 attacked and butchered the Christians of Najran (the martyrs of Najran are mentioned in the Qu’ran in Surat al-Buruj).  The slaughter shocked the Christian nations of the time, and the Christian Emperor of Aksum, Negusa Negast Kaleb Ella Atzbeha invaded Himyar in 522 and conquered their lands in Yemen in 525.  Other lands under the Tubba’ dynasty were not conquered and fought a long resistance against the kingdom of Aksum.

One member of the Tubba’ dynasty, Sharah’il Ya’abul (known as “Dhu Yazan“) petitioned the king of the Sassanid dynasty of Iran to help him drive the Aksumites from Yemen, and Shahenshah Khosrau was only too happy to oblige.  An Iranian army under General Vahriz invaded Yemen in 577 and were victorious, but the Himyarites were only successful in replacing one occupier with another, as the Sassanids ruled in all but name.    His son Sayf Abu Murrah ibn Dhu Yazan would succeed him in 587 but he was murdered by the Sassanids in 608 and Yemen was annexed into the Sassanid Empire.

It is possible that a branch of the Tubba’ dynasty then established itself in Muqdisho.  There are mentions of Shingani being founded by a “Shingan ibn Hami ibn Ma’adi-Karib”, who could have been either the aforementioned Ma’adi-Karib or another Ma’adi-Karib who was another son of Sharahbil.

Islam arrived in Muqdisho shortly after the Hijra, and became a city within the Ummayad Caliphate 77 years after the Hijra or 696 CE, thus definitively bringing to a close the Himyar Era.

The Dictatorship of Maxamed Siyaad Barre

Maxamed Siyaad Barre (see abtirsi) was the last president of a united, coherent Somali Republic.   The Somali civil war has been going on for 30 years as of this writing (in 2011). Some people will refer to the civil war being 21 years old or 20 years old but in reality the overthrow of Maxamed Siyaad Barre was nearly over. He had already all but lost the civil war by 1990.

The roots of the conflict are older than the majority of Somalis.  When Maxamed Siyad Barre overthrew the 9 year old Somali Republic’s democratic government, it was plagued with clan-based bickering and could not agree on an alphabet to use for a written Somali language or how to develop the country.  Maxamed Siyaad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup d’etat and established a military junta called the Supreme Revolutionary Council.

For the first 7 years of his dictatorship many people were willing to put up with his harsh military dictatorship, most people had no experience with or expectations of democracy, and wanted development of the nation more than democratic freedoms.  Maxamed Siyaad Barre enacted a number of important reforms.  He chose the current Somali alphabet (based on the Latin alphabet) and enacted a mass literacy campaign.  He began numerous development programs, Somalia joined the Arab League and the Organization for African Unity in 1974.  Despite this, Maxamed Siyaad Barre’s dictatorship was very harsh.  The entire former government and officers who had not supported his coup d’etat were put on trial.  He banned all political parties save his “Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party“.  Criticizing the regime could be punishable by death (though this sentence was rarely carried out until the 1980s, favoring imprisonment).  In 1971 a number of army officers attempted a coup to remove the increasingly tyrannical government from power, but failed.  The failed coup removed the last remaining roadblock to him seizing total power.

In June if 1976, Maxamed Siyaad Barre dissolved the Supreme Revolutionary Council and established a Soviet-style totalitarian dictatorship founded on what he called “Scientific Socialism“.  The socialist veneer of his new totalitarian state was largely a smokescreen for the reality, which was a clan-based dictatorship; this entailed curtailing the power of the majority of clans in favor of allied clans with personal ties to Maxamed Siyaad Barre, in particular his clan the Mareexaan Darood, and his reer abti or mother’s clan the Ogaadeen Darood.  He “nationalized” all industries and properties and distributed them amongst his clan.  He created an elite military brigade loyal only to him and reporting to him directly, made up of his clan members exclusively, the Red Berets, who terrorized his opponents and stamped out any opposition.  In response, a number of Majerteen Darood opponents of Maxamed Siyaad Barre met in Rome to organize opposition to the dictatorship, establishing the Somali Democratic Action Front (or SODAF) in 1976.

Ethiopia’s Imperial government had at this time been overthrown by a Marxist revolutionary group, the Derg (“committees”) and had purged their military leadership and establishment in a “red terror”.  With criticism growing against his regime, Maxamed Siyaad Barre attempted to drum up nationalist support for his regime by taking advantage of the chaos in Ethiopia and invade.  The previous Imperial government had annexed large areas of Somali territory into the Ethiopian Empire, and it had always been a sore point of Somali nationalists and continues to be an issue today.  The “Ogaden War“, as it came to be known, succeeded in delaying opposition to Maxamed Siyaad Barre’s dictatorship as the nation rallied to arms.

The 1977 Ogaden War proved to be a disaster as the Soviet Union, Somalia’s chief patron, chose to side with the Derg regime and a counterattack by Cuban and Soviet forces broke the Somali advance and forced them out of the country.   The war had crippled the economy and had caused the Soviet Union to cut all support to the regime.  The International Monetary Fund demanded restructuring of the government but the military nearly revolted at an attempted 60% cut in the military budget.  This culminated in another failed coup in 1978 led by Colonel Cabdullaahi Yuusuf Axmed, who escaped to Ethiopia after the coup failed.

The failure of the 1978 coup would have enormous implications.  It had become clear to all those opposed to the dictatorship of Maxamed Siyaad Barre that any further coup attempts would fail, and that only through armed struggle could he be overthrown.  Ethiopia was only too happy to return the favor for the 1977 invasion and the Derg regime offered support and bases to any rebel groups who wanted to set themselves up to attack Maxamed Siyaad Barre’s regime.  General Maxamed Farax Caydiid was imprisoned for 7 years on suspicion that he had something to do with the coup attempt, but no proof of his involvement was ever found.  Maxamed Siyaad Barre took revenge on Cabdullaahi Yuusuf Axmed’s clan, the Cumar Maxamuud Majerteen in a series of reprisals over many years.

In 1981 the civil war began with the establishment of two rebel groups, the Somali National Movement (by Isaaq clan leaders) and the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, which was largely an outgrowth of SODAF led by Majerteen clan leaders.  Both groups based themselves in Ethiopia and carried out cross-border attacks.  Maxamed Siyaad Barre responded with a brutal campaign of repression, which put further strain on the army’s cohesion, and forcing Maxamed Siyaad Barre to rely more and more on his own clan.  The most dangerous element to his regime was the simmering resentment of the powerful Hawiye clans to his regime.  Since the war against the Isaaq and Majerteen clans, the backbone of the Somali army was now made up of Hawiye, Ogaadeen and Mareexaan soldiers, but the Hawiye increasingly resented the pro-Darood bias of the regime.  Imprisoning their most important general, Maxamed Farax Caydiid, caused this resentment to bubble over.  Maxamed Siyaad Barre, fearful of the Hawiye turning on him, released Maxamed Farax Caydiid and sent him into virtual exile as ambassador to India, but this did little to quell the anger.

The SSDF and the SNM initially had a number of successes against the regime, but the SSDF would run into problems.  Many SSDF commanders felt that fighting against the regime would weaken the Darood clan and would eventually switch sides in order to fight against the SNM, worried that Isaaq ascendancy in the north would be bad for the Majerteen clan.  When Ethiopia declared that the territories that the SSDF had captured from the regime were annexed into Ethiopia, this fractured the SSDF.  In 1988, Somalia and Ethiopia made a deal, where both would cease supporting each others’ rebel groups, as both the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and Maxamed Siyaad Barre both agreed to help each other stay in power and stop helping rebel groups in each others’ territories, and ceded all territorial claims.  This was the final betrayal of Somali nationalists, and sapped much of the remaining support for the regime.  Ethiopia closed down SSDF camps and disarmed them, putting many of their leaders in prison.

By 1988, the war against the SNM was not going well for the regime.  The SNM had captured Burco and much of Hargeisa, leading to a regime counteroffensive that can only be described as genocidal.  Aerial bombardment leveled Burco, and troops carved a path of slaughter from Burco to Hargeisa.  It is alleged that Maxamed Siyaad Barre promised the Ogaadeen that since he could not win their independence from Ethiopia, he would create a new homeland for them from Isaaq lands.  While this remains unproven, this remains even today a sore point between Isaaq and Ogaadeen.

Maxamed Siyaad Barre’s campaign of extermination alarmed a number of clans, as up until this point, the regime had not attempted to actually annihilate another clan.  The betrayal of Somali nationalism and increasingly paranoid and erratic behavior of Maxamed Siyaad Barre convinced many leaders that he had to go, and soon.  In 1988 and 1989 a number of groups formed to topple the regime.   Hawiye leaders met in Rome and formed the United Somali Congress, which immediately sparked a backlash of repression against the Hawiye community throughout Somalia.  The worst of these was a horrible massacre in Galkacyo in November 1989 that caused Maxamed Farax Caydiid to quit his post as ambassador to India and form an army to topple the regime, the Somali Liberation Army (SLA).  The Ogaadeen and Majerteen of the Jubba Valley joined the SLA and formed the Somali Patriotic Movement to represent themselves politically.  The Digil-Mirifle people also joined the Somali Liberation Army and formed their political wing, the Somali Democratic Movement.

On January 26, 1991, a little over a year after the Galkacyo massacre, the SLA stormed Mogadishu.  Their advance was so quick that Maxamed Siyaad Barre fled his palace literally without finishing his dinner.  The Mareexaan, now rebels supporting their ousted president, formed the Somali National Front, with the goal of re-instating the deposed dictator.  The SNM, now controlling most of the northwest, declared themselves their own state by “re-declaring” the independence of British Somaliland.  Within the borders of this declaration however were the Gadabursi Dir, Ciise Dir, Dulbahante Darood and Warsangeli Darood, who did not support the breakup of the Somali Republic, nor did they want to be ruled by the Isaaq.  This sparked a war between the clans in the northwest until a peace accord in 1993 ended the war.  In the south,  the SLA looked set to establish a new, post-Barre government, however the fatal blow to the SLA and a unity government would come from within.  A group within the USC called the Manifesto Group, led by Cali Mahdi Maxamed of the Abgaal Hawiye clan, declared Cali Mahdi Maxamed the new president of the Republic of Somalia, without consulting any of the other groups that made up the SLA.

Maxamed Siyaad Barre fled to Nigeria, and he would die 4 years later, in 1995.