Monday, February 25, 2008

Human Interest: Somaliland 's little known, landmarks of human history

Somaliland is a relatively new east African republic that broke away from Somalia in 1991 and is still not recognized internationally as independent. But it is a land ripe with historical treasure, including the town of Zeila on the Gulf of Aden and the rock paintings at Las Geel. Cathy Majtenyi takes a look at these major, yet little known, landmarks of human history.

Scholars say early followers of the Prophet Muhammad fled to Zeila from Mecca around 615 A.D. And current residents say those early Muslims built a mosque facing in two directions, toward Jerusalem and Mecca. It is believe to have been one of the first outside the Middle East, marking Islam's initial entry into Africa.

Arabs began to administer the small town on the Gulf of Aden soon after their arrival, but by the 16th century, Ottoman Turks took over administration, followed by a brief stint from the Egyptians. Britain began governing in the late 1800s.

Throughout the centuries, Zeila developed into a major trading and commercial port.

Yusuf Hassan Muhid is said to be Zeila's oldest resident. Muhid, who villagers say is 100 years old, remembers when tea was shipped in from India, and animal hides, peanuts and Ethiopian coffee were shipped out. He recalls, "My father was a businessman who brought in dates and other food items from Yemen."

With the development of the port in neighboring Djibouti, by the early 1900s, Zeila lost its importance as a major trading center. And years of warfare and neglect have turned most of the historical sites into rubble.

Town elder Ibrahim Ahmed decries the sites' condition. "The historical sites are not limited to the mosques. One good example is the museum next door that needs rehabilitation," he said.

He urges Somaliland authorities to restore the mosque and other buildings.

Ali Ibrahim is Somaliland's minister of National Planning and Development. Ibrahim says that Culture Ministry officials are consulting with experts on how best to preserve Somaliland's historical sites and are forming plans on how to preserve, maintain and promote those sites.

He adds, "These historical sites need a lot of investment for their own rehabilitation and I think the Ministry of Culture does not have enough funds to do that work. That is why it is trying to attract foreign institutions to collaborate with them in the preservation of these historical sites. So the work has started."

More than 300 kilometers south of Zeila are the hills of Las Geel. Hidden within the hills are ancient caves. Their walls contain paintings estimated to date from 4000 to 3000 B.C.

The paintings depict mostly cows and some human figures. Historians believe that early artists crushed stones of different colors to make a paste that they used as paint. The historians call for the cave paintings to be protected from damage so that the legacy of the ancients can live on.

By Cathy Majtenyi Zeila, Somaliland
Published with the permission of Voice of America