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1. Archaeology

Urban mosques in the Horn of Africa during the medieval period

Les mosquées urbaines dans la Corne de l’Afrique à l’époque médiévale
المساجد الحضرية في القرن الأفريقي في العصور الوسطى
Carolina Cornax-Gómez et Jorge de Torres Rodríguez
p. 37-64


Entre le xiiie et le xvie siècles, la Corne de l’Afrique a connu une série de transformations majeures qui ont fait de cette zone l’une des régions les plus dynamiques du continent. Ces processus historiques comprenaient la consolidation des principautés musulmanes dans la région, l’expansion de l’islam parmi les nomades somaliens, le développement d’un réseau urbain et le renforcement des liens politiques et commerciaux existants avec le reste du monde. À travers tous ces changements, l’Islam et ses expressions matérielles (la mosquée étant la plus évidente) sont devenus l’un des facteurs clés de cohésion et de stabilité dans un monde de plus en plus conflictuel. Sur la base de sept années de travaux archéologiques de terrain au Somaliland, cet article analysera les caractéristiques (style, caractéristiques architecturales, orientations) des mosquées documentées dans les établissements urbains du Somaliland. Il les analysera également dans leur contexte plus large (centres urbains, établissements religieux ou territoires nomades), et les comparera avec des exemples des régions voisines de la Corne de l’Afrique comme l’Éthiopie ou Djibouti. Se discutera également l’existence éventuelle de styles régionaux et d’influences architecturales dans le développement des mosquées urbaines du Somaliland, dans le contexte plus large de l’arrivée et de l’expansion de l’Islam dans la région.

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1Historically, the study of medieval Islamic archaeology in the Horn of Africa has been disregarded as less interesting or appealing than the impressive archaeological remains of the Ethiopian highlands. Fortunately, this abandonment has been progressively rectified in the last decades with projects in northern Ethiopia (Loiseau et al., 2021), Ifāt and Tchartchar (Fauvelle-Aymar and Hirsch, 2011a), Harlaa (Insoll, 2021) and Somaliland (Torres, 2020). Although biased by the challenges of conducting research in a territory divided among different governing authorities, each with their own research traditions and recurrent political instabilities, these projects are progressively revealing the manifold vectors by which Islam arrived, consolidated and expanded in the region, as well as defining the material expressions of these processes.

2Such new archaeological data has allowed a review and update of the history of Islam in Ethiopia and neighbouring areas, especially regarding the history of the medieval sultanates which controlled large parts of southern Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland (Chekroun and Hirsch, 2020a). Muslim presence in Ethiopia can be traced to the early moments of Islam, but with noted development from the 9th century onwards via the Dahlak Islands which acted as a gateway for Islam north of the Horn of Africa (Chekroun and Hirsch, 2020a: 88-90). From there, and at a later period (during the 12th and 13th centuries) Islam expanded to the south, leading to the emergence of a number of small polities, the most important of which was the sultanate of Sawah (Chekroun and Hirsch, 2020a: 93-94). By the end of the 13th century, Shawā had been conquered by the Walasmaʿ dynasty rulers of the Awfāt sultanate. Awfāt then became the hegemonic Muslim power in a group of Muslim states generally under the control of the Christian kings (Chekroun and Hirsch, 2020a: 199-100). The desire to free Awfāt from Christian control led to a series of rebellions that eventually ended in the destruction of the Awfāt sultanate in 1408/1409 with a general loss of autonomy among Muslim territories by the beginning of the 15th century (cf. Chekroun, 2020).

3The Walasmaʿ dynasty however, survived in Yemen and returned to the Horn of Africa soon afterwards, establishing a new sultanate named Barr Saʿd al-Dīn (Chekroun and Hirsch, 2020a: 102). In general, the Walasmaʿ dynasty seems to have followed a policy of peaceful coexistence with the Christian kingdom, although written sources also talk about frequent raiding between both powers. In the 16th century, these conflicts increased and led to a full invasion of Christian Ethiopia in 1531 which almost led to the disappearance of the kingdom. Soon afterwards, the death of the Muslim leader Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm and a combination of military defeats, the Portuguese blockade of Red Sea trade routes and Oromo migrations from the south led to the collapse of the Barr Saʿd al-Dīn sultanate toward the end of the 16th century (Chekroun and Hirsch, 2020b). Most Muslim settlements were abandoned, especially in the easternmost regions of Ethiopia and Somaliland, with most of the population returning to the nomadic lifestyle characteristic of the Eastern Horn, at least until recently.

  • 1 The authors are aware of the existence of a book on Historical mosques in Sub-Saharan Africa writte (...)

4As in most Muslim archaeological contexts – and the Horn of Africa in medieval times is not an exception – mosques are the most iconic, widespread and identifiable elements of Muslim material culture and often the only identifiable archaeological element for these communities. Mosques were also a common space which could be potentially used by members of the different communities present in the Horn – urban dwellers, foreign merchants and travellers, nomads – and therefore, a strong tool for the creation of a shared identity among groups with very different lifestyles and agencies. Although medieval mosques have been identified throughout the Horn of Africa since the beginning of academic research in the 1920s (Azaïs and Chambard, 1931), there have been few attempts to systematically classify these buildings and incorporate them into wider historical narratives (Pradines, 20171).

5Classification attempts have had to deal with fragmented samples, and important variations with respect to the quality and quantity of data as well as territorial and chronological gaps. This paper attempts to correct some of these problems by gathering and presenting comprehensive information about a group of medieval mosques from permanent settlements in Somaliland that are unpublished and, so far, poorly studied. This paper will describe the main architectural features of these mosques and will characterize them within the wider regional framework (Figure 1). It will also offer suggestions as to how these buildings can help define some of the cultural, political and chronological parameters of the medieval Horn of Africa.

The sample

6The emergence of permanent settlements throughout western and eastern Somaliland during the medieval period is still an understudied phenomenon, with many gaps regarding the causes, chronologies and historical contexts in which these sites appeared. Traditionally, trade has been presented as the motivating force for the emergence of permanent settlements in an otherwise nomadic territory (Fauvelle-Aymar and Hirsch, 2011b: 38), but recent research has raised some doubts about widespread involvement in trading activities (Torres et al., 2018: 33-34; Torres 2020: 167), pointing to the importance of agriculture as the main economic activity for some of these settlements which are off the major routes. Other aspects are also unclear, such as the role played by the medieval sultanates in the emergence of these sites and the level of dependency they had with respect to the state. Regardless of such interpretative problems, the archaeological record shows that at least during the 15th and 16th centuries there were more than 40 permanent settlements with strong similarities with those found in Ethiopia. In many of these, mosques have been identified and studied from the very first, when these settlements were identified as archaeological sites. This paper focuses on the mosques built in these permanent settlements leaving aside the open prayer areas – muṣallā – which are ever present in the region, especially in nomadic contexts.

Fig. 1 – Medieval Muslim sites of southeast Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland mentioned in the text.

Fig. 1 – Medieval Muslim sites of southeast Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland mentioned in the text.

1. Faqi Dabbis. 2. Gozé. 3. Asbari. 4. Norā. 5. Beri-Awfāt-Feriwanda. 6. Harlaa. 7. Derbi Belanbel. 8. Ruqayi. 9. Sheikh Barkab. 10. Aroqolab 2. 11. Qorgab. 12. Amud. 13. Dameraqad. 14. Hasadinle. 15. Iskudaarka Dayergaalka Kifiile. 16. Abasa. 17. Handoga. 18. Zaylaʿ. 19. Bagan. 20. Qubuurale. 21. Qalcadda. 22. Fardowsa. 23. Ghydeis. 24. Biyo Gure. 25. Berbera. 26. Maydh. 27. Maduuna.

© StateHorn.

7Although the first mention attributed to Richard Burton (Burton, 1856) of a medieval mosque in Somaliland is very old (1854) – and very detailed –, the first archaeological references to these buildings were made by A. T. Curle in his seminal work on the medieval towns of western Somaliland (Curle, 1937). From the text, it looks like mosques were documented in most if not all of the sites studied by Curle (1937: 319). However, specific descriptions of mosques are only provided for four sites (1937: 319-321), two of which are located in Ethiopia. Something similar happens with Huntingford’s brief article (1978), in which the author states that mosques are recurrent in medieval settlements but only provides a merely adequate description of the mosque in Amud. Until well into the 2000s, specific information about medieval mosques in Somaliland was restricted to four of the best-known settlements: Abasa (Curle, 1937; Chittick, 1976; Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2011), Amud (Curle, 1937; Hutingford, 1978), Zaylaʿ (Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2011) and Maduuna (Jönsson, 1983). The quality of the information provided was at best, variable: from good photographic data on Abasa to sketches of the floor plans for Maduuna and Amud, and a mix of historical references, photographs and floor plans for Zayla.

8This situation started to change in the second decade of the 21st century, when the first comprehensive archaeological projects were launched in Somaliland and a systematic documentation of sites and buildings was started by a team from the Institute of Heritage Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council (Incipit-CSIC) (González-Ruibal et al., 2017; Torres et al., 2018; Torres 2020). This team visited around 30 medieval sites throughout Somaliland and recorded the sites’ main archaeological features, including mosques, when located. In 2018, a specific campaign was launched to find and study a few of the archaeological sites described by Curle in the 1930s (Torres et al., 2018). This campaign documented several mosques applying modern archaeological methods, at the same time demonstrating the high variability of settlement type functions and sizes in medieval Somaliland (Torres, 2020: 167).

9At the moment, a total of 15 medieval mosques have been identified in permanent settlements in Somaliland, although the quality of data varies considerably (Figure 2, Figure 10), from vague mentions to thoroughly documented buildings using photogrammetry, archaeological excavations and archival photographs. Most of the mosques (11) are located in the western region, bordering Ethiopia, an area where permanent settlements were abundant due to more favourable weather and landform conditions. In this region it is likely, as Curle and Huntingford implied, that all medieval sites had mosques, although surveys conducted in the area have not always succeeded in locating these structures, as is the case for Qorgab (González-Ruibal et al., 2017). The situation is further complicated in central Somaliland (Torres et al., 2022), where surveys and excavations have taken place since 2015 without identifying a single mosque in the settlements of Bagan, Ghideys, Qubuurale, Fardowsa or Biyo Gure. Considering that this region was significantly Islamicized from the 14th century onwards, the lack of mosques in this settlement is most likely due to a failure to identify these buildings rather than a reflection on the religious character of central Somaliland.

Fig. 2 – Summary of sites with medieval mosques in Somaliland.

Fig. 2 – Summary of sites with medieval mosques in Somaliland.

© StateHorn.

10The evidence is also fragmented for other regions. On the coast, the specific characteristics of Somaliland trade networks did not lead to the emergence of a network of trade centres as happened in other regions such as the Swahili coast. In the medieval period only one major town – Zayla – is known. Two minor permanent settlements (Berbera and Maydh) are mentioned in the Arab and Portuguese chronicles of a later period. Of these sites, only Zaylaʿ has been relatively well researched and only two other mosques could be considered old enough to be medieval (Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2011: 33-34). The combination of historical research, archaeological surveys and photographs provide an idea of how at least part of the medieval mosques of Zaylaʿ might have appeared. In the case of Berbera, the brief descriptions provided by the Portuguese don’t mention any mosques, while in Maydh a text describes the site as having two mosques and a madrasa (Alvares, 1961: 46). To the east, historical sources are non-existent for inland territories. The only permanent site known so far is Maduuna, a large settlement where two mosques were identified in the 1980s (Jönsson, 1983: 24).

11Regarding the historical period in which these mosques were built, the western cluster of settlements shows a consistent chronology between the 14th and the 16th centuries, based on the presence of imported materials like Chinese blue and white porcelain, late Chinese celadon, speckled ware and white-cream Yemenite ware (González-Ruibal et al., 2021: 11; Torres et al., 2018). Although it is likely that some of these sites could have older occupations, the period of maximum development of the medieval towns found in western Somaliland seems to coincide with the so-called Sultanate of Barr Saʿd al-Dīn (c. 1415-1577). As happens with central Somaliland with the town of Fardowsa (Torres et al., 2022: 265), it is possible that the larger towns had a longer life which would have begun in the 14th century, while other sites correspond to more recent periods, such as the caravan station of Qalcadda, radiocarbon dated to somewhere between 1486-1646 (González-Ruibal et al., 2017: 150). What seems to be clear is the moment of abandonment of these sites is that none of them seems to go beyond the 16th century, in a context which can be easily associated to the last moments of the sultanate of Barr Saʿd al-Dīn and the blockade of the Red Sea by the Portuguese.

The architectural and archaeological elements

12The medieval mosques and permanent settlements documented in Somaliland show a remarkable uniformity which strongly suggests a shared cultural identity. That uniformity is especially remarkable in the case of mosques located in western Somaliland, setting aside differences in size and minor architectural variations. To some extent, that uniformity can be extended to the few mosques documented so far in eastern Somaliland, while coastal mosques present some architectural and decorative differences which point to other influences. Smaller settlements have only one mosque while larger towns offer more than one, with sharp differences in size suggesting the larger mosques were congregational or Friday mosques. In most settlements, the mosque (if there is only one) or the congregational mosque (if there are several, as is the case in Maduuna) occupies a central space (Figure 3), although exceptions can be found as in Abasa, where the larger mosque is located far to the east of the settlement. A test pit dug at the larger Abasa mosque showed that the mosque had been built ex novo, so that its location at the settlement periphery could be an indication that it was constructed during a period of settlement expansion. Expansion among medieval settlements in Somaliland can also be appreciated in Hasadinle, where the only mosque is located at the centre of a packed cluster of houses, whereas in the surrounding area houses are more sparsely sited. In the case of Zaylaʿ, the lack of documentation for the town makes it impossible to determine whether any of the mosques considered medieval might also be considered congregational, and whether they are located at the centre of the medieval city, as it seems, or if they were peripheral to the centre.

Fig. 3 – Location of mosques in Somaliland medieval.

Fig. 3 – Location of mosques in Somaliland medieval.

Sites. 1. Abasa. 2. Hasadinle. 3. Aroqolab 2. 4. Maduuna.

© StateHorn.

13Besides Abasa, another settlement presents a different pattern for the disposition of the mosques. Dameraqad is a small settlement of around 30 structures located at a natural pass 35 km to the northeast of Borama as the crow flies. Dispersed around the site and following an east-west axis, six mosques, a large cemetery and a significant number of nomadic cairns and mosques have been documented, covering an area of around 24 hectares (Figure 4). One of the mosques, which occupies a central position in front of the settlement and has several rooms filled with tombs could be considered the main mosque of the site, although Dameraqad was probably not a common village and could be interpreted as a tarīqa or religious community, a type of settlement well attested in Somali Muslim tradition (Lewis, 1955a: 140-145). The mix of permanent and nomadic structures, the presence of a cemetery with several outstanding tombs and the site location on a frequently travelled route suggest that Dameraqad may have had a religious role acting as a centre of worship for urban residents and nomads alike. In that sense, the existence of aggregation centres and pilgrimage sites is widely attested among the Somali in pre-Islamic periods (González-Ruibal & Torres, 2018), but also after the arrival of Islam and to the present day (Lewis, 1955a: 145-146).

Fig. 4 – Plan of Dameraqad.

Fig. 4 – Plan of Dameraqad.

© StateHorn.

14In general, most Somaliland mosques appear isolated, following the scattered layout that characterizes medieval buildings in the region (Torres, 2020: 172) (Figure 5). Usually, a building consists of a single prayer room, occasionally surrounded by a wall, as is the case in Abasa, Hasadinle or one of the Dameraqad mosques; or with a front courtyard, a common feature of the mosques in Zaylaʿ and Maduuna, but interestingly not in the mosques of western Somaliland. Buildings conceived with auxiliary rooms are scarce and have only been documented in Amud (where several rooms attached to the prayer room were documented in the 1940s), in Dameraqad (main mosque) and in Zaylaʿ (Sahari Mosque). In Dameraqad and Zaylaʿ these auxiliary rooms were occupied by tombs, while in Amud, the presence of a basin with plastered walls led Curle to think that one of the rooms could have served as an area for ablutions (Curle, 1937: 319). Although we do not have archaeological confirmation, Portuguese texts describe Maydh in the early 16th century and refer to the existence of a school –madrasa– in the village, the only reference to this type of building we have so far in the region (Alvares, 1961: 46).

Fig. 5 – Floor plans of Somaliland mosques.

Fig. 5 – Floor plans of Somaliland mosques.

Sites: 1. Dameraqad, 2 Abasa (main mosque), 3 Amud, 4 Sahari Mosque (Zaylaʿ).

© Sites 1,2,4 – StateHorn; site 3 – (after Huntingford 1978).

  • 2 British Museum Collection Online, Reference number Af, B53.25

15Building construction techniques are similar throughout the region and consist of the placement of medium and large-sized stones in irregular rows, bound with earth and capped and facetted with flatter, dressed stones facing to the exterior. In some cases, rows of thin stones are located between the larger stones, to add stability to the walls. The exception to this are the two Zaylaʿ mosques, built using well-cut and plastered limestone ashlars. There is little information about the shape of the doors and windows of these buildings for which the only evidence is a photograph taken by Curle of the Abasa mosque in the mid-1930s, in which a small window with a blinded arch above can be seen in one of the walls.2 Another window remains in Maduuna, in this case with an open arch made with flat stones acting as voussoirs. Some of the doors have larger, roughly square stones at the jambs, and probably had blinded arches on the top, as did the windows. The sizes of doors and windows are small, and as Curle points out the interior of the buildings must have been dark (1937: 318).

16Niches have been documented in several of the mosques and other nearby buildings, although in most cases the upper part has collapsed, and we don’t know its original shape. Those preserved in Maduuna (Figure 6, bottom) have a simple arch similar to those of the windows, while Huntingford refers to niches with straight or triangular heads for the houses of Amud (1978: 182) – although none is mentioned for the mosque. One of the photographs published by Curle (1937: plate II) shows a triangular niche in a house of Amud, and we can assume that similar architectonic solutions were used for the niches that have been found in some of the mosques as the main mosque of Abasa, where several niches have been identified by Chittick (1976: 128) and by the Incipit-CSIC in 2018.

Fig. 6 – Architectonic elements of Somaliland medieval mosques.

Fig. 6 – Architectonic elements of Somaliland medieval mosques.

Top: recessed square miḥrāb of the Aroqolab 2 mosque. Bottom: Miḥrāb and niches of the Maduuna congregational mosque.

© StateHorn.

  • 3 Made with PAST 4.10. The measurements were taken using the plans from publications and orthophotos (...)

17The sizes of the roofed prayer rooms –not including annex buildings, structures or the courtyards– are very variable (see Figure 10), ranging from 27.7 sq. meters for the small mosque of Abasa to 308 sq. meters for the larger mosque of this same site. A quartile analysis3 (Figure 7) shows that 50% of the mosques have a size between 27.7 and 65.65 sq. meters, while the rest of the mosques have significantly larger sizes. The next 25% of the sample –of what we could consider medium sized mosques– ranges from 89.6 to 165.7 meters, while the larger buildings run from the 176.5 of Amud to the 308 of Abasa. The division of the areas in quartiles shows some interesting analytic elements. Firstly, small mosques seem to have been the norm, corresponding either to the congregational mosques of small villages (as happens with the mosques of Aroqolab 2 and Iskudarka Dayeergalka Kifiile) or secondary mosques from larger settlements (the case of most of the mosques of Dameraqad and some mosques of Maduuna or Abasa). From then onwards, variability in size is significantly higher, with the mosques corresponding to the larger mosques of medium sized villages (Hasadinle) or singular sites such as Dameraqad and to the congregational mosques of important towns such as Amud, Maduuna or Abasa.

Fig. 7 – Quartiles analyses based on the area of the prayer room of the Somaliland mosques.

Fig. 7 – Quartiles analyses based on the area of the prayer room of the Somaliland mosques.

© StateHorn.

18These differences are obviously related to the importance of the different settlements and the role the different mosques played within them, but they can also be related to some architectural and logistic challenges in the construction of the buildings. As A. T. Curle noted, the small size of some of the buildings could be due to the lack of tall trees in the region (Curle, 1937: 318), favouring small buildings. In the case of the mosques, it was necessary to have elements supporting the roof. In the smaller ones, these could have just consisted in a central post, but in the bigger mosques, the size of the buildings made it necessary to erect stone pillars, as detected in Dameraqad, Hasadinle, Abasa or Amud. These pillars have different shapes: circular (Hasadinle, Abasa), square (Dameraqad, Amud) and cruciform (Abasa). In some cases, different designs of columns are combined in a building, as is the case in Abasa (cruciform and circular, see Figure 8) or Amud (circular and square).

Fig. 8 – Stone cruciform and circular columns of the main mosque of Abasa.

Fig. 8 – Stone cruciform and circular columns of the main mosque of Abasa.

© StateHorn.

19Several of these columns had small baulks of wood into them, a tradition in use until recently in Somaliland (Torres et al., 2017) whose architectural meaning is unclear – they were interpreted by Curle as hooks to attach drapery or hangings (Curle, 1937: 319). No minarets have been found in the inland mosques of Somaliland, and maybe the call to prayer would take place from the roof of the mosque using a wood stair. The only exception is Zaylaʿ, where a round tall minaret with a square base can be found at the Sharari mosque (Fauvelle et al., 2011: 34).

20Regarding the miḥrāb-s, the Somaliland mosques recurrently have a very characteristic shape which protrudes from the qibla wall, usually with a square back. There are some exceptions to this, for instance, the Maduuna, Zaylaʿ and Amud mosques have protruding miḥrāb-s but their back shape is rounded. This protruding shape seems to be a feature of the western Somaliland mosques, while in nearby regions miḥrāb-s tend to be inserted within the qibla wall. Unfortunately, the upper part of most miḥrāb-s in Somaliland have collapsed and there are very few hints about their shape and construction technique. The miḥrāb of the Shahari mosque at Zaylaʿ shows a polylobed pointed arch, while the nearby miḥrāb of the Qiblatayn mosque has a much simpler round arch (Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2011: 34). In Maduuna, the miḥrāb of the main mosque was built with rough flat stones used as voussoirs, the same technique used in the windows and the niches. The miḥrāb of Abasa can be studied thanks to the photographs taken by A. T. Curle in the 1930s: it was built with four recessed round arches built with flat stones (Curle, 1937: 319, plate III). Finally, Curle refers to the miḥrāb of the Amud mosque as having a pointed head (Curle, 1937: 319). There is no evidence of minbar among Somaliland mosques, although these structures could have been made of wood and therefore disappeared. Decorative elements are also very scarce: only the Shahari mosque of Zaylaʿ shows decoration around the miḥrāb – two floral motifs carved in the plaster. Old photographs of this mosque show that the minaret also had two decorated plaques, since disappeared (Warsame, 1974: 329) (Figure 9).

Fig. 9 – Minaret of the Shahari mosque in 1974 and in 2015, where the almost total disappearance of a decorative panel can be appreciated.

Fig. 9 – Minaret of the Shahari mosque in 1974 and in 2015, where the almost total disappearance of a decorative panel can be appreciated.

© Left: (after Warsame et al., 1974). Right: StateHorn, 2015.

21Given the geographical position of Somaliland, the miḥrāb-s should be NW oriented to face Mecca. However, that is only the case for some of the mosques (the two identified at Maduuna, the one at Iskudarka Dayeergaalka Kifiile and one of the mosques at Dameraqad). Most of the mosques, however, are oriented to the north, while two of them – the Shahari mosque at Zaylaʿ and one of the mosques of Dameraqad – are oriented to the NE. The reasons for these variations are unknown and difficult to explain given the Somalis’ excellent knowledge of astronomy (Cornax-Gómez et al., 2022). One possible explanation is that the Somaliland mosques followed the orientation of mosques in central Ethiopia, an area which converted to Islam in the 10th century (Fauvelle-Aymar & Hirsch, 2011) and constituted the core of the Muslim kingdoms of Awfāt and Barr Saʿd al-Dīn. The qibla taqlid – adopting another mosque orientation – is common in many Muslim regions (Rius, 1999: 84), and could have been the case for western Somaliland mosques, which were located in an area dominated by Ethiopian Islam. It has been suggested that in Zaylaʿ, a remodelling of the mosque to correct its original orientation could have led to the local legend of a mosque with two qiblas (Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2011: 46-47), indicating that such alterations to the position of the qiblas and miḥrāb-s had been undertaken during the medieval period, as documented in other parts of the Islamic world (King, 2004: 803).

22Although the sample of Somaliland mosques is small, there are some interesting conclusions that can be established in terms of architecture and style. The most relevant is that there are clear differences between the mosques situated on the coast and those in the interior. The mosques in western Somaliland show a remarkable uniformity which can be appreciated in construction techniques as well as certain specific features such as the protruding miḥrāb and the lack of front courtyards and minarets. These features are to some extent shared with the eastern mosques of Maduuna – except for the front courtyards – even if they remain distinct from those in Zayla, whose mosques used ashlars, front courtyards, minarets and decorative elements. These differences are the material expressions of different cultural, regional and historical contexts and dynamics, that can only be explained within the wider context of the Muslim Horn of Africa.

Fig. 10 – Summary of architectural features of the Somaliland medieval mosques.

Fig. 10 – Summary of architectural features of the Somaliland medieval mosques.

© StateHorn.

The regional context

23Although the study of medieval Islam has been progressing throughout the whole Horn of Africa in the last decade, there are still significant differences regarding the intensity and continuity of research throughout the region. In Ethiopia, study of the Muslim architectural record started as early as the 1920s in the region of Harar (Azaïs & Chambard, 1931), and continued in the 1930s with the surveys of A.T. Curle on both sides of the British-Ethiopian border (Curle, 1937). Although the number of medieval Muslim sites grew steadily during the 20th century (Anfray, 1970, Joussaume & Joussaume, 1972), excavations and long-term projects were scarce until recently (Fauvelle-Aymar and Hirsch, 2011; Fauvelle, Hirsch & Chekroun, 2017; Insoll et al., 2021). Leaving aside architectural remains found in the northernmost regions of Ethiopia (Loiseau et al., 2021), three main clusters of medieval Muslim settlements have been found within the area corresponding to the Somaliland border, the Tchartchar massif and the Ifāt region to the east. In the area mosques have been identified, documented and described with different levels of detail. Unfortunately, the region more closely related to the Somaliland sites is the least studied, with only a single reference appearing in Curle’s work in the mid-1930s. As for settlements in the Somaliland side of the border, Curle implies that mosques are present in all Ethiopian settlements, even if he singles out one, the Sheikh Barkab site, where a number of beads had been left as offerings (Curle, 1937: 321). Beyond this passing reference, no specific data is provided about the architectural features of these mosques which likely were similar to those found in Somaliland.

24Two other Ethiopian regions are more comprehensively studied. In the Tchartchar massif, research and excavations have been intermittent since the 1920s (Chekroun et al., 2011; Chekroun, 2015), at least until the launch of a research project based on the important medieval town of Harlaa, the city of Harar and its surrounding region (Insoll et al., 2016 & 2021). Several mosques in Harlaa have been documented and one partially excavated (Insoll et al., 2021: 493). In the region of Ifāt, a number of important medieval sites like Norā, Faqi Dabbis or Asbari were documented in the first decade of the 21st century (Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2006; Fauvelle-Aymar & Hirsch, 2011; Poissonnier et al., 2011; Fauvelle, Hirsch & Chekroun, 2017). In many of these settlements, well-preserved mosques were identified and documented, sometimes being the object of specific studies (Poissonnier et al., 2011, Pradines, 2017).

25Outside of these three main areas, information about medieval Muslim sites in the region is dramatically scarce. Until recently, only one permanent settlement was known in the Ogaden – the Rugayi site referred by Curle (1937: 318). Significantly, the site holds a remarkable mosque with an inner court surrounded by arches and a promenade area covered with tiles (Curle, 1937: 319). In 2018, a new medieval site, Derbi Belanbel, was identified in the Somali State of Ethiopia (Teshale & Abdulahi, 2021). A mosque was documented during the survey. The only photograph published so far (Teshale & Abdulahi, 2021: 8) does not provide much information about the characteristics of the mosque beyond the existence of round and pointed arches.

26We have detailed information (plans, photographs and descriptions) of nine medieval mosques in Ethiopia, eight from the Ifāt region and one from Harlaa in the Tchartchar massif. Of these, five are located in Norā (Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2006, Pradines, 2017). They share strong similarities with those from western Somaliland in terms of construction techniques, but they also have some minor but interesting architectural differences (Figure 11). First, most of the mosques documented in Ethiopia have a miḥrāb inserted within the qibla wall, unlike mosques in western Somaliland where the miḥrāb generally protrudes from the qibla wall. In cases where the miḥrāb-s protrudes from the qibla – as is the case for the mosques of Gozé and for some examples at Norā (Pradines, 2017: Figure 2) – the back of the miḥrāb is rounded, contrary to the mostly squared backs of the Somaliland miḥrāb-s. There are also examples of miḥrāb-s carefully built with ashlars: Harlaa (Insoll, 2021: 488), Norā (Pradines, 2017: Figure 5) Beri-Awfāt and Feriwanba (Fauvelle-Aymar, Hirsch & Chekroun, 2017: figs. 16 and 20) which so far have not been found in the Somaliland region. Several miḥrāb-s in the Ifāt region present a very singular type of upper part, formed by an angular keystone which seems to have been carved specifically for that purpose and could represent a regional architectural feature (Pradines, 2017: 22).

Fig. 11 – Floor plans of medieval mosques in Ethiopia.

Fig. 11 – Floor plans of medieval mosques in Ethiopia.

Sites : 1 : Asbari ; 2 : Nora ; 3 : Harlaa ; 4 : Faqi Dabbis.

Sources : 1 (after Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2006) ; 2 (after Pradines, 2017) ; 3 (after Insoll et al., 2016) ; 4 (after Poissonier et al., 2011).

27Another important difference is the existence of stone masonry roof accesses. In western Somaliland, notably in the Asbari and Faqi Dabbis mosques as well as for both mosques in Norā, such accesses are absent. Decorative epigraphy is rare in the Ethiopian mosques and have been documented only in Asbari (Fauvelle-Aymar et al. 2006: 167). Decorations are totally absent in inland Somaliland buildings, the only known example of decoration arising in the coastal context of the Shahari Mosque of Zaylaʿ. The absence of decorative elements in the Somaliland mosques coincides with the presence of relatively common epigraphic inscriptions in Ethiopian medieval sites (Insoll, 2021: 498; Fauvelle, Hirsch & Chekroun, 2017) which are not found in Somaliland settlements.

  • 4 Measures have been taken using the plans provided in the different publications. Only the roofed pr (...)

28As happens with the mosques of western Somaliland, the sizes of Ethiopian mosques are very variable, ranging from 29.5 sq. meters at mosque number 5 in Norā to 245 roofed sq. meters at the large mosque of Asbari.4 Most of the mosques are less than 100 sq. meters, and as with the Somaliland sample, the larger they are, the more variability they show in their sizes. Only in one case –Norā– a full study of the distribution of mosques throughout the town has been undertaken (Pradines, 2017) showing a very canonical organization of space with a main mosque and several minor mosques corresponding to different quarters of the town (Pradines, 2017: Figure 1). Regarding the orientation, according to their plans most of the mosques are oriented towards the north, a more accurate orientation than those of western Somaliland.

29Other parts of Ethiopia bordering with Somaliland, like the Danakil, Wallo or the Awash valleys remain largely unexplored, and it is likely that future surveys will yield new medieval sites, many of them Muslim and with mosques. In that sense, the only medieval site identified so far in Djibouti can shed some light on the characteristics of mosques in the Danakil region. Named Handoga, this large settlement was investigated in the 1970s by a French team, which identified a small mosque on an outcrop to the southeast of the town (Grau, 1982: 16), obviously too small and marginal to be the main mosque of a town the size of Handoga. During the campaign conducted in 2022, two new, much larger mosques were documented in Handoga (Figure 12). They are aligned (located immediately next to each other) and present almost identical architectural features with curved front courtyards, protruding square miḥrāb-s and the absence of minarets. These features – specially the protruding miḥrāb-s – connect them to western Somaliland mosques, although those do not have front courtyards.

Fig. 12 – Main mosques at Handoga (Djibouti).

Fig. 12 – Main mosques at Handoga (Djibouti).

© StateHorn.

30While western Somaliland mosques are clearly related to those of Ethiopia, in the case of Zaylaʿ – an old,important city for centuries integrated into Indian Ocean trade networks – the closer parallels arise with mosques from other important Somali coastal cities such as Mogadishu (Chittick, 1982; Dualeh, 1996; Khalil, 1986; Pradines, 2003) and the Red Sea (Greenlaw, 1995). These parallels can be appreciated in terms of the presence of circular minarets, decorative patterns, polylobed arches and other architectural features; and reflect the status and links of Zaylaʿ with the wider Muslim world of Arabia, the Swahili Coast and the Red Sea.

31Finally, to the east, Maduuna stands as an isolated example of an inland medieval town in a mainly nomadic context. Until recently, no other medieval sites had been found in this region of the Horn of Africa, Maduuna remaining as a unique but understudied permanent settlement. However, the recent identification of three other towns in Puntland (Shidad, 2021) shows that inland permanent settlements actually existed in the easternmost parts of the Horn of Africa during the medieval period. Although far away from Maduuna (about 250 km to the southeast), the descriptions and photographs of these three sites show architectural similarities (Shidad, 2021: 7-9), with round houses grouped in clusters suggesting the influence of nomadic architecture. Unfortunately, no mosques have been identified in the three sites surveyed so far, although it is suggested that a large square building at the site of Xananley could have had that function (Shidad, 2021: 6).

Final remarks

32Although small, the sample of mosques from the Horn of Africa not only provides interesting data from an architectural point of view but adds interesting perspective on the historical, cultural and political context in which these mosques were built. From a geographical perspective, there is mounting evidence that the medieval mosques documented in Somaliland were influenced by at least three different traditions. There are significant variations between the coastal mosques of Zaylaʿ and those inland. At the same time, Somaliland mosques in the West, closest to the border with Ethiopia, seem to have been constructed in a different context from mosques in a town like Maduuna. The identification of these regional variations is not new and had already been suggested by Stéphane Pradines, who proposed the existence of a specific style for the mosques found in the Ifāt region, based on a series of architectural features –angled keystones at the top of the miḥrāb, dry-stone masonry, a very basic miḥrāb and a staircase minaret – all related to the sultanate of Barr Saʿd al-Dīn (Pradines, 2017: 28).

33The mosques documented in western Somaliland and the one excavated in Harlaa are similar to those of Ifāt and reinforce the idea of a regional style which would be associated to the Muslim communities and polities that controlled the southeast part of what is now Ethiopia. However, there remain some differences between the mosques of western Somaliland and those of Ethiopia, including large recessed miḥrābs, the absence of minarets, the presence of epigraphic inscriptions and decorations, and less elaborate miḥrābs. These differences could be explained by local variations in style, but they could just as easily be related to different historical moments. In general, the materials found in medieval sites throughout western Somaliland show a consistent chronology which would date their construction to the Sultanate of Barr Saʿd al-Dīn (c. 1415-1573). The settlements located in the Ifāt and Harar regions have older chronologies (Fauvelle-Aymar & Hirsch, 2011: 36; Insoll, 2021: 498; Pradines 2017: 16), something that fits well with their position in a region with a much older Muslim tradition from which there emerged the main Muslim polities in the Horn of Africa.

34In coastal settlements, Islam arrived through trade although in two very different contexts. During the medieval period, most of the trade on the Somaliland coast took place through seasonal nomadic camps which did not evolve into urban centres (Torres, 2020: 167). Zaylaʿ was the only coastal town for most of the medieval period until the development of Berbera and Maydh, trading posts that would become permanent settlements at an undetermined later date. The historical, economic and cultural context of Zaylaʿ was always the Red Sea while the wider Islamic world included active religious contacts with the main Muslim centres in the Mediterranean and Near East. There are mentions of buildings reserved for students from Zaylaʿ at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Al-Azhar Mosque in Qairo (Trimingham, 1952: 62; Loiseau, 2019), and clearly Zaylaʿ existed in a very different context than the inland towns of western Somaliland and Ethiopia. Finally, the site of Maduuna stands as an isolated example of medieval mosques in a region without state influence, where Islam probably developed in a fully nomadic environment under the activity of Muslim missionaries who were especially active in the region from the 13th century onwards (Torres et al., 2022: 271).

35It is evident that more research is needed on medieval mosques throughout the Horn of Africa, and there remain huge gaps in our understanding of the historical, cultural, chronological and material contexts in which mosques were built and used throughout the medieval Horn of Africa. The new data from Somaliland presented in this paper, however, shows that within a broader context, even such limited information can shed light on the historical dynamics of a larger region. Beyond the study of their materiality and the obvious link between mosques and the presence of Muslim communities, these African buildings can be a useful gateway to understanding the interactions between religious beliefs, political agency and communities throughout the medieval period.


36The research presented in this paper has been funded by the European Union through the European Union Research and Innovation Framework Programme, Horizon 2020, through the European Research Council (ERC StG 853390-StateHorn), and by the Galician Innovation Agency (GAIN) through their Oportunius and predoctoral grants schemes. The research of the Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland has been funded by the Grants HAR2013-48495-C2-1-P and PGC2018-099932-B-I00 by MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033, by “ERDF A way of making Europe”, and by the Palarq Foundation. The authors would like to thank the Somaliland national and local authorities for their support during the fieldwork and the two external reviewers whose comments have greatly improved the article.

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1 The authors are aware of the existence of a book on Historical mosques in Sub-Saharan Africa written by Dr. Stéphane Pradines which has a specific section dealing with the mosques of the Horn of Africa. At the date of submission of this paper, the book was not yet published.

2 British Museum Collection Online, Reference number Af, B53.25

3 Made with PAST 4.10. The measurements were taken using the plans from publications and orthophotos made during the Incipit-CSIC fieldwork campaigns. Only the roofed prayer room has been considered for these measures, leaving aside other annexed buildings or courtyards.

4 Measures have been taken using the plans provided in the different publications. Only the roofed prayer room has been taking into account for these measures, leaving aside other annexed buildings or courtyards.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Medieval Muslim sites of southeast Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland mentioned in the text.
Légende 1. Faqi Dabbis. 2. Gozé. 3. Asbari. 4. Norā. 5. Beri-Awfāt-Feriwanda. 6. Harlaa. 7. Derbi Belanbel. 8. Ruqayi. 9. Sheikh Barkab. 10. Aroqolab 2. 11. Qorgab. 12. Amud. 13. Dameraqad. 14. Hasadinle. 15. Iskudaarka Dayergaalka Kifiile. 16. Abasa. 17. Handoga. 18. Zaylaʿ. 19. Bagan. 20. Qubuurale. 21. Qalcadda. 22. Fardowsa. 23. Ghydeis. 24. Biyo Gure. 25. Berbera. 26. Maydh. 27. Maduuna.
Fichier image/jpeg, 251k
Titre Fig. 2 – Summary of sites with medieval mosques in Somaliland.
Crédits © StateHorn.
Fichier image/jpeg, 221k
Titre Fig. 3 – Location of mosques in Somaliland medieval.
Légende Sites. 1. Abasa. 2. Hasadinle. 3. Aroqolab 2. 4. Maduuna.
Crédits © StateHorn.
Fichier image/jpeg, 601k
Titre Fig. 4 – Plan of Dameraqad.
Crédits © StateHorn.
Fichier image/jpeg, 267k
Titre Fig. 5 – Floor plans of Somaliland mosques.
Légende Sites: 1. Dameraqad, 2 Abasa (main mosque), 3 Amud, 4 Sahari Mosque (Zaylaʿ).
Crédits © Sites 1,2,4 – StateHorn; site 3 – (after Huntingford 1978).
Fichier image/jpeg, 119k
Titre Fig. 6 – Architectonic elements of Somaliland medieval mosques.
Légende Top: recessed square miḥrāb of the Aroqolab 2 mosque. Bottom: Miḥrāb and niches of the Maduuna congregational mosque.
Crédits © StateHorn.
Fichier image/jpeg, 721k
Titre Fig. 7 – Quartiles analyses based on the area of the prayer room of the Somaliland mosques.
Crédits © StateHorn.
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Fig. 8 – Stone cruciform and circular columns of the main mosque of Abasa.
Crédits © StateHorn.
Fichier image/jpeg, 776k
Titre Fig. 9 – Minaret of the Shahari mosque in 1974 and in 2015, where the almost total disappearance of a decorative panel can be appreciated.
Crédits © Left: (after Warsame et al., 1974). Right: StateHorn, 2015.
Fichier image/jpeg, 304k
Titre Fig. 10 – Summary of architectural features of the Somaliland medieval mosques.
Crédits © StateHorn.
Fichier image/jpeg, 399k
Titre Fig. 11 – Floor plans of medieval mosques in Ethiopia.
Légende Sites : 1 : Asbari ; 2 : Nora ; 3 : Harlaa ; 4 : Faqi Dabbis.
Crédits Sources : 1 (after Fauvelle-Aymar et al., 2006) ; 2 (after Pradines, 2017) ; 3 (after Insoll et al., 2016) ; 4 (after Poissonier et al., 2011).
Fichier image/jpeg, 169k
Titre Fig. 12 – Main mosques at Handoga (Djibouti).
Crédits © StateHorn.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
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Carolina Cornax-Gómez et Jorge de Torres Rodríguez, « Urban mosques in the Horn of Africa during the medieval period »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 153 | 2023, 37-64.

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Carolina Cornax-Gómez et Jorge de Torres Rodríguez, « Urban mosques in the Horn of Africa during the medieval period »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 153 | 2023, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Carolina Cornax-Gómez

Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Incipit-CSIC) Santiago de Compostela, España ; carolina.cornax-gomez[at]

Jorge de Torres Rodríguez

Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Incipit-CSIC), Santiago de Compostela, España ; Jorge.detorres-rodriguez [at]

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