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The country of Somalia has been a largely anarchist state since the overthrow of President Siad Barre in 1991. Today, the country is divided up into several different regions with their own unique forms of sub-governments. However, internationally the country is still seen as a whole. The northern portion of the country has claimed itself autonomous, although the international community does not recognize it as such, under the name Somaliland. The southern portion of the country is largely controlled by the Muslim extremist group Al-Shabaab. Along with Arabic, the language Somali is commonly spoken by the people who inhabit the area.

Somalia lies along the easternmost portion of the African continent on what is commonly referred to as the Horn of Africa. The north of the country is bordered by the Gulf of Aden. The northern portion of the country’s landmass is covered by a unique ecosystem known as the Guban. During the dry season, the Guban is essentially dry brush land. However, during the rainy season, the terrain undergoes a drastic transformation into a lush landscape. Other major landforms include the Cal Madow mountain range and the country’s two permanent rivers: the Shabele and the Jubba.

Map of the Somali Republic.

Evidence of human presence in the land that makes up the present-day country of Somalia goes back several millennia. In fact, Somalia contains the oldest evidence of human burial practices in the horn of Africa. Additionally, it is also home to some of the earliest rock paintings in the whole of the African continent. It was also in ancient Somalia, around the second or third millennia BCE that the camel was first domesticated. It was the camel along with the strategic position on the coast that allowed Somali merchants to profit throughout antiquity. The location on the horn of Africa also allowed the Somalis to control entrance into the Red Sea.

By the seventh century, the religion of Islam began to develop on the Arabian Peninsula. Through the close trade relations that Somali and Arab merchants along the Horn of Africa had with Arabs on the Peninsula, the religion was spread almost immediately into the African continent. Additionally, early Muslims who were persecuted for joining the new religion tended to flee to Somalia as refugees. The rapid growth of Islam on the Somali Peninsula also led to the city of Mogadishu becoming what some considered the capital of Islam in Eastern Arica. To the early Muslims, Mogadishu was known as the capital of the “Land of the Berbers”- the Arabic term for the city during the Middle Ages. Today, Mogadishu remains one of the most prominent cities on the peninsula and is the capital of Somalia.

The cave paintings at Laas Geel in northwestern Somalia date back to nearly 9,000 BCE and depict images of cows, camels, and humans. (Photo credit: Abdullah Geelah)

Throughout the rise and spread of Islam in Eastern Africa, Muslims and Christians coexisted rather peacefully. It was not until the rise of the powerful Ifat Sultanate in the region that the two initially clashed. This came about when the Ifat army marched on the Kingdom of Shoa in 1270. In response, the Christian Solomonids attacked the Ifats resulting in the subsequent downfall of the powerful Sultanate. A separate state known as the Adal sultanate subsequently broke away from the Ifat Sultanate at this point. The struggle with the Solomonid Christians continued throughout their reign, into the sixteenth century.

The ruins of Gondereshe in southern Somalia are an example of typical Ajuuraan architecture, consisting of stone fortifications.

Meanwhile, another major power in the region, known as the Ajuuraan Empire, was firmly established by the Fourteenth Century. This empire was a Somali Muslim state that ruled not only the territory of modern-day Somalia, but also over other large portions of East Africa. Under the Ajuuraans, the prosperity of trade in the region continued to flourish. This was accomplished even though the Empire experienced many threats of foreign invasion through the strong Ajuuraan military presence on the peninsula. This immense investment in military power allowed the Ajuuraans to leave behind numerous examples of Medieval Berber architecture in the form of castles and other fortifications. Other examples of architecture from this period also include coral stone houses, tombs, and mosques. The Ajuuraan Empire eventually came to an end in the Seventeenth Century at the hands of several successive tyrannical kings, the result of which was multiple uprisings.

This statue of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, founder of the Dervish state, is located in the capital of Mogadishu. To this day, Abdullah Hassan is a heroic figure to many Somalis.

By the Nineteenth Century, descendants of the Ajuuraan state, known as the Gobroon Dynasty were experiencing a golden age of peace and prosperity. However, this period had come to an end by the late nineteenth century when the movement known as the Race for Africa began. Also known as the Scramble for Africa, this period, which took place between 1881 and World War I, is characterized by the development of European interest and colonialism across the African continent. The Europeans divided African territory up between themselves, regardless of the fact that there were also already African states in control of the territories, in order to avoid a world war over control of the continent. As early as 1886, the British had gained control of northern Somalia as a protectorate. Along the rest of the Horn of Africa, European occupation was met with resistance in the form of the Dervish State. This state, which was established by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, was a collection of Muslim soldiers that not only battled the encroaching Europeans, but also the Somali sultans and the Ethiopians. The Dervishes were also allies of the Ottoman Empire, which helped them to outlive the Scramble for Africa, until they were bombed by the British in 1920.

Slightly south of British Somaliland, Italians had made agreements with sultans along the coast to place a protectorate on them as late as 1908. After the defeat of the Dervishes, the Italians were allowed to expand their influence more inland and created the rest of Italian Somaliland and eventually into Ethiopia in 1936.

With the initiation of World War II in 1940, the Italy and Britain began a new struggle in Somalia. By 1941, Italy had captured most of British Somaliland. In response, Britain launched an attack and recaptured British Somaliland, in addition to most of Italian Somaliland in 1943. For the remainder of the war, martial law was enforced by the British throughout the territory. However, afterwards there were attempts made throughout British Somaliland to introduce democracy to the Somali people. The victorious Allied Forces decided to return the Ogaden to Ethiopia in 1949, rather than allow it to remain part of Somaliland. The decision was also made to return Somalia to Italian control for one decade, after which the territory would be granted independence. This decade allowed Somalia to flourish under the influence of the Italians and also gave time for the people to create a well-established political sector in the country.

Poster of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party.

Somalia was granted independence in 1960. The first decade was a rather troubled time for the new state. There was a sharp divide politically and economically between the north and the south of the country that caused many problems throughout the 1960’s. Pan Somalism, an ideological belief that all of Somalia should be united under one state, addressed these concerns and led to many raids against those that dissented against the government. At the end of the decade, in 1969, the government underwent a coup d’état when President Shermarke was assassinated. In his place, Siad Barre took office with the support of the revolutionaries, known as the Supreme Revolutionary Council. The name of the country was changed to the Somali Democratic Republic; however, the new form of government was largely communist.

By the end of the 1970’s Somalia attempted to regain the Ogaden from Ethiopia. Their attempt was successful, but short lived. The next year Ethiopia recaptured the Ogaden, and hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees fled across the border. This disaster caused dissent to raise rapidly throughout Somalia. Many turned to guerilla warfare and by 1988 the country was in full-fledged civil war. By 1991, Siad Barre was reduced to a warlord and the northern portion of the country declared itself a separate state as Somaliland. Although the international community does not formally recognize this as a legitimate state, it has experienced relative stability since its declaration.

The civil war has had other resounding effects for the country. Off the coast there has been international controversy over the extremely high numbers of Somali pirates in the area. This spike in piracy has also been attributed to the collapse of the fishing industry, due to the tsunami of 2004. Recently, attempts have been made to control piracy in the waters off the coast of Somalia.