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Sultanate of Mogadishu (10th -16th century): spotlight on Middle Ages African global trade hub

Written by Oadeye

When his nephew Emperor of the Ming dynasty Zhu Yunwen started eliminating rivals and demoting his uncles, Zhu Di, was “forced”, provided wonderful pretext, to rebel and depose his nephew and become the emperor himself. To add legitimacy to his rule, he did something very unusual and had one his best fleet admirals sail to the East Coast of Africa to get Giraffes. These were labelled the first re-appearance of one of the 4 benevolent animals in Chinese mythology, the Qilin. Where did they go to? What was the role of the Sultanate of Mogadishu, present-day Somalia, in the medieval world?

The word “Mogadishu” is derived from the Persian word “Maq’ad-i Shah” which means “Seat of the Shah(Sultan)” The Sultanate of Mogadishu (Arabic: سلطنة مقديشو, locally: Xamar) was a great Somalian kingdom that existed from 10th century to 16th century. It was located on the Indian Ocean coast of the horn of Africa, in the south eastern region of Somalia. The foundation stone of kingdom was laid by immigrants from the Middle East, under the leadership of Fakr ad-Din and it became one of the first Muslim settlements in the African coastline of the Indian Ocean. Starting from 10th century, the kingdom became a notable power of the whole African Horn and peaked during the period between 12th to 14th centuries.

At its peak, Mogadishu had dominating gold trade of the whole region by establishing a vast trading network. The Sultanate had its own currency and very well-developed architecture. The reign of the region passed from the Garen dynasty to Muzaffar dynasty which afterward, was overthrown by Abgal Yaquub dynasty. The kingdom existed till the end of 16th century when it was conquered by Sultan of Oman, and the Sultanate of Mogadishu along with its autonomous status was abolished.

Origin and history

According to the available history, Mogadishu has been inhabited by Somali people from the beginning. Somalia has material evidence of human inhabitants dating to 11,000 years ago (Parmelee, 1988) including granite shelters, pottery, tombs, and other types of historical evidence. During 3000 BCE – 900 AD, Somalia was the base of many civilisations that offered important trade routes to India and China from Egypt and the Mediterranean. The Egyptians called it Punt, the Greeks called it Barbaroi and the Romans called it the land of cinnamon.

Before middle ages, Mogadishu was one of many small states of Somaliland that had a trade network connecting Somali merchants to other neighbouring countries. During the late 9th century, people from Persia and Arabs started to migrate into Somali and fuelled the widespread conversion of local people to Islam. In 869, a grand mosque, known as “Fakr ad-din mosque” was founded by Fakr ad-Din, who afterward, established Sultanate of Mogadishu in the 10th century and became the first king of Garen Dynasty.

Sultanate of Mogadishu - Fakhr Ad-Din Mosque

‘The Fakhr Ad-Din Mosque” in Mogadishu in 1882. From E.Cerulli, Somalia, Scritti Vari Editi ed Inediti, Vol. 1., Fig. XV. Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, P.V., Rome, 1957. Figure is referenced as Dal Voyage chez les Benadirs di G. Revoil. Figure courtesy Library of Congress” (from page 138 of “Somalia in Word and Image”, 1986, Ed by K.S. Loughran., J.L. Loughran., J.W. Johnson., S.S. Samatar. Published by the Foundation for Cross Cultural Understanding, Washington, D.C., and Indiana University Press).

In the early 13th century, the kingdom of Mogadishu, along with other Somali states, came under the Ajuran Sultanate control and experienced a period of a golden age. The kingdom continued to flourish, and by the end of the thirteenth century, it rose to its peak power by selling iron, gold, incense, slaves, livestock, leather, and ivory in exchange for cotton, rice, wheat, butter, honey and other products.

In between the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the reign of Muzzaffar Dynasty started in Mogadishu. During this period, Portugal tried to invade into the region, but Sultans succeeded in defending the city against Portuguese invasion. In the same century the Abgal Yaquub, a Somali clan, overthrew the rule of Muzaffar dynasty and started the rule of Abgal Yaquub dynasty. The Abgal instituted a system of governance in which the ruler was called an Imam.

The Sultanate continued to exist until the end of the 16th century, and at the start of 17th century, the city was conquered by the Sultan of Oman.  People of Mogadishu tried to overthrow Omani rule in 1825 but failed.

By 1871, Mogadishu was controlled by the Sultan of Zanzibar who, in his reign, leased the city’s port to the Italians in 1892.  In 1905, the Italians bought the port city of Mogadishu and declared it as the capital of Italian Somaliland. Mogadishu, with a population of 94,000 became the capital of independent Somalia in 1960, and all hopes for the revival of Sultanate faded. Till date, no notable efforts have been observed to re-establish Sultanate of Mogadishu.

Somalia as the Kingdom of Punt

According to ancient Egyptian literature, there was a kingdom known as the “land of Punt”. Based on the evidence, historians have narrowed it down to the Horn of Africa. A kingdom located there had a close connection with ancient Egyptian kingdoms and was their valuable trading partner providing them with materials for their temples, gold, and aromatic resins. When we list down the major trading kingdoms of medieval age, the Sultanate of Mogadishu, Somalia was most important trading monarch at that time connecting local Somali merchants with Egypt with its well-established trading network. Moreover, it was also known for its valuable trees which produced the aromatic gum resins, same were used in Egyptian temples. Based on this evidence, many historians suggest that there is a chance that Somalia could be the possible kingdom of the punt, “Land of the Gods”.

Rulers

Leaders of various dynasties have ruled Mogadishu. During the 10th century, Sultanate was established by the Garen dynasty. The available list of rulers of Garen Dynasty include;

  • Abu Bakar Ibn Fakr ad-Din
  • Omar Ibn Abu Bakar
  • Abu Bakar Ibn Omar
  • Abd al-Aziz
  • Al-Rahman bin al-Musa’id
  • Yusuf bin Sa’id
  • Ali bin Yusuf
  • Rasul bin Ali

During the early 16th century, the reign of Muzaffar dynasty started in Mogadishu. The available list of rulers of this dynasty includes;

  • Mudhafar
  • Mahamuud Omar Hilowle

In the mid of 16th century the Abgal Yaquub, a Somali clan, overthrew the rule of Muzaffar dynasty and started the Abgal Yaquub dynasty. The Sultanate continued to exist until the end of 16th century, and at the start of 17th century, the city was conquered by the Sultan of Oman Sayyid Sa’id ibn Sultan al-Sa’id. The region went under the control of Oman, and the Sultanate of Mogadishu was abolished.

Currency

Mogadishu established its own currency in the 14th century. The core objective behind establishing own currency was to trade with other countries through Indian Ocean. The currency was in the form of coins, which were locally cast. The name of currency was altered time to time as it was named after 23 successive Sultans of kingdom. The oldest pieces of currency date back to the period between 1323-24. At that time, Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad was the sultan of Mogadishu, so the currency was named after him. On the back side, names of four Caliphs of Islamic Rashidun Caliphate are engraved. Mogadishan coins were in wide circulation. Pieces of these coins have been found in faraway regions of the modern United Arab Emirates, where a coin was founding that had the name of a 15th-century Somali Sultan Ali b. Yusuf of Mogadishu. Bronze pieces belonging to the Sultans of Mogadishu have also been found at Belid near Salalah in Dhofar, Oman. Archaeological excavations have also recovered many coins from China, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. According to a British academic, Richard Pankhurst, most of the Chinese coins date to Song dynasty along with Ming and Qing dynasty. The coins continued to be minted in Mogadishu until the 18th century after which the practice was abolished.

sultanate of mogadishu - mogadishan coins

Mogadishan coins

Appearance in Fra Mauro’s Medieval Map

The Fra Mauro map is a map of the world made around 1450 by the Italian cartographer named Fra Mauro. It is a circular map drawn on parchment and set in a wooden frame which measures over two by two meters in size. It includes the regions of Asia, the Indian Ocean, Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic. The map is considered as the greatest memorial of medieval cartography. There is general uncertainty about the location of Mogadishu on Fra Mauro map. 3 names represent the location of the ancient sultanate and as a result, three locations. According to the map, the geography of Mogadishu is the most southerly, it stretches along the coastline in the world map, and its exact location is rather shaky; in fact, the same city appears with the names of Macdasui and Mogodisso.

  • Mogadesur, Reference location (16, g 19)
  • Macdasui, Reference location (03, q 25)
  • Mogodisso, Reference location (09, E 34)
sultanate of mogadishu - frau mauro

Sultanate of Mogadishu on Fra Mauro Map

Battles

Although small instabilities existed throughout the course of history from the 10th century to the 16th century, the most important battle during the period was the war between Ajuran and Portugal. During the time when Mogadishu had a flourishing trade with foreign nations, the wealthy southeastern city-states of Somalia were all systematically dismissed and robbed by the Portuguese. When they set their eyes on the territory of Ajuran, a Battle of Barawa was fought between Sultans and Portuguese.  The Portuguese soldiers burned many parts of the city and looted it. However, fierce resistance by the local population and soldiers resulted in the failure of the Portuguese and eventually, the powerful Somalis defeated the Portuguese from Ajuran Kingdom. After losing the war with the Ajuran Kingdom, Portuguese soldiers were sent to Mogadishu, which was the richest city in East Africa. But a large troop mobilization started, and many horsemen, soldiers, and battleships took their defensive positions to guard the city. As a result, fearing defeat in the case if they were engaged in battle, Portuguese decided to leave the Somalis in peace. They realized the fact that Somalis were extremely difficult to conquer.

Ibn-e-Battuta visit

In 1325, a young lawyer Ibn Battuta set out from his home in Morocco on a pilgrimage to Mecca. A love for travel was born in him along the way. Battuta’s travels eventually took him through Africa, Southwest Asia, and all the way to China, about 75,000 kilometres, and lasted three decades. He wrote a book “FROM ZINJ TO ZANZIBAR.” In a passage in his book, he described his visit to Mogadishu. According to him, Mogadishu was a thriving city on the Indian Ocean in present-day Somalia. He also described various customs, habits, dressing, and food of local inhabitants. According to his book, a few important points about Sultanate of Mogadishu are described as under;

  • Sultan

The Sultan of Mogadishu was called Shaikh by his subjects. His name, at that time, was Abu Bakr ibn Shaikh Omar, and by ancestry, he was African. He talked in the dialect of Mogadishu but also knew Arabic.

  • Greeting Custom

When a ship used to arrive at Mogadishu port, it was the custom for it to be greeted and boarded by the Sultan’s “sanbuq” or little boats. They used to inquire about the owners of the ship, its captain, nature of the cargo and other persons are on board. All this was told to the Sultan, who then, invited as his guest anyone worthy of such honour.

  • Food

The food of these people was rice cooked with butter, served on a large wooden dish. With it, they used to serve side-dishes, stews of chicken, meat, fish, and vegetables. They used to cook unripe bananas in fresh milk and served them as a sauce. Ripe mangoes were very sweet and were eaten like fruit, but unripe mangoes were as acid as lemons and were cooked in vinegar.

  • Dress

Their dress consisted of a loincloth, which was fastened around the waist. There also used to wear a tunic of Egyptian linen with a border, a cloak of Jerusalem stuff, doubled, and a fringed turban of Egyptian material.

Trading network

Trade between the people in the Mogadishu area with other areas along the Indian coast of Africa started as early as the 1st century. Muslim traders from the Arabian Peninsula came to the area during the 10th century. Trade increased among the Swahili cities of coastal East Africa in the 10th century hence driving the Mogadishu economy by the early 11th century. At its peak, Mogadishu had a well-established trading network with most important trading partners as Egypt, Persia, India, and China.

Through trade, the people of Mogadishu established good relations with their trading partners. During this period, many exotic animals such as giraffes, zebras, and incense were exported from Mogadishu to the Ming Kingdom of China. The Chinese used to trade for celadon wares, spices and muskets in return for horses, exotic animals, and ivory. Sultanate of Mogadishu used to export its own trademark cloth, materials for their temples and resins to trading partners in the Nile Valley most prominently, Egypt.

sultanate of mogadishu - giraffe

Mogadishu introduced Girrafes in China. Thought to be a Qilin and a good omen for the reign of Chinese Emperor Yongle.

Bibliography

Alpers, E. “Toward a History of Nineteenth-Century Mogadishu: A Report of Research in Progress.” In Hussein, M. Proceedings of the First International Congress of Somali Studies, edited by H. M. Adam and C. L. Geshekter. 1992.

Cassanelli, L. V. The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1982.

Diriye A. M. Culture and Customs of Somalia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Loughran, J., K. Loughran, J. Johnson, and S. S. Samatar, eds. Somalia in Word and Image. Washington: Foundation for Cross-Cultural Understanding, 1986.

Medieval Mogadishu, “FROM ZINJ TO ZANZIBAR: Studies in History, Trade and Society on the Eastern Coast of Africa” (1982), pp. 45-62#

Nurse, D., and T. Spear. The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

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Oadeye

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