Laas Geel: Somaliland’s ancient treasure

Before becoming a writer I worked as an archaeologist, and one of the things that inspired me to choose that profession was the beautiful cave art of Europe–places like Lascaux, Altamira, Chauvet, and so many others.

One of the things that inspired me to go to Somaliland was the recently discovered painted caves of Laas Geel. The paintings are being studied by Sada Mire, Somaliland’s head archaeologist. She dates these paintings to the Neolithic period, when pastoral peoples tended their herds in a landscape that was greener than the dry, stony plain that makes up much of Somaliland nowadays.

The art seems to have been made over time, with some figures painted over earlier ones. Dr. Mire estimates they could be anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 years old. Dating rock art is extremely difficult, especially since so little has been studied in this region. Dr. Mire is the first ever Somali archaeologist, and one of the first to seriously study the Somali region.

Laas Geel is a little more than an hour drive northeast of the Somaliland capital Hargeisa. Foreigners venturing outside the capital are asked to hire a soldier or policeman to protect them. While this is a mostly peaceful country, the government doesn’t want any bad press, and a couple of foreigners have been killed in recent years. So one fine morning I head out with a hired car, our driver, a Kalashnikov-toting bodyguard, Swedish photojournalist Leo Stolpe, and Ali, Dr. Mire’s assistant from the Department of Antiquities.

A short drive along a well-paved road and we make our first stop to see some other relics of Somaliland’s past. Right next to the road is a rusting old Soviet-made tank, destroyed during the war of independence. There used to be many more of them scattered around the country but most have been hauled away for scrap. This one remains and has become a local landmark.

Ali is more interested in a rocky hill nearby. He leads us up the slope under a strong mid-morning sun and shows us two heaps of small stones. To the untrained eye they look like nothing, but I can see they aren’t natural.

%Gallery-93102%”What are these? Cairns?” I ask.

“Yes,” Ali replies. “Graves from the pre-Islamic times.”

One of them is about ten feet in diameter and consists of thousands of fist-sized stones. I wonder who is buried here, and what they did to deserve such an expense of labor.

Soon we’re speeding along the highway again. It’s not long before we turn off onto a dirt track. The Landcruiser jolts and crashes across deep pits and humps. Through the scrub we can see a herd of camels and the low dome of a nomad’s hut. It’s taken less than a minute to leave the twenty-first century behind. After a short ride we make it to a gate. Beyond is a small concrete building and behind that is a rocky hill. We’re here.

The Department of Antiquities doesn’t have much money, so one of the most impressive rock art sites in the world has no grandiose museum, no visitor’s center, not even a guy selling tickets. Well, we do have to pay to get enter, but we don’t get a ticket. Considering the precarious situation this unrecognized nation is in and the long list of important projects it needs to fund, it’s a small miracle there’s a Department of Antiquities at all.

The painted caves of Laas Geel are actually rock shelters. Nine of them dot the hill on all sides, and while their depth provides them with ample protection from the sun and the occasional rainfall, they offer sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. These aren’t hidden, secret places like the painted caves of Paleolithic Europe.

That makes them no less mysterious. Ali leads us up the hill while the guard and driver go off to enjoy a local swimming hole. As we enter the first of the rock shelters we’re all stopped dead with wonder. Somaliland’s past, which to me had only been some flint tools and half a dozen dry academic articles, suddenly explodes into full color. The entire interior of the shelter is covered with figures. There are hundreds of them, mostly cows of various sizes. Some are schematic outlines, others are drawn in elaborate detail. Humans stand in between with their arms upraised as if in worship. A few tiny hunters run amidst the herds.

There are other animals too, antelope and dogs and a giraffe, but the cows predominate. This is the art of a pastoral people, as many Somalis still are. The nomads we passed just a mile back would probably draw the same images if they could pluck up the courage to enter the shelter. Somali folklore teaches that spirits hide within these shelters and possess whoever enter, although that wasn’t enough to stop a group of fighters during the civil war from burying one of their comrades in a niche at one side of the cave.

Ali leads us scrambling over the hillside to find more shelters. Each one is covered in artwork. Some of the stones have been painted completely red. The pigment is made from mineral sources and brewed into a paste that sticks to the rock better than plaster. This, and the dry climate, is the reason the paintings have lasted so long. But now that they’ve been discovered, armed guards have been posted to keep the art from being chipped off and sold on the international antiquities market.

The animals are beautiful and seem to fall within three main types: simple red figures, small and cruder white figures, and more elaborate drawings of cows that show decoration on the neck that reminds me of the personal marks the dealers at a Somali camel market put on their animals.

But the human figures attract me the most. Were these real people? Ancestors? Generalized drawings of the whole clan? It’s hard to tell, but it’s obvious they’re worshiping the most important thing in their lives–their cattle. A German archaeologist I worked with who was fortunate enough to visit Lascaux caves in France once told me, “It’s so different from Mayan art. With Mayan art you’re not sure what’s going on, but with Lascaux you look at the drawings and say ‘they were like us’”.

Exactly. Although I can’t understand the deeper meanings behind the paintings or truly know the world out of which they came, that was my reaction. The ancient Somalis were like us. Their lifestyle was totally different, of course, but they thought enough like us that they could communicate what they believed in a fashion that someone can appreciate and (kind of) understand thousands of years later.

Dr. Mire and her team have already discovered several other rock art sites in Somaliland. Who knows what they’ll find in the next few years? Even though Somaliland isn’t on most political maps, the efforts of a few dedicated scholars are putting it on the archaeological map.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.

Next time: Khat, the drug of a nation.