Somaliland: the country without mail

Somaliland
Today is World Post Day, celebrated every October 9 to mark the anniversary of the foundation of the Universal Postal Union in 1874. More than 150 countries celebrate this day honoring something that’s so vital to our lives but is generally taken for granted.

In Somaliland they aren’t celebrating, because they don’t have a postal system. No other country recognizes Somaliland as a nation and therefore it can’t get membership in the Universal Postal Union. Somaliland is the northern third of former Somalia and declared independence in 1991. After a bloody war of independence it developed a government, law enforcement, a viable economy, and infrastructure while neighboring Puntland became a haven for pirates and southern Somalia was torn apart by warlords and terrorists.

When I was traveling in Somaliland last year I was based in Hargeisa, the capital. Unlike much of the region, the lights stayed on around the clock, the streets were safe, and businesses were thriving. When I visited the central post office, however, I found an empty ruin.

SomalilandSo what does a country without mail do to get, um, mail? Courier services are widely used, and there’s broadband Internet in the capital. In fact, they had the fastest Internet connection I’ve ever seen in Africa! Some Somalis told me the lack of a postal system actually encouraged the development of Internet Service Providers.

Still, it would have been nice to have been able to send postcards to my friends from this nation that doesn’t officially exist. Of course I didn’t actually see any postcards for sale, because there was no way to send them. With the rest of the world recognizing the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, which doesn’t even control all of Mogadishu, it doesn’t look like we’re going to be seeing any postcards from Somaliland anytime soon.

My kid is more up-to-date on geography than Google Maps

Google Maps, South Sudan“Where’s South Sudan?” my five-year-old asked me.

Being my kid, he’s big into maps. He has a map of Africa with all the flags on it hanging above his bed. Using it, he’s been able to trace dad’s adventures in Ethiopia and Somaliland. It’s been marked up a bit since I got it for him more than a year ago. I had to draw the boundary of the unrecognized state of Somaliland on it, and we had to add a flag after Libya suddenly got a second one.

He’s been hearing me talk about wanting to visit South Sudan, the world’s newest country after splitting from Sudan in July. In order to draw the new border, we looked it up on Google Maps. It wasn’t there. Google, which analyzes everyone’s search terms and takes photos of where everybody lives, hadn’t yet decided South Sudan was worthy of notice. We had to go to this map on Wikipedia to find out the information.

After an online campaign, Google Maps has finally changed their map to reflect reality, the BBC reports. Yahoo!, Microsoft and National Geographic have yet to follow suit.

I guess this a good lesson to my son that no source of information is 100% reliable, especially if that source is on the Internet.

Ancient port discovered in Egypt

Egypt
Archaeologists working in Egypt have discovered a harbor on the Red Sea that was used for international trade.

The excavation at Mersa Gawasis has revealed traces of an ancient harbor. It’s long been known that the Egyptians traded down the coast of Africa, but the location of their embarkation was unknown. A famous carving at Deir el-Bahari, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, shows an ocean-going vessel like the one pictured above and scenes a land with thatched huts and exotic items for sale such as ivory and giraffes. Inscriptions identify the land as Punt but don’t mention where it is. Archaeologists have speculated that it was in the Horn of Africa, either in Eritrea or Djibouti, or where the modern unrecognized states of Somaliland or Puntland are today.

The first recorded voyages to Punt started in the reign of the Pharaoh Sahure, who ruled from 2487-2475 BC. Regular trading missions were sent out for centuries to buy exotic items for Egypt’s elite. Queen Hatshepsut’s famous engravings of Punt date to around 1490-1460 BC.

Scholars have traditionally been doubtful of the Egyptians’ ability to make long sea voyages. Further excavation at Mersa Gawasis may change this view and open up new possibilities for Egyptian influence on other ancient cultures. While the excavations at Mersa Gawasis are not yet open to public view, Deir el-Bahari is a popular attraction and you can wonder at the scenes depicting the mysterious land of Punt for yourself.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

adventure travel, Adventure Travel, Ethiopia, camels, Somali Region
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region. While my quest for Ahmed Guray’s castle was a failure, I did see potential for adventure travel in the region.
Adventure travelers generally are looking for three things: historical sights, interesting cultures, and natural wonders. The Somali region is a bit short of historical sights, although there are a few of interest, but it’s strong on culture and nature.

First, the historical sights. The main one is Alibilal Cave in the Erer District, about 10 km (6 miles) from Erer town. This cave is covered with prehistoric paintings of cows, giraffes, gazelle, and other figures. Last year I was amazed by the prehistoric cave art of Laas Geel in Somaliland, and I’m really curious to see this cave. I’ve seen some video footage and it looks impressive. Other historical sights include the mosque I wrote about yesterday, and some colonial buildings scattered about the region.

The Somali Region is much stronger on cultural attractions. There aren’t many places left in the world where you can see camel herders living much as they did centuries ago. You can drink fresh camel milk in traditional domed huts made of mats. Try shay Somali, Somali tea that’s mixed with sugar and camel’s milk and tastes a lot like Indian chai. The culture here preserves itself by oral traditions. Sitting with a clan elder and listening to his stories can be a one-of-a-kind experience. The Somali region is the easiest place to experience Somali culture, being cheaper than Somaliland and far safer than Somalia.Most Somalis don’t speak English, of course, but I know of at least one Somali tour guide in Harar, Muhammed “Dake” (guleidhr @yahoo.com). He even spent some of his youth herding camels in this region! Harar makes the best base for seeing the Somali region. It’s much cooler and more interesting than the dusty lowland regional capital of Jijiga, and only adds an hour to your trip.

Because the Somalis are unused to tourism, adventure travelers will be free from a lot of the usual hassles like touts and pushy vendors. Expect plenty of attention though, and a large dose of curiosity. This isn’t a bad thing. You’ll get into lots of interesting conversations that will teach you about the local culture. Virtually all foreigners they see are working in NGOs, so expect a lot of questions about your development project.

Ethiopia’s Somali Region offers plenty of natural attractions for adventure travel. There are five regional parks with various types of wildlife. The Somali officials I spoke to recommended Dado Park, which has lion, giraffes, and elephants. I also got to see three families of baboons on the highway between Harar and Jijiga. Another attraction are the Somali Region’s many hot springs. Like hot springs everywhere, they’re reputed to have healing qualities and people come from all around to “take the waters”. The easiest to get to from Harar or Jijiga is in the Erer district near Erer town, not far from the Alilbilal painted cave. The town is 113 km (68 miles) from Harar and the cave and hot springs together would make a good day trip from Harar. The Erer-Gota hot springs are located on the grounds of one of Haile Selassie’s palaces (now gone to ruin) and it’s still popular with people looking for cures of various diseases. Hot springs are popular with herders too, who wrap their lunch up in cloth and stick it in the water to cook it! Reminds me of wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil and sticking it in the coals of a campfire.

Let me stress that while I’ve been through the Somali Region twice now, I haven’t seen many of these attractions myself, only heard about them from Somalis. Hopefully next year I’ll have a chance to explore this region more thoroughly. In the meantime, if you go to the Somali Region, please drop me a line and tell me your experiences. One person already has. A member of the Ethiopia-U.S. Mapping Mission wrote to tell me that he spent a year there in 1967-68 mapping the region. He had lots of fun hunting and exploring, even though he often didn’t bathe for up to two weeks at a time! Veterans of the mission have a website called the Ethiopia-United States Mapping Mission with lots of information and photos. Be sure to check out the “Stories and Memories” section.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Not sure yet. Wherever my travels in the Harar region take me!

Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization

Harla, harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, Harar
Eastern Ethiopia’s history is shrouded in mystery. Most archaeologists investigate early hominids like Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, or study the great civilizations of the north like Gondar and Axum. The east, though, is virtually unknown, and only enigmatic ruins and strange legends remain.

Scattered around eastern Ethiopia all the way to Somaliland and the Red Sea are the ruins of towns with large stone buildings unlike anything made by the modern Oromo and Somali peoples. These are the remnants of the little-known Harla civilization. Wanting to learn more, I contacted archaeologist, author, and Harar tour guide Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com). “Dake”, as everybody here calls him, helped me travel to Somaliland last year and is an invaluable resource for local culture and history. He knows everybody and he’s excavated Harla graves in Ethiopia’s Somali region and in Somaliland.

They were a race of giants, people say, and immensely strong. They’d perform amazing feats of strength like playing with balls made from the entire hide of a goat. A schoolkid we gave a lift to told us the Harla were three meters tall! This rumor probably came about because of their unusual graves. They’re long and thin, sometimes three or four meters long, although the skeletons in them aren’t unusually tall. The graves are usually covered with a layer of ash (probably from burnt offerings), the skeleton of a sacrificed cow, and below that a stone slab sealing the tomb.

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Harla skeletons are often buried with pots resting above their head. Inside the pots are black sand (why? nobody knows), necklaces of gemstones, and silver coins that are slightly smaller than a dime. There seems to be writing or designs on the coins but they’re old and poorly minted, and if they ever once said anything, they’re unreadable now. The necklaces are usually agate, but also ruby and amber. The style of the pots, coins, and jewelry are the same both in the mountains around Harar and in the Somali lowlands all the way to the Red Sea. This has convinced Muhammed Dake that the sites all belong to the same culture.

Legends say the center of this civilization was around Harar, which makes sense since it has the best land in the region. The kings of Harla were wizards who boasted about their powers. One said he’d make a river of milk between two mountains; another bragged he could make a sorghum plant that could be laid down and be used as a highway all the way to the Awash River, 150 miles away. Allah got angry at all this and destroyed them. A few Harla survived and fled to Kush in the Sudan, the site of another great civilization.

The Hararis are believed to be descended from the Harla. The closest Harla site to Harar is at the Oromo village of Harla, from which the civilization gets its name. We have no idea what the Harla called themselves. When Allah destroyed the civilization and the survivors fled to Kush, one woman stayed behind to found the modern town of Harla. With a population of about 2800, it’s a half-hour drive from Harar on a winding mountain road that offers sweeping views of the lowlands to the north.

When we arrived at the modern Harla I saw the Oromo there looked and dressed a bit different than other Oromo I’d met. The women didn’t wear the usual Western-style striped shirt that’s almost a uniform for Oromo women in this region. Was this a remnant of their different origins? It’s hard to say, but the modern residents of Harla say they’re of different origins than the rest of the Oromo. Over the years they’ve taken on Oromo customs and the Oromo language, but still consider themselves a distinct people.

Like everywhere else, Muhammed Dake seems to know everyone in Harla. Some of the villagers showed us the ruins. There are thick walls of stone cemented together with a type of plaster that’s still strong after centuries of weathering. Some remain standing above the height of a man, and one field is filled with a network of walls, showing the ancient town was a cluster of closely built structures. In one spot, a tree has grown up through a wall. Plants may be slow, but are almost unstoppable. This tree cracked through the tough Harla plaster and grew around the ancient stones, lifting them into the air as the tree grew. Now the building looks like it’s frozen in the middle of an explosion, its stones suspended several feet above the ground. The local kids love to climb this tree, using the Harla stones embedded in the wood as footholds.

Muhammed Dake believes the Harla people were pagan, judging from how they built their graves. They don’t look either Muslim or Christian. But the Harla village presents another mystery. At one ruin that looks constructed in the Harla style, a villager pulls away some bushes along one wall to reveal a niche. To confirm my suspicions he raises his hands and says “Allahu akbar” (God is Great). It’s a miqrab, the niche in a mosque that points the way to Mecca. And it does point the right direction. Is this mosque from the Harla times? If so, the Harla were the first Muslims in the region, predating the Harari people who can trace their roots back to the tenth century.

Or perhaps it’s a later ruin. So little is known about the Harla, and so little archaeological research has been done here, that for the time being all we have are legends of a race of giants who once ruled the land.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region!