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The Grave Robbers of Hargeisa

When British explorers at the end of the 19th century first made their way across the vast deserts of what is today Somaliland, they were surprised to find a landscape strewn with numerous and puzzling stone tumuli, graveyards, and crumbling towns. The largest of these, long known to locals but first explored by A.T. Curle while surveying the countryside in 1935, was called Amud. There, just outside the modern town of Borama, Curle found hundreds of stone houses, mosques, and courtyards, full of glass and Chinese porcelain dating back nearly 500 years. Even older trinkets have been found along the coast dating back at least 2000 years to the time of the Berberi traders mentioned by Greek and Egyptian merchants—some believe the Berberi traders were active even in the times of Pharaonic Egypt.

Somaliland is a country rich with the mostly-undocumented history of wealthy, productive civilizations. Over the last thousand years, the country has played host to the Muslim sultanates of Ifat and Adal, Bantu hunters, and nomadic waves of Somalis and Oromo, each leaving their successive traces on the land. But the de facto independent state’s archaeological heritage has been left almost entirely unstudied, unmapped, and unpreserved.

It is also being wantonly destroyed. Though the current government’s Department of Tourism and Antiquities is devoted to preservation, the nation is hemorrhaging its heritage at a rapid rate. Compounding the problem, only a few experts in the world care about documenting and studying the disappearing traces.

By the time I visited Amud, it was nothing more than a pile of rubble in the desert. In 1982, as a conflict between the Somali National Movement guerillas and the armed forces of Somali dictator Siad Barre intensified, the countryside around Borama, the regional capital of Awdal, was ravaged. The displaced people, fleeing the conflict, drove up the hill from Borama to Amud, reversed their trucks into the priceless archaeological heritage, and knocked it apart for bricks and building materials. Although this looting escalated after the country collapsed in 1993, its roots go far back. A sheikh in the village of Boon told me that during the colonial era he used to see administrators tearing up ancient stone graves to build now-vanished roads to Djibouti.

Allegedly looted votives. Photo by Mark Hay.

By 2010, the Somaliland Department of Tourism and Antiquities’ former director Sada Mire had catalogued 139 historical preservation sites in the country and established a network of local guards to monitor them. But these 70 untrained guards each have up to 10 miles to patrol. Mire also attempted to pass a law blocking the sale of artifacts abroad—the measure failed. Meanwhile, she and Xavier Gutherz, an archaeologist active in Somaliland for the past decade, began to recognize a system of looting, grave robbing, and black market antiquing growing increasingly widespread and entrenched in the country. Mire and Gutherz believe that looters have established ties with dealers from Djibouti to the Arabian Peninsula and are sending a steady stream of antiquities out of the country onto the black market.

A grave robber I spoke to confirmed this. Jaama Ismaaciil has been looting graves for antiquities, emeralds and gemstones since 1988. Now he’s part of an organized network. He shows me a small pyramid he dug up recently outside of Hargeisa. It looks like a colonial-era paperweight. There are dents in it from him and his associates pounding on it with hammers, hoping to find gold or gemstones inside.

There are groups like this in every region of Somaliland, but people like Ismaaciil are just the hired muscle. The financial backers of the operation provide coordinates, a daily wage, digging materials, and a commission on whatever they find. Ismaaciil does not know where the antiquities go, or what the relics mean. He just knows this is one of the best and only ways he can make a living, which is why likely why he has no qualms openly and publicly labeling himself a looter.

Ruins protected by cacti near Amud. Photo by Mark Hay.

In the Borama region, these looters target graves surrounding ancient hilltop cities. The stone mound burials often hold nothing but bones; but dirt graves, inlaid with stone crosses are often a good target. Ismaaciil says he has found golden figurines of horses and ostriches all throughout the countryside, along with large deposits of gemstones. In Hargeisa street markets, vendors sell rubies, sapphires, emeralds, silver, and gold to Pakistani and Sri Lankan traders. While the street vendors likely aren’t mining these gemstones themselves (the mines in the Borama region they supposedly came from are now overrun by hyenas), it’s likely that they and the other gemstone dealers are acting as middlemen for the antiquities trade.

In other parts of the country, the looters have been equally successful. Abdillahi Jaama Ali, an advisor to the Department of Tourism and Antiquities, just barely managed to photograph numerous artifacts unearthed around Las Qoray in the far east before the looters shipped them off. One former grave robber based to the north in Zeila told me how, while searching for gold, he often used to find coral and bone sculptures. Thinking them worthless relics of past, he would smash them with stones.

Gutherz admits that only two or three people within the Department of Tourism and Antiquities have formal archaeological training. Nor does the department have a comprehensive map of preservation sites. Departmental workers often keep their research locked away in fear that one of the weak government’s ever-changing series of ministers might make off with their work and profit. It has happened before.

If the department had more resources, perhaps they could pay the looters to protect the sites, as they are at least familiar with the relics and appreciative of their scale. As it is, most Somalis do not know the heritage of their nation, nor do they encounter it with regularity. So when they find an object, they more likely view it as a strange remnant of some alien civilization. They’re fond of attributing relics to giants, and either way seem eager to destroy or sell them.

They were told they could not be considered for UNESCO status, since Somaliland is still not a recognized nation

The government hoped that the 2002 discovery of a 5,000-year-old rock art site at Laas Geel would bring a windfall of funding for preservation. The vivid cave paintings of dogs, giraffes, gazelles, and men worshiping giant horned cows, became one of the few sources of tourism and positive attention for the country. But when Gutherz and the Department of Tourism and Antiquities applied for UNESCO recognition and funding, they were told that they could not be considered, since Somaliland is still not a recognized nation.

For their perceived failures at raising awareness of Somali heritage, Gutherz and Mire have been painted by many Somalis as foreign-educated outsiders, meddlers and profiteers. Yusuf Hasan, a prominent and vocal figure in Somaliland’s press, accused Gutherz of looting Laas Geel, and making millions off of his photos and lectures of the site. (Gutherz denies it. It’s hard to understand the allegations of looting a cave painting.) Other insiders in the Department of Tourism and Antiquities privately accuse Gutherz and Mire of taking credit for the discovery of sites like Laas Geel to enrich their own careers without giving anything substantive back to the country. (Both refute these allegations with strong evidence that they have given back to the country.)

This climate of mistrust has led some like Ali and others to believe that there is a foreign conspiracy afoot to rob Somalis of their history. Ali suspects that the Egyptian Library next to the Presidential Compound in Hargeisa is a front for clandestine Egyptian saboteurs and foreign agents. He alleges that these agents are trying to keep Somaliland down, afraid that their archaeological heritage will supersede Egypt’s and rob that country of their much-needed tourism revenue.

Almost nothing in Somalia’s history suggests that Egypt has any interest in sabotaging their heritage. Egypt has actually historically supported Somalia as a counterbalance to their mutual foe, Ethiopia. The Library was originally a charitable donation in the spirit of that friendship.

In the search to create a unique identity politicians and amateur historians have been floating all manner of crackpot theories about their heritage.

But in the search to create a unique identity for this nascent, fractured, weak state, politicians and amateur historians have been floating all manner of crackpot theories about their heritage. Some say, using forced consonances between Somali and Hebrew names, that the northern Somali clans are the true, ancient Jews. Others like Ali, have decided that their nation invented Egyptian culture, and their problems must stem in part from an Egyptian cover-up of that fact.

As Somaliland’s actual heritage vanishes, it becomes harder to refute the wild theories. And as the world continues to ignore the region aside from reselling its antiquities, xenophobia becomes a more attractive aspect of national identity. The despoliation of Somaliland’s heritage is turning the country into a place steeped in paranoia and fabrication.

Mark Hay
Mark Hay is a freelance writer based out of Brooklyn, N.Y. An incessant carnivore with a special love for organ meat, he jumps at the chance to go on any and every culinary adventure possible. You can find his writings on food and everything else regularly in GOOD, Modern Notion, and VICE—and irregularly all over the place.
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