Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Somaliland's Historicity And The Periplus Of The Red Sea
Prof. Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis — Alexandria, Egypt — 17 August, 2005
By Prof. Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis, Orientalist
A New Country, a New Identity, a Millennia long History
With the formation of a new country, anywhere on this world, basic nation-building needs come to surface: central bank and national currency, central administration, government, police, army, health system, primary and secondary education, universities, museums, tourism, sports, etc. Every new country strives for international recognition and presence in the various international fora and organizations. International recognition is based on basic elements of the International Law, Human Rights, Democracy, National Identity, etc.
National Identity emanates from Culture, Language, Religion and History, various expressions of a people’s material life and delineates the people in question as different than the neighboring. One has however to bear in mind that the concept itself of the ‘nation’ is relatively recent in the World History, and in any case ‘Nations’ do not antedate the Lumieres philosophers, and the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, when it was stipulated that ‘political power’ should be conferred on ‘the people’. It was widely propagated that the nation does not derive from a ‘monarch’, and in this way the various ‘peoples’ of the world should be (and after two centuries of fights and struggles finally got) independent of the contingencies of dynastic or military history. This new concept in the World History contributed a lot to the rise of Democratic Rule, but relied heavily on History, Historicity, and what could be described for an entire people as ‘Loyalty to the Past’.
In Europe, nations have been formed around two opposing concepts: the French concept, based on free, rational allegiance of the individual to a political collectivity, and the German concept of objectively determined membership of an organic body. However, most of the European nations have been formed on the basis of a mixture of these two concepts, although the proportions have varied according to the political and social context.
In all the cases, ‘Loyalty to the Past’ played a key role, and at times, when the poor educational conditions of a people did not allow a high degree of Historical Conscience and National Identity would not easily hinge on ‘Loyalty of the Past’ intellectuals and erudite scholars from other countries made theirs the role of National Awakener. The case of the French Claude Fauriel for Modern Greece and Greek National Historicity is quite indicative.
Loyalty to the Past: Delving into Pre-Christian Antiquity
This academic and intellectual attitude started in Europe several centuries before the Age of the Lumieres; it actually dates back to Quattrocento and Cincuecento, the momentous period of Renaissance. As an erudite concept and approach, it was not unknown in other civilizations: Search for, Delving in, Knowledge of, and Loyalty to the Past characterized the top of every great civilization. Such attitudes can be attested in Islamic Istanbul, Samarqand, Ispahan, Cordoba, Baghdad, and Damascus, and proceeding retrospectively in the Sassanid Empire of Iran, the Roman Empire, the Hellenism of Alexandria, the Late Antiquity Judaism, the Achaemenid Empire of Iran, the 26th ‘Libyan’ Dynasty of Egypt, the Sargonid Empire of Assyria, and even in the Neo-Sumerian times of Urukagina, at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE!
Renaissance in Europe was precisely the effort to ‘be loyal to the past’ even at the price of rejecting the (Medieval) Christian ‘present’. The model proved to be very successful, and because of this it was not exported to the colonized countries. Consequently, the Mayas and the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia ‘should’ not delve into their past, but should forget it and accept the colonizing peoples’ past and culture. Ever since, the colonized peoples of America should not aspire to a ‘Renaissance’ of theirs, and their slightest effort towards this direction was met with unprecedented oppression (Haiti being one excellent example in this regard).
When the Colonial Powers’ competition was transferred in Africa and Asia, local colonized peoples were not allowed to proceed in the European way of delving into the Past and accessing a thorough level of Historical Conscience. Quite indicatively, despite so many excavations, expeditions, researches, publications, and academic labor, for more than 100 years after Champollion deciphered Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics there were not a single Egyptian scholar and intellectual to have got the interest to study and learn Hieroglyphics, investigate the Egyptian Antiquity, and codify his National Historicity into terms that would be later analyzed and diffused at the level of the national education and culture. What happened to Egypt occurred – with variations and similarities – to Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, India, Abyssinia, and Yemen. And the situation was perpetuated down to our times, with the colonized countries remaining mostly ignorant and unconscious of their past, relying on European and American scholarship for its reconstitution and study, and certainly disconnected one from another (there is no Egyptian Assyriologist in the same way there is not Iraqi or Syrian Egyptologist).
There have been four exceptions, but after the late 60s we can truly count only three. Turkey, reborn out of the ashes of the Ottoman Caliphate, had kept reminiscences of the Islamic interest for past civilizations that was limited at the times of the Ottoman decay (after 1700). Applying Western methods of government and culture, M. K. Ataturk led the Turks to the rekindling of the Search for the past, and to passionate debates about the true identity of Modern Turks: Turkic (going back to Central Asia) or Anatolian (and therefore related with the Hittites and the Ancient Greeks).
Iran, similarly to Turkey, was never colonized or even influenced by colonial powers; in addition, there was always a kind of Iranian Nationalism with Sassanid Emperors representing themselves in bas-reliefs in sacred places of the earlier Achaemenid Shahs, and with various Islamic rulers and shahs of Iran (Safevid or Qadjar) pursuing the same attitude in places like Naqsh-e Rustam (nearby Persepolis) and Tag-Bostan (nearby Kermanshah).
China and Japan are the other two cases, but the notorious Cultural Revolution in China, geared by Mao in 1967 to create the ‘new, communist man’, led to an unprecedented destruction of monuments, temples, palaces, manuscripts, steles and other epigraphic evidence, depriving modern Chinese from the largest part of their National Heritage, and uprooting even the feeling of ‘Loyalty to the Past’.
Somaliland and the Need for National Conscience and Historiography
Emerging from the ashes of a long and most devastating Civil War in Somalia, Somaliland has the need to shape its National Conscience through delving into its Past, and to establish a Corpus of National Historiography Sources. This is the equivalent of establishing an ordinary National Service of Antiquities’ Repertory; but whereas the latter is of purely archeological importance (as record of the national antiquities of the country), the former is not of purely philological interest. Based on the sources of National Historiography, National Historicity and Conscience will be shaped in order to be later incorporated in the Modern Somalilanders’ Education and Culture, and bring forth awareness and self-respect, pride and identity. The sources of National Historiography can be epigraphic evidence or textual data belonging to local or foreign literatures, languages and scriptures.
Delving into the Historical - Cultural Milieu of the Earliest Textual References to Somaliland
It is essential therefore to select and focus on texts that referred to the area of the present day Somaliland throughout the Ages. As it is already known, local peoples in the area of Somaliland, and more generally in the area of the elapsed Somalia, and the Horn of Africa area down to the coast of present day Mozambique, did not develop scriptures of their own in the pre-Christian and even the Pre-Islamic Antiquity. So, contrarily to what happened in Yemen where Ancient Yemenite scripture was introduced already in the 6th century BCE (and was in use until the Islamization of the country, following Ali’s preaching in Sanaa in 630 CE) for the needs of writing down Sabaean, Qatabani, Himyaritic and Hadhramwti (the basic Ancient Yemenite languages), we have to rely exclusively on foreign literatures in our effort to reconstitute the Ancient History of the Eastern African Coast.
Although this area was at the confines of the then known world, the Eastern African Coast was proved to be visited by Assyrians and Babylonians already in the 3rd millennium BCE. The area was described in Ancient Egyptian generically as ‘Punt’, but to modern scholarship this term is difficult to be precisely identified with a part of the entire area. Various efforts of identification encompass the coast of Sudan, the coast of Eritrea, the Red Sea coast of Yemen, the Atbara river valley area (in the Eastern part of Sudan), the coast of Somaliland, the coast of Puntland, the entire coast of the elapsed Somalia, etc. With the exception of some of the aforementioned that seem rather farfetched interpretations, perhaps the term Punt meant to the Ancient Egyptians a vast area in the Eastern African coast, where the homonymous state of Punt (as mentioned in the famous ‘Expedition to Punt’ by Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1490 – 1470 BCE) in the inscriptions of the Second Colonnade – southern part – of her mortuary temple at Deir el Bahari in Thebes West / Luqsor) was only a part (and therefore even more difficult to identify).
The fact that there are linguistic similarities between the Ancient Egyptian term ‘Punt’ and the Ancient Greek term ‘Opone’ (that signifies a town and port of call in the area of Ras Hafun coast) does not solve much of the Punt mystery, although it looks plausible that the Punt kingdom might have been located in that area.
Ancient Greek and Latin sources pertaining to the Horn of Africa area are later than Queen Hatshpsut’s text by 1500 years but some of them shed much more light into the social, economic, commercial and political details of the area. We have however to make clear that, when we compare the two periods (15th century BCE and 1st century CE), we have to bear in mind that many groundbreaking developments had taken place in-between! The entire world had changed, which is only normal for such a long space of time! Iran, Yemen, and India were almost empty circumferences with few centers of relatively low culture at the times of the Egyptian Queen. When we go down to the times of the first Christian century, not only Iran, Yemen and India but also Axumite Abyssinia had risen to power, had developed great civilizations, involving scriptures and epigraphic material. Even more important is the fact that in this later period another event had also taken place.
Due to the maritime inclination of the Qatabani Yemenites and to their navigational explorations in the open seas, direct sailing from the Horn of Africa to the West coast of India was already possible thanks to good knowledge of the Monsoons. The extensive navigation of the Yemenites in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean led to the establishment of a vast maritime trade network that encompassed the West coast of India, the coasts of Persia and the Persian Gulf, the Eastern coast of Africa, the coasts of today’s Oman and Yemen, as well as the entire Red Sea. Yemenite merchants and sailors had the upper hand in this vast network for several hundreds of years, so that we can safely call the phenomenon ‘Yemenite Thalassocracy’. It was only normal for the Egyptians to try to be involved and to send a fleet manned by Phoenician sailors to circumnavigate Africa, which they did during two years (around 600 BCE) at the times of Pharaoh Nechao.
We know that the Yemenite Thalassocracy phenomenon occurred at the times of the Achaemenidian Empire of Iran, after Shah Darius envisioned the maritime contacts between the central province of his vast country and Africa (Egypt, Libya and the North of Sudan were Persian provinces) as an alternative to the land contacts that had to cross areas like Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and Syria, where the Iranian control was new and therefore not absolutely solid. For a period going from 525 BCE (Iranian invasion of Egypt and the north of Sudan) to around 115 BCE (when the combined forces of Himyar and Sheba invaded the Yemenite kingdom of Qataban), we have uninterruptedly increased commercial and cultural exchanges throughout the vast area of the aforementioned network area. Certainly the decay times of the Achaemenidians (after 425 BCE) allowed the Qatabani Yemenites to raise heavy taxation and accumulate great wealth.
The rise of Sheba and Himyar at the prejudice of the wealthy and maritime Qataban proved to be a rather negative development for Yemen, since the two countries had no significant maritime tradition. The event was monitored and noticed by the ailing Ptolemies of Egypt (the Macedonian origin dynasty that ruled from Memphis and Alexandria between 330 and 30 BCE), who did their best to force the Yemenites to reduce the high taxation on products from India, Africa and Asia. In addition, Egyptian commercial ships started sailing beyond the Bab el Mandeb straits paying the necessary tolls. Still the Yemenite taxation was heavy enough to cause a Roman naval expedition against Yemen and Aden (Arabia Felix) a few years after the Roman annexation of Egypt and the death of Cleopatra VII. Strabo narrated that at the beginning of the Roman Imperial era more than 100 ships sailed annually down to the southernmost confines of the Red Sea and beyond.
All this testifies to increased interest of the Greco-Roman world in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and the reason was apparent: spices, aromatic trees, various luxurious and exquisite products were necessary in the changing habitudes of the Mediterranean people who sought the refined Oriental sumptuousness instead of their earlier simplicity and modesty. Thanks to the rise of the navigation and trade, we notice an increased interest in explorations as well. A Roman mission was sent through friendly Meroe (the great Kushitic state at the north and the center of present day Sudan) to sail down to the sources of the Nile, and in their return they reported about the Mount of the Moon (possibly Kilimanjaro).
The ‘Periplus of the Red Sea’ and the Horn of Africa countries at the end of 1st century CE
This is the historical – cultural milieu from which we extract historical information about the Eastern coast of Africa based mostly on Greco-Roman sources. As coronation of earlier fragmentary or disparate textual evidence, the ‘Periplus of the Red Sea’ proved to be a goldmine of historical information for the entire area between Egypt and Indochian/Indonesia (an area called ‘Chryse’, i.e. ‘the Golden’, by the Greeks at those days). The text was written around the year 70 CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero and (as stated in the text itself) the reign of the King Malichus II of the Nabataeans (at Rekem / Petra in today’s Jordan). The text is written by an anonymous Alexandrian Egyptian merchant and captain, who certainly had personal experience in vast parts of that navigation and trade network area, and wished to compile a king of guide for sailors and traders. We assume that ‘the Periplus of the Red Sea’ is just one of many texts of similar contents, but of course the only that what preserved entirely until today. It is not a long text. In a modern English translation, it would be less than 8000 words (around 24 pages). But it is a very dense text mentioning the distance between the various ports of call, the products exported from, and imported in, every port and market, plus socio-anthropological and political information. To lesser extent, it also provides details about land and desert road networks attached to the maritime network, which is the author’s main topic.
The ‘Periplus of the Red Sea’ is written in the way needed for different maritime voyages, because at those days there were basically two maritime itineraries throughout that vast area. One itinerary was the African sailing down to Rhapta, the area of present day Daressalam in Tanzania. The coast beyond that faraway port of the South was unknown and certainly not frequented. So, the text starts with the narration of all the harbours from Arsinoe (Suez) to Rhapta.
The other itinerary was the Asiatic sailing along side the coast of the Arabian Peninsula (and at times the Persian Gulf) to the Delta of Indus River, and then through the Western and the Eastern coasts of India towards Indochina and China. So, after presenting the African coast sailing, the text goes back to Arsinoe, and continues with the narration of all the harbours from Arsinoe and Leuke Kome (Al Wadjh in the northern Red Sea coast of S. Arabia) down to Yemenite, Persian and Indian coasts up to China. The text gives also details about the open seafaring from the Horn of Africa area to the West Indian coast.
- Saba and Himyar kingdoms in Yemen merged- Hadhramawt Kingdom, named as Frankincense-bearing Country.
The Periplus of the Red Sea makes a clear cut distinction between the civilized Yemenites, who were organized in two states, one under Kharibael (Saba and Himyar kingdoms had merged at those days), who ruled mostly the area of the former Northern Yemen plus the region of Aden, and another under Eleazos (the Hadhramawt Kingdom that was named in Greek ‘I Libanotoforos Khora’, i.e. the Frankincense-bearing Country). The Yemenite states controlled their respective coasts and inland, whereas only barbaric nomads were said to dwell in the coasts of Arabia.
- Roman Egypt in control of ‘Berberia’, the Sudanese coast Meroe
With regard to the Eastern African coast, the text states clearly that the coast of present day Sudan was rather controlled by the Roman rulers of Egypt (through their colony, Ptolemais Theron, at present day Suakin). All that area was called ‘Berberia’ (not to be confused with the adjective ‘barbaric’). Quite strangely, the great Kushitic kingdom of Meroe (in today’s Sudanese Nile Valley) is reported not to control the Red Sea coast adjacent to it.
- Axumite Abyssinia. The coast of today’s Eritrea between Adulis (near Massawa) and Avalites (Assab) was ruled by Zoscales, king of Axum, whose rule ended at Avalites.
- ‘The Other Berberia’ – independent state in the area of today’s Somaliland
The coast beyond the Axumite kingdom until the Horn of Africa was named by the Periplus’ author ‘I Alli Berberia’, i.e. ‘the Other Berberia’, without any explanation to the connection with ‘Berberia’, the Sudanese coast. ‘The Other Berberia’ was ruled independently’.
- Azania – a Yemenite colony
- Socotra – a Hadhramawti colony. Beyond the ‘Akrotirion Aromaton’, the Cape of Spices as the Periplus names Cape Guardafui, Azania was extended down to Rhapta (in today’s Tanzania). Azania was colony of the Sabaean – Himyaritic kingdom of Kharibael, and plenty of details are given in the text. Similarly, the Hadhramawt Kingdom (‘I Libanotoforos Khora’, i.e. the Frankincense-bearing Country) owed the island of Socotra (‘Dioskouridou Nesos’/island, according to the text) as colony.
We will dedicate a second article to publish and analyze the excerpts of the ‘Periplus of the Red Sea’ that refer to ‘The Other Berberia’.