Somalia was known to the ancient Egyptians as the Land of Punt. They valued its trees which produced the aromatic gum resins frankincense and myrrh. Punt is also mentioned in the Bible, and ancient Romans called it Cape Aromatica. Somalia is named for the legendary father of the Somali people, Samaal (or Samale).
The Somali people share a common language, Somali, and most are Muslims of the Sunni sect. Somalis also live in northern Kenya; in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia; and in Djibouti, to the northwest of Somalia.
In spite of national boundaries, all Somalis consider themselves one people. This unity makes them one of Africa’s largest ethnic groups.
The origin of the Somali people is uncertain. Current theory suggests that the Somali originated in the southern Ethiopian highlands and migrated into northern Kenya during the first millennium B.C.E.
They then gradually migrated northward to populate the Horn of Africa by C.E. 100.
The Somalis are tall and wiry in stature, with aquiline features, elongated heads, and light brown to black skin. Somali women are known for their beauty.
Arabs introduced the Islamic faith to Africa beginning in the seventh century. By the tenth century, Arab trading posts thrived in southern Somalia, along the Indian Ocean. These included Mogadishu, established as the first Arab settlement in East Africa.
The city was at the height of its influence and wealth during the thirteenth century, when it controlled the gold trade on the East African coast.
Most Somalis converted to Islam by about 1100. They joined with the Arabs in fighting the Islamic holy wars against Ethiopian Christians in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
By the eighteenth century, the Somalis had defeated the Oromo people, who had threatened both Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia and Somalia. The Somalis became the dominant people in the land.
Europeans became interested in Somalia during the nineteenth century, beginning with its exploration by British adventurer Sir Richard Burton in 1854.
Interest grew when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and in 1887 Britain declared the northern Somalia coast a protectorate, known as British Somaliland.
The French claimed the far western coast (now Djibouti) at about the same time, naming it French Somaliland. Italy took control of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu, in 1889, naming it Italian Somaliland.
In 1899 Somali Islamic teacher Muhammad Abdullah Hasan (1856–1920), known to the British as “the Mad Mullah,” gathered an army. They hoped to gain the Ogaden region of Ethiopia for Somalis and to drive out the non-Islamic Europeans.
Hasan and his army, called Dervishes, fought the Ethiopians and later the British from 1900 to 1920. The British bombed the Dervish capital in 1920 and Hasan escaped, but he died later that year, ending the resistance movement.
At the beginning of World War II the Italians drove the British from northern Somalia. The British recaptured Somalia and drove out the Italians in 1941.
In 1949 the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly awarded Italy administrative control over southern Somalia as a trust territory for a ten-year period that would then lead to Somalia’s independence.
British Somaliland was awarded its independence on 26 June 1960 and united with Italian Somaliland to establish the Somali Republic on 1 July 1960.
After independence, parliamentary leader Aadan Abdullah Usmaan was appointed president by the legislature. He appointed Abdirashiid Ali Shermaarke the first prime minister of Somalia.
Recognition and Symbol
The most widely recognized symbol is the camel because it provides transportation, milk, meat, income, and status to a majority of Somalis.
Other symbols of Somalia are the five-pointed white star on the Somali flag and the crescent, which represents the new moon and is a universal symbol of the Islamic faith.
Each point of the star represents a land that is home to Somali people: the portion within the national boundaries, once divided into two territories, Italian and British; the Ogaden region of Ethiopia; the Northern Frontier District of Kenya; and Djibouti.
Somalis hope that one day all these territories can become a unified Somali nation.
The leopard is considered the national symbol of Somalia. Two African leopards adorn the national emblem, a five-pointed white star on a light blue shield with a gold border.
Homeland and settlement
Somali people occupy all of Somalia and Somaliland and the northern part of Djibouti. In Djibouti, they are concentrated in the capital city and the south-eastern region and are said to constitute around 60 percent of Djibouti’s population. They are also present in north-western Kenya and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.
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Marriage, Family, and Kinship
Marriage. Somali marriages have traditionally been considered a bond between not just a man and a woman but also between clans and families. Until very recently, most Somali marriages were arranged, usually between an older man with some wealth and the father of a young woman he wished to wed.
These customs still hold true in many rural areas in the twenty-first century. The man pays a bride price—usually in livestock or money—to the woman’s family. Samaal traditionally marry outside their family lineage, or, if within the lineage, separated from the man by six or more generations.
Saab follows the Arab tradition of marrying within the father’s family lineage, with first cousins often marrying.
A Somali bride often lives with her husband’s family after marriage, with her own parents providing the home and household goods. She keeps her family name, however.
Weddings are joyous occasions, but the couple often signs an agreement giving the bride a certain amount of property should the couple divorce, which is common in Somalia.
The husband holds the property in trust for her. Tradition calls for the wife to relinquish her right to the property if she initiates the divorce.
Islamic law permits a man to have up to four wives if he can provide them and their children with equal support. If a man repeats three times to his wife, “I divorce you,” the couple is considered divorced.
The wife is given a three-month grace period, however, in case she should be pregnant.
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