What’s In Store For Somalia’s Cave Art?

“These paintings are unique. This style cannot be found anywhere in Africa.” Abdisalam Shabelleh, site manager with Somaliland’s Ministry of Tourism.

LAAS GEEL, SOMALILAND – If nothing is done to protect the beautiful rock art of northern Somalia, the world risks losing this beautiful narrative of history forever.

Bright red and white antelopes, cattle, giraffes, and archers dance across the cliffs of northern Somalia, just 30 miles from Hargeisa. The paintings are neolithic- thousands of years old. They’re some of the oldest examples of art in the world, and they’re unique. Such an art style has not been found anywhere else in Africa. But, in a corner of the sand-colored rock, their vibrant colors and stories are beginning to fade, peeling off the stone.

The area has been inhabited by people since at least the Paleolithic period. The Doian and Hargeisan cultures flourished in the area during the Stone Age. This stretch of land is one of the most valuable resources in Africa for ancient burial customs, containing cemeteries dating all the way back to the 4th millennium BC. The Laas Geel complex is one of the most well-known sites, dating back 5,000 years. But other rock paintings have been found in the Dhambalin region. The Dhambalin paintings are equally important. They’re some of the oldest depictions of a hunter on horseback in the world.

What is now modern-day Somaliland was a hub of commerce for the rest of the ancient world. It’s here that archaeologists have discovered ancient pyramid-shaped structures, mausoleums, and the ruins of long-forgotten cities that all point back to the existence of a highly sophisticated civilization. There’s evidence that this civilization traded with Mycenae, Egypt, Babylon, India, and even possibly China.

The paintings on the cliffs at Laas Geel represent an important piece of Somalia’s historical narrative, one that the human race cannot afford to lose. Beyond that, since their discovery, the paintings have become one of the country’s major attractions, bringing in a lot of income.

A thousand visitors trek over rugged terrain and travel through dangerous territory to view this piece of human history every year. The trouble with this is, of course, that with human interaction comes quite a lot of damage.

“The increased human activity in the area, trampling on the bare gravelly soil, does not allow the natural regeneration of plants,” Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, head of the local environmental group said. “The resulting dust particles may contribute to the fading of the paintings.”

The site is a large one, and it’s only protected by a few guards who just ask visitors not to touch the paintings. Experts and guardians have sent applications for help to Somaliland’s government, but these applications have gone unheard.

Somaliland used to be a British protectorate. They declared their independence from the rest of Somalia in the wake of the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 that plunged the country into war. As of yet, the country has not been formally recognized by the international community. This has proved to be a huge problem for the area’s history. The lack of recognition means that the caves cannot be properly protected. Because Somaliland is not recognized as a separate nation, UNESCO will not recognize Laas Geel as a world heritage site. Such recognition would provide funding for the proper preservation and protection of the ancient history locked away in the brilliant rock art.

“Here, it was once known as the home of djinn by the local nomadic people, who used to slaughter domestic animals for sacrifice in order to live there in peace.┬áNow it is part of our blood. Tomorrow, God willing, it will be the first place in Somaliland to be internationally recognized.” – Musa Abdi Jama, site guardian.