In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Somalia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Early History
  • The Arrival of Islam and the Development of Muslim City-States
  • Postcolonial History
  • State Collapse and Its Consequences
  • Economy
  • Society
  • Religion
  • Somali Literature
  • Somali Language
  • Somali Diaspora

African Studies Somalia
Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0060


In ancient times, the northern coast was known as Punt (“land of the Gods”) to the ancient Egyptians; as the land of the Barbaroi to the Greeks; as the Regio Cinnamafore (“land of the cinnamon”) to the Romans, who thought the Somali coast produced cinnamon, whereas it might have served only as a commercial hub for spices from the Indian subcontinent; and, finally, to medieval Arabs, as the land of the Berbers, an appellation apparently related to the Barbaroi of the Greeks and present in the early 21st century in the name of the northern port city of Berbera. The rest of what is, in the early 21st century, Somalia—more precisely, the coastal towns of southern Somalia, from Mogadishu to the Kenyan border—was until the last few centuries part of the Swahili coast and civilization—that is, until the Somali arrival in the South. The Somali republic, formed in 1960 from the former British Somaliland (the North) and the former Italian Somalia (the South), is situated in the Somali peninsula. It is the Somali republic, in disarray in the early 21st century, that is popularly known as Somalia. The Somali people, sometimes portrayed as nomads who roamed the land until their encounter with Europeans, have been active participants in the affairs of the wider region, including the Asian side, as traders, seafarers, Muslim scholars, and immigrants since ancient times. That their country was known as the “land of the cinnamon” in Roman times, when they may have been only reexporting what they had imported from Asia, attests to their commercial savoir faire. Later, as Muslims, after the introduction of Islam, they propagated their faith to areas farther south. For example, ʿUthman ibin ʿAli Zaylaʿi, from the city of Zeila, in the North, authored Tabyīn al-ḥaqāʾiq fī sharḥ fi sharḥ Kanz al-daqāʾiq, a well-known six-volume work, used particularly by the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence; one of his students went on to produce further jurisprudence work. Other Somalis wrote, also in Arabic, a number of religious eulogies (manaaqib) in praise of various saints. Thus, Somalis produced Muslim scholars who wrote in Arabic, the liturgical language, just as medieval Europeans wrote in Latin, the language of the Roman Catholic Church.

General Overviews

Most works on Somalia are anthropological and ethnographic studies; among these, Cerulli 1957–1964 provides a view of the pastoral institutions of mostly southern Somalia. Cassanelli 1982 presents a view of Somali history from the 17th to the 19th centuries, whereas Hersi 1977 (cited under the Arrival of Islam and the Development of Muslim City-States) is a detailed account of Somali historical interactions with the Arab world and, as such, offers valuable information on Somali history since the introduction of Islam into Somalia. Lewis 2002 gives an overview of Somali history from c. 10th century to modern times. Finally, Nelson 1982 and Metz 1993 are collections of thematic essays related mainly to the situation of Somalia in the 1970s and 1980s, before the collapse of the state.

  • Cassanelli, Lee V. The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600–1900. Ethnohistory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

    Written by a historian, this text offers a view of Somali history, especially in the South, during the period of Somali expansion there.

  • Cerulli, Enrico. Somalia, scritti vari editi ed inediti: A cura dell’Amministrazione fiduciaria italiana della Somalia. 3 vols. Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1957–1964.

    Cerulli, an Italian scholar, gives valuable information about the pastoral institutions, history, politics, literature, and language of Somalis, particularly those of southern Somalia.

  • Lewis, I. M. A Modern History of the Somali: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa. 4th ed. Eastern Africa Studies. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002.

    Details Somali history from the 10th century to the present, covering colonial history and the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre as well as the international intervention and events since the state collapse in 1991.

  • Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Somalia: A Country Study. 4th ed. Area Handbooks. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993.

    This study, written by several authors, includes coverage of history, geography, government, and politics. Although some parts are outdated, this is a good starting point for the student. The bibliographical references at the end of each chapter are especially useful.

  • Nelson, Harold D., ed. Somalia: A Country Study. 3d ed. Area Handbooks. Washington, DC: American University, 1982.

    This book treats Somalis and Somalia thematically, discussing history, geography, economy, politics, society, and clans. Outdated, but the socioeconomic statistical tables from the 1970s are excellent.

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