Zeila (Somali: Saylac, Arabic: زيلع), also known as Zaila or
Zeyla, is a port city in the northwestern
Awdal region of
In the Middle Ages, the Jewish traveller
Benjamin of Tudela
Benjamin of Tudela identified
Zeila (or Zawilah) with the Biblical location of Havilah. Most
modern scholars identify it with the site of Avalites mentioned in the
1st-century Greco-Roman travelogue the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea
and in Ptolemy, although this is not undisputed. The town
evolved into an early Islamic center with the arrival of Muslims
shortly after the hegira. By the 9th century,
Zeila was the capital of
the early Adal Kingdom and
Ifat Sultanate in the 13th century, and
also a capital for its successor state the Adal Sultanate, it would
attain its height of prosperity a few centuries later in the 16th
century. The city subsequently came under Ottoman and British
protection in the 18th century.
Zeila traditionally belong to the ancient Somali tribe called Dir who
are the original inhabitants and founders of the ancient city.
2.2 Adal kingdom
2.3 Yemenite period
2.4 Ottoman period
2.5 British Somaliland
5 Further reading
6 External links
Zeila is situated in the
Awdal region in northwest Somalia. Located on
Gulf of Aden
Gulf of Aden coast near the
Djibouti border, the town sits on a
sandy spit surrounded by the sea. It is known for its coral reef,
mangroves and offshore islands, which include the Sa'ad ad-Din
archipelago named after the Somali
Sa'ad ad-Din II of the
Sultanate of Ifat. Landward, the terrain is unbroken desert for
some fifty miles.
Berbera lies 170 miles (270 km) southeast of
Zeila, while the city of
Ethiopia is 200 miles (320 km)
to the west.
Main article: Maritime history of Somalia
Zeila was part of the Somali city-states that in
engaged in a lucrative trade network connecting Somali merchants with
Phoenicia, Ptolemaic Egypt, Greece, Parthian Persia, Saba, Nabataea,
and the Roman Empire. Somali sailors used the ancient Somali maritime
vessel known as the beden to transport their cargo.
Several locations for
Havilah are shown, including the
Zeila is an ancient city, and has been identified with what was
referred to in classical antiquity as the town of Avalites (Greek:
Αβαλίτες), situated in the erstwhile Barbara geographical
region on the northern Somali coast. Along with the neighboring Habash
(Habesha or Abyssinians) of
Al-Habash to the west, the Barbaroi or
Berber (ancestral Somalis) who inhabited the area are recorded in the
1st century CE Greek document the
Periplus of the Erythraean Sea
Periplus of the Erythraean Sea as
engaging in extensive commercial exchanges with
Egypt and pre-Islamic
Arabia. The travelogue mentions the Barbaroi trading frankincense,
among various other commodities, through their port cities such as
Avalites (modern Zeila). Competent seamen, the Periplus' author also
indicates that they sailed throughout the
Red Sea and
Gulf of Aden
Gulf of Aden for
trade. The document describes the Barbaroi's system of governance as
decentralized, and essentially consisting of a collection of
autonomous city-states. It also suggests that "the Berbers who live
in the place are very unruly", an apparent reference to their
Main article: Adal Sultanate
Islam was introduced to the area early on from the Arabian Peninsula,
shortly after the hegira. Zeila's two-mihrab Masjid al-Qiblatayn dates
to the 7th century, and is the oldest mosque in the city. In the
late 9th century,
Al-Yaqubi wrote that Muslims were living along the
northern Somali seaboard. He also mentioned that the Adal kingdom
had its capital in the city, suggesting that the Adal
Zeila as its headquarters dates back to at least the
9th or 10th centuries. According to I.M. Lewis, the polity was
governed by local dynasties consisting of Somalized
Arabs or Arabized
Somalis, who also ruled over the similarly-established Sultanate of
Mogadishu in the
Benadir region to the south. Adal's history from this
founding period forth would be characterized by a succession of
battles with neighbouring Abyssinia.
Ruins of the Muslim Sultanate of Adal in Zeila, Somalia
By 1330, the Moroccan historian and traveler
Ibn Battuta would
describe the city as dominated by Muslims from the Zaidi Shi'ite
denomination. Shi'ia influence can still be seen in various areas, as
in the southern Somalia veneration of Fatimah, the Prophet Muhammad's
Zeila's importance as a trading port is further confirmed by Al-Idrisi
and Ibn Said, who describe it as a town of considerable size and a
center of the local slave trade. Pankhurst, amongst other writers,
Marco Polo was referring to
Zeila (then the capital of Adal)
when he recounts how the
Aden seized a bishop of Abyssinia
Traveling through his realm, attempted to convert the man by force,
then had him circumcised according to Islamic practice. This action
provoked the Abyssinian Emperor into raising an army and capturing the
Through extensive trade with Abyssinia and Arabia, Adal attained its
height of prosperity during the 14th century. It sold incense,
myrrh, slaves, gold, silver and camels, among many other commodities.
Zeila had by then started to grow into a huge multicultural
Somalis (Predominantly), Afar, Harari, and even Arabs
and Persian inhabitants. The city was also instrumental in bringing
Islam to the Oromo and other Ethiopian ethnic groups.
In 1332, the Zeila-based King of Adal was slain in a military campaign
aimed at halting the Abyssinian Emperor Amda Seyon's march toward the
city. When the last
Sultan of Ifat, Sa'ad ad-Din II, was also
killed by Dawit I of
Zeila in 1410, his children escaped
to Yemen, before later returning in 1415. In the early 15th
century, Adal's capital was moved further inland to the town of
Dakkar, where Sabr ad-Din II, the eldest son of Sa'ad ad-Din II,
established a new base after his return from Yemen. Adal's
headquarters were again relocated the following century, this time to
Harar. From this new capital, Adal organised an effective army led by
Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi
Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (Ahmad "Gurey" or "Gran") that invaded
the Abyssinian empire. This campaign is historically known as the
Conquest of Abyssinia (Futuh al Habash). During the war, Imam Ahmad
pioneered the use of cannons supplied by the Ottoman Empire, which he
Zeila and deployed against Abyssinian forces and
their Portuguese allies led by Cristóvão da Gama. Some scholars
argue that this conflict proved, through their use on both sides, the
value of firearms like the matchlock musket, cannons and the arquebus
over traditional weapons.
Travellers' reports, such as the memoirs of the Italian Ludovico di
Varthema, indicate that
Zeila continued to be an important marketplace
during the 16th century, despite being sacked by the Portuguese in
1517 and 1528. Later that century, separate raids by nomads from the
interior eventually prompted the port's then ruler, Garad Lado, to
enlist the services of 'Atlya ibn
Muhammad to construct a sturdy wall
around the city. Zeila, however, ultimately began to decline in
importance following the short-lived conquest of Abyssinia.
16th century Zeila, along with several other settlements on the East
African coast, had been visited by the Portuguese explorer and writer
Duarte Barbosa, describing the city as such: "Having passed this town
of Berbara, and going on, entering the Red Sea, there is another town
of the Moors, which is named Zeyla, which is a good place of trade,
whither many ships navigate and sell their cloths and merchandise. It
is very populous, with good houses of stone and white-wash, and good
streets ; the houses are covered with terraces, the dwellers in
them are black. They have many horses, and breed much cattle of all
sorts, which they make use of for milk, and butter, and meat. There is
in this country abundance of wheat, millet, barley, and fruits, which
they carry thence to Aden." 
Beginning in 1630, the city became a dependency of the ruler of Mocha,
who, for a small sum, leased the port to one of the office-holders of
Mocha. The latter in return collected a toll on its trade.
subsequently ruled by an Emir, whom Mordechai Abir suggested had "some
vague claim to authority over all of the sahil, but whose real
authority did not extend very far beyond the walls of the town."
Assisted by cannons and a few mercenaries armed with matchlocks, the
governor succeeded in fending off incursions by both the disunited
nomads of the interior, who had penetrated the area, as well as
brigands in the Gulf of Aden. By the first half of the 19th
Zeila was a shadow of its former self, having been reduced to
"a large village surrounded by a low mud wall, with a population that
varied according to the season from 1,000 to 3,000 people." The
city continued to serve as the principal maritime outlet for
beyond it in Shewa. However, the opening of a new sea route between
Shewa cut further into Zeila's historic position as the
main regional port.
Ottoman Empire and
Flag of Ottoman
Although part of the
Ottoman Empire since 1559, between 1821 and 1841,
Pasha of Egypt, came to control
Yemen and the sahil,
Zeila included. After the Egyptians withdrew from the Yemeni
seaboard in 1841, Haj Ali Shermerki, a successful and ambitious Somali
merchant, purchased from them executive rights over Zeila. Shermerki's
governorship had an instant effect on the city, as he maneuvered to
monopolize as much of the regional trade as possible, with his sights
set as far as
Harar and the Ogaden. In 1845, Shermerki deployed a few
matchlock men to wrest control of neighboring
Berbera from that town's
then feuding Somali authorities. This alarmed the Emir of Harar, who,
having already been at loggerheads with Shermerki over fiscal matters,
was concerned about the ramifications that these movements might
ultimately have on his own city's commerce. The Emir consequently
urged Berbera's leaders to reconcile and mount a resistance against
Shermerki's troops. Shermerki was later succeeded as Governor of
Zeila by Abu Bakr Pasha, a local Afar statesman.
Zeila waterfront in 1877, by an Italian visitor
In 1874–75, the Egyptians obtained a firman from the Ottomans by
which they secured claims over the city. At the same time, the
Egyptians received British recognition of their nominal jurisdiction
as far east as Cape Guardafui. In actuality, however,
little authority over the interior and their period of rule on the
coast was brief, lasting only a few years (1870–84). When the
Egyptian garrison in
Harar was evacuated in 1885,
Zeila became caught
up in the competition between the Tadjoura-based French and the
British for control of the strategic
Gulf of Aden
Gulf of Aden littoral. I. M.
Lewis mentions that "by the end of 1885 Britain was preparing to
resist an expected French landing at Zeila." However, the two
powers decided instead to turn to negotiations.
Main article: British Somaliland
Buralleh (Buralli) Robleh, Sub-Inspector of Police of Zeila, and
General Gordon, Governor of British Somaliland, in
On 9 February 1888, France and Britain concluded an agreement defining
the boundary between their respective protectorates. As a result,
Zeila and its eastern neighbor
Berbera came to be part of British
The construction of a railway from
Addis Ababa in the late
19th century continued the neglect of Zeila. At the beginning of
the next century, the city was described in the 1911 Encyclopædia
Britannica as having a "good sheltered anchorage much frequented by
Arab sailing craft. However, heavy draught steamers are obliged to
anchor a mile and a half from the shore. Small coasting boats lie off
the pier and there is no difficulty in loading or discharging cargo.
The water supply of the town is drawn from the wells of Takosha, about
three miles distant; every morning camels, in charge of old Somali
women and bearing goatskins filled with water, come into the town in
picturesque procession. ... [Zeila's] imports, which reach Zaila
chiefly via Aden, are mainly cotton goods, rice, jowaree, dates and
silk; the exports, 90% of which are from Abyssinia, are principally
coffee, skins, ivory, cattle, ghee and mother-of-pearl".
In August 1940,
Zeila was captured by advancing Italian troops. It
would remain under their occupation for over six months.
Ruins of the
Adal Sultanate in modern Zeila
In the post-independence period,
Zeila was administered as part of the
Awdal region of Somalia.
Following the outbreak of the civil war in the early 1990s, much of
the city's historic infrastructure was destroyed and many residents
left the area. However, remittance funds sent by relatives abroad have
contributed toward reconstruction of the town, as well as the local
trade and fishing industries.
As of 2012[update],
Zeila had a population of around 18,600
inhabitants. The broader
Zeila District has a total population of
The city of
Zeila is inhabited by people from the Somali ethnic group,
Gadabuursi subclan of the Dir clan family especially well
Zeila has 5 schools that provide primary education to 484
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Awdal is mainly
inhabited by the
Gadabuursi confederation of clans. The Gadaabursi are
concentrated in Awdal....
^ Abir, Era of the Princes, p. 15
^ "2011/2 Primary School Census Statistics Yearbook" (PDF).
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Indian Ocean: Their Ecology and Conservation: Their Ecology and
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Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Zeila.
Sir Richard Burton's account of
Zeila in the late 19th century
Zeila - coordinates