The Sultanate of Mogadishu (Somali: Saldanadda Muqdisho, Arabic: سلطنة مقديشو) (fl. 10th-16th centuries) was a medieval trading empire in Somalia. It rose as one of the pre-eminent powers in the Horn of Africa during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, before becoming part of the expanding Ajuran Empire. The Mogadishu Sultanate maintained a vast trading network, dominated the regional gold trade, minted its own Mogadishu currency, and left an extensive architectural legacy in present-day southern Somalia.
Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, is located in the horn of Africa and bordering the Red Sea. The major religion is Sunni Muslim and the official language is Somali although Arabic, Italian, and English are all spoken there. Mogadishu’s 2009 population estimate was 1.3 million people.
The 13th century Fakr ad-Din mosque in Mogadishu, Somalia.
The Almnara Tower in Mogadishu, erected during the reign of the Sultanate of Mogadishu.
Founded by the Arabs in the 10th century, Mogadishu became the capital and chief port of Somalia. Initially after their arrival, families of Arab and Persian descent ruled Somalia and fueled the widespread conversion to Islam. By the thirteenth century, Mogadishu became prosperous by trading gold, livestock, slaves, leather, and ivory.
In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the Muzzaffar Dynasty had dominated rule in Mogadishu and succeeded in defending the city against Portuguese invasion. However, by the next century, the Sultan of Oman conquered the city. In 1825 Mogadishu tried to overthrow Omani rule, and after refusal of aid from Britain, faced the challenge alone.
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea
According to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, maritime trade connected Somalis in the Mogadishu area with other communities along the Indian Ocean coast as early as the 1st century CE, and the ancient trading power of Sarapion has been postulated to be the predecessor of Mogadishu. With Muslim traders from the Arabian Peninsula arriving c. 900, Mogadishu was well-suited to become a regional center for commerce.
The name “Mogadishu” is held to be derived from the Arabic مقعد شاه Maq’ad Shah (“The seat of the Shah”), a reflection of the city’s early Persian influence.
For many years, Mogadishu stood as the pre-eminent city in the بلد البربر Bilad al Barbar (“Land of the Berbers”), which was the medieval Arabic term for the Horn of Africa. Following his visit to the city, the 12th-century Syrian historian Yaqut al-Hamawi wrote that it was inhabited by dark-skinned Berbers, the ancestors of the modern Somalis.
The Sultanate of Mogadishu developed with the immigration of Emozeidi Arabs, a community whose earliest presence dates back to the 9th or 10th century. This evolved into the Muzaffar dynasty, a joint Somali-Arab federation of rulers, and Mogadishu became closely linked with the powerful Somali Ajuran Sultanate.
During his travels, Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (1213–1286) noted that the city had already become the leading Islamic center in the region. By the time of the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta’s appearance on the Somali coast in 1331, the city was at the zenith of its prosperity. He described Mogadishu as “an exceedingly large city” with many rich merchants, which was famous for its high quality fabric that it exported to Egypt, among other places. Battuta added that the city was ruled by a Somali Sultan, Abu Bakr ibn Sayx ‘Umar, who was originally from Berbera in northern Somalia and spoke both Somali (referred to by Battuta as Mogadishan, the Benadir dialect of Somali) and Arabic with equal fluency. The Sultan also had a retinue of wazirs(ministers), legal experts, commanders, royal eunuchs, and other officials at his beck and call.
Archaeological excavations have recovered many coins from China, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. The majority of the Chinese coins date to the Song Dynasty, although the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty”are also represented,” according to Richard Pankhurst.
In 1416, Mogadishu sent ambassadors to pay tribute to the Ming dynasty. The Yongle Emperor dispatched Admiral Zheng He to return ambassadors to the Somali city, with Zheng He revisiting Mogadishu along with Barawa in 1430 during his fourth trip. He would also return during his fifth, sixth, and seventh voyages in the Indian Ocean.
In the Middle Ages, Mogadishu along with other coastal Somali cities in the south came under the Ajuran Sultanate’s sphere of influence and experienced another Golden Age. Vasco Da Gama, who passed by Mogadishu in the 15th century, noted that it was a large city with houses of four or five storeys high and big palaces in its centre and many mosques with cylindrical minarets. In the 16th century, Duarte Barbosa noted that many ships from the Kingdom of Cambaya sailed to Mogadishu with cloths andspices for which they in return received gold, wax and ivory. Barbaso also highlighted the abundance of meat, wheat, barley, horses, and fruit on the coastal markets, which generated enormous wealth for the merchants. Mogadishu, the center of a thriving weaving industry known as toob benadir (specialized for the markets in Egypt and Syria) Trading across the Arabian Sea enabled major ports like Mogadishu to prosper during the later Middle Ages. Ross E. Dunn describes Mogadishu and other East African Muslim settlements as “a kind of medieval America, a fertile, well-watered land of economic opportunity and a place of salvation from drought, famine, overpopulation, and war at home.”
Somali merchants from Mogadishu established a colony in Mozambique to extract gold from the mines in Sofala.
Sofala Gold Mines were founded by Somali Merchants in the 10th Century
During the 14th century, Mogadishu established its own Mogadishu currency for its medieval trading empire in the Indian Ocean. It centralized its commercial hegemony by minting coins to facilitate regional trade. The currency bore the names of the 23 successive Sultans of Mogadishu. The oldest pieces date back to 1323-24 and on the front bear the name of Abu Bakr ibn Muhaamad, the then Sultan of Mogadishu. On the back of the coins, the names of the fourCaliphs of the Rashidun Caliphate are inscribed. Other coins were also minted in the style of the extant Fatimid and the Ottoman currencies. Mogadishan coins were in widespread circulation. Pieces have been found as far away as modern United Arab Emirates, where a coin bearing the name of a 15th-century Somali Sultan Ali b. Yusuf of Mogadishu was excavated. Bronze pieces belonging to the Sultans of Mogadishu have also been found at Belid near Salalah in Dhofar. The coins continued to be minted until the 18th century.
Upon arrival in Mogadishu’s harbour, it was custom for small boats to approach the arriving vessel, and their occupants to offer food and hospitality to the merchants on the ship. If a merchant accepted such an offer, then he was obligated to lodge in that person’s house and to accept their services as sales agent for whatever business they transacted in Mogadishu.
The First Sultanate of Mogadishu In The The Account of Ibn-Battouta (1331)
The account of the famous Morrocan scholar Abou-Abd-Allah
Muhammad-Ibn-Battouta (1304-1369) gives us a complete
picture of the first Sultanate of Mogadishu, formed by Sheikh
Abubakr Fakr-el-Din. Ibn-Battouta was distinguished from other
scholars and travelers of his days by his profound personal
knowledge and accurate methodic observations of all that he
encountered during his long voyage. He did not write about
imaginary countries and peoples, where dragons, huge birds, or
cannibals so as to impress his listeners, a characteristic feature
of the distortions that continue to affect African history. Like
Marco Polo, he observed, enquired, took notes and provided
accurate accounts of what he saw. Like Marco Polo, he
contributed to the exchange of knowledge among distant
peoples. And Like Marco Polo, his works were not understood
immediately, but came to be appreciated a century later.
About Zeila, he wrote,
“I traveled from the city of Aden by sea for four days and arrived
at the city of Zeila, the city of the Berbers, who are a people of
the Negroes, Shaff’ites in rite. Their country is a desert extending
for two months journey, beginning at Zeila and ending at
Maqadashow. Their cattle are cattle, and they also have sheep
which are famed for their fat. The inhabitants of Zeila are black in
color, and the majority of them are Rafides. It is a larger city with
a great bazar, but it is in the dirtiest, most disagreeable and most
stinking town in the world. The reason for it’s stench is the quality
of the fish and blood of the camels that they slaughter in the
About Mogadishu, Ibn-Battouta wrote:
“We sailed on from there (Zeila) for fifteen nights, and came to
Magadashaw, which is a town of enormous size. It’s inhabitants
are merchants, possessors of vast resources; they own large
numbers of camels, of which slaughter hundreds everyday (for
food), and also have quantities of sheep. In this place are
manufactured the woven fabrics called after it which are
unequalled and exported from it to Egypt and elsewhere. It is the
system of the people of this town that, when a vessel reaches the
anchorage, the sambucas, which are small boats, come out to it.
In each sambuca, thereare a small number of young men of the
town, each one brings a covered platter containing food and
presents it to one of the merchants on the ship saying, “This is
my guest,” and each one of the others does the same. The
merchant, on disembarking, goes only to the house of the host
among the yound men, except those of them who have made
frequent journeys and have gained some acquaintance with it’s
inhabitants; these lodge where they please. When he takes up
residence with his host, the latter sells his goods for him, and
buys for him; and if anyone buys anything from him in the
absence of his host, that sale is held invalid by them. This
practice is a profitable one for them.
“When the young men came on board the vessel in which I was,
one of them came up to me. My companion said to him, “This
man is not a merchant, but a doctor of the Law,” whereupon he
called upon to his friends and said to them, “This is the guest of
the Qadi.” There was among them one of the Qadi’s men, who
informed him of this, and he came down to the beach with a
number of students and sent one of them to me. I then
disembarked with my companions and saluted him and his parts.
He said to me, “In the name of the God, let us go to salute the
Sheikh.” “And who is the Sheikh?” I asked, and he answered,
“The Sultan.” for it is their custom to the Sultan, “The Shiekh.”
Then I said to him, “When I am lodged, I shall go to him,” but he
said to me, “It is the custom that whenever comes a priest, or a
Sheriff, or a man of religion, he must first see the Sultan before
taking a lodging. So I went with him to the Sultan, as they asked.
Account on the Sultan of Maqdashaw
“The Sultan is as we have mentioned, called only by the title of
the Sheikh. His name is Abu-Bakr, son of the Sheikh Omar; he is
by the origin of the Berbers, and he speaks in Maqdishi, but now
the Arabic language. One of his customs is that, when a vessel
arrives, the Sultan’s sambuca goes to it, and inquires are made
as to the ship, where it has come from, who is it’s owner, and it’s
“rubban” (that is it’s captain), what is it’s cargo, and who has
come on it of merchants and others. When all this information has
been collected, it is presented to the Sultan, and if there are any
persons (of such quality) that the Sultan should assign a lodging
to him as his guest, he does. “When I arrived with the Qadi I have
mentioned who was called Ibn-el-Burhan, an Egyptian by origin,
at the Sultan’s residence, one of the serving boys came out and
saluted the Qadi, who said to him, “Take word to the intendent’s
office and inform the Sheikh that this man has come from the land
of Al-Hijaz.” So he took the message, then returned bringing a
plate on which were some leaves of betel and arica nuts. He gave
me ten leaves along with a few of the nuts, the same to the Qadi.
And what was left on the plate to my companions and the Qadi’s
students. He brought also a jug of rose-water of Damscus, which
he poured over me and over the Qadi i.e. over our hands and
said, “Our Master commands that he be lodged in the student’s
house,” this being a building equipped for the entertainment of
students of religion. The Qadi took my by the hand and we went
to this house which is in the vicinity of the Shiekh’s residence and
furnished with carpets, and all necessary appointments. Later on,
(the serving) brought food from the Sheikh’s residence. With him
came one of his viziers, who was responsible (for the care) of the
guests, and who said, “Our Master greets you and says to you
that you are heartily welcome.” He then set down the food and we
ate. Their food is rice cooked with ghee, which they put into a
large wooden platter, and on top of this they put platters of
kushan. This is the seasoning, made of chicken flesh meat, fish
and vegetables. They cook unripe bananas in fresh milk and put
this in one dish and in another dish they put curdled milk on
which they place (pieces) of pickled lemon bunches of pickled
pepper, steeped in vinegar and salted, green ginger, and
mangoes. These resemble apples but have a stone. When ripe
they are exceedingly sweet and are eaten (other) fruit, but before
ripening they are acid like lemon, and they pickle them in vinegar.
When they take a mouthful of rice, they eat some of these salted
and vinegar conserves after it. A single person of the people of
Maqdashaw eats as much as a whole company of us would eat,
as a matter of habit, and they are corpulent and fat in the
“After we had eaten, the Qadi took leave of us. We stayed there
three days, food being brought to us three times a day, following
their custom. On the fourth day, which was a Friday, the Qadi and
students, and one of the Sheikh’s viziers came to me, bringing a
set of robes. These (official) robes of theirs consist of a silk
wrapper which one ties round his waist in place of drawers (for
they have no acquaintance with these), a tunic of Egyptian linen
with an embroidered border, a furred mantle of Jerusalem
stuffand, an Egyptian turban with an Egyptian edge. They also
brought robes for my companions suitable for their position. We
went to the Congregational Mosque and made prayers behind
the maqsura. Then the Sheikh came out of the door of the
maqsura. I saluted him along with the Qadi; he said a word of
greetings, “You are heartily welcome and you have honored our
land and given us pleasure.” He went out to the court of the
Mosque, and stood by the grave of his father, who is buried
there, then recited some verses from the Qoran and said a
prayer. After this, the viziers, emirs and officers of the troops
came up and saluted him. Their manner of salutation is the same
as the custom of the people of Al-Yemen; one puts his forefinger
to the ground, then raises it to his head and says, “May God
protect the Majesty.” The Sheikh then went out of the gate of the
Mosque, put on his sandals, ordered the Qadi to put on his
sandals and me to do likewise, and set on foot for his residence,
which is close to the Mosque. All the rest of the people walked
barefoot. Over his head were carried four canopes of colored
silk, with the figure of a bird in gold on top of each cnaopy. His
garments on that day were a large green mantle of Jerusalam
stuff, with fine ropes of Egyptian stuff with their appendages
underneath it, and he was girted with a waisted wrapper of silk
and turbaned with a large turban. In front of him were the
commanders of the troops, while the Qadi, the doctors of the Law
and the Sheriffs walked alongside him. He entered his sufficience
hall in this disposition, and the viziers, emirs and officers of the
troops sat down in a gallery there. For the Qadi there was spread
a rug on which no one may sit but he, and beside were him were
the jurists and shariffs. They remained there until the hour of the
afternoon prayer and after they had prayed it, the whole body of
troops came and stood in rows in order f their ranks. Thereafter
the drums, fifes, trumpets and flutes are sounded; while they play
no one moves or stirs from his place and anyone who is walking
stands still, moving neither backwards nor forwards. When the
playing of the drum band comes to an end, they salute with their
fingers as we have described and withdraw. This is a custom of
theirs on every Friday.
“On the Saturday, the population comes to the Sheikh’s gate and
they sit in portions outside his residence. The Qadi, furists,
Sheriffs, men of religion, sheikhs and those who have made the
pilgrimage go into the second residence hal, where they sit on
platforms prepared for that purpose. The Qadi will be on a
platform by himself and each class of persons on the platform
proper to them, which is not shared by no others. The Sheikh
then takes his seat in his hall and sends for the Qadi who sits
down on his left, thereafter the jurists enter, and the principle
men amongst them sit down in fron of the Sheikh, while the
remainder salute and withdraw. Next the Sheriffs come in, their
principle men sit down in front of him, and the remainder salute
and withdraw. If they are guests they sit on the Sheriff’s right.
Next the Sheikh Piligrims come in, and their principle men sit, and
the rest salute and withdraw, Then come the viziers, the emirs,
the officers of the troops, group after group, and they salute and
withdraw. Food is brought in, the Qadi and the Sheriffs and all
those who are sitting in the hall eat in the presence of the Sheikh,
and eats with them. If he wants to honour one of his principle
emirs, he sends for him, and the latter eats with them. The rest of
the people in the dinning hall and order of eating is the same as
the order of entry into the Sheikh’s presence. The Sheikh then
goes into his residence, and the Qadi with the viziers, the private
secretary, and four of the principle emirs, sits for deciding cases
among the population and petitioners. Every case that is
concerned with the rulings of the Divine Law is described by the
Qadi, and all cases other than those are decided by the members
of the council, that is to say, the viziers and emirs. If any case
calls for consultation of the Sultan, they write to him about it, and
he sends out the reply to them immediately on the reverse of the
document as determined by his judgment. And this is their fixed
custom.” This is the first time we come to know about the
existence of a Sultanate in Mogadishu. In the beginning of the XIII
Century, Yacut reported that the affairs of the city were managed
by a Council of Four Elders, called of Mukhaddimin. Most likely,
the state of opulence and maximum splendor reached by the city
in the beginning of the XIV Century necessitated a change of
government. The popular belief relates of how Abubakr Sheikh
Omar Fakr-el-Din, a very modest man, established his Sultanate,
first by gaining reputation and prestige from the local religious
elders and then obtaining the collaboration of the majority of the
inhabitants of the city. It is also said that many families protested
against the formation of a Sultanate and consequently
immigrated to distant city-states along the coasts of East Africa.
Ibn-Battouta specifically identifies the Sultan Abu-Bakr Sheikh
Omar as being of the Berbers and that he spoke a local language
called Maqdashi. Interestingly, this proves that Mogadishu at it’s
highest stage of development was ruled and inhabited by
Berbers, contrary to the thesis, held by many scholars, that the
city was founded by Arab settlers. The fact that the Qadi was
Egyptian shows that Arabic was widely spoken, confirming the
presence of Arab influence. The carpets, the turban with an
Egyptian edge, the fine robes of Egyptian stuff, tunic of Egyptian
linen, furred Jerusalem mantle, the ranks of the senior officers
named in Arabic, all indicate the close ties between Mogadishu
and Egypt in the beginning of the XIV Century; there is no
mention of the influence of other Arab countries in Mogadishu.
- Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Career and Legend of Vasco Da Gama, (Cambridge University Press: 1998), p. 121.
- History of Ming, History of Mogadishu, volume 326
- Roland Anthony Oliver, J. D. Fage, Journal of African history, Volume 7, (Cambridge University Press.: 1966), p.30