Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Barbaroi of Northeast Africa

Normally I don't touch upon historical topics of this nature but this one was particularly alluring to me as it touches upon my homeland of the Horn of Africa and its neighbouring regions across Northeast Africa.

Northeast Africa

The term Barbaroi is a Greek term utilized by the Greeks of the classical era to describe various peoples across Northeast Africa back in antiquity. It, well, I'll let google explain it:

"From the Greek 'barbaroi,' meaning 'babblers,' used to mean non-Greeks, i.e., people who didn't speak Greek; from the sound that the Greeks thought they were making: 'bar bar bar bar...' " (check the notes at the end of this post)

The Greeks weren't the only peoples to mention them however nor did their mentioning cease after times coinciding with the Mediterranean classical era, in fact the term Barbara or variants of it were used to describe Somalis well into the 14th Century CE by such travelers as the famous Ibn Battuta. But more on that as we progress...

One of its first and most prominent usages was in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st Century CE document describing the trade across what was then known as the Red Sea to the classical world (The Indian Ocean) with the Red Sea being designated as "The Arabian Gulf". 

In the document as the labeling across Northeast Africa above shows; areas such as Northern Somalia & Northeastern Sudan were said to have been inhabited by Barbaroi (or in some translations "Berber") tribes of a seemingly mostly pastoral nomadic nature. 

The tribes in Northeastern Sudan mostly correspond with the Blemmyes who were by the 3rd-4th Centuries CE confirmed by the Aksumites to have been ancestral to the modern Beja (referring to them as Beja outright) & outlining their pastoral life-style just as the Greeks & Romans before them had when speaking of them as Blemmyes & Troglodytes as well as perhaps even Macrobians.

In Northern Somalia these Barbaroi tribes (generally thought with some good indicators to be mostly ancestral to Somalis) are described to be the progenitors of what were then in antiquity known as "The Far-side Ports", independently ruled Market-towns (with some semblance of a suzerainty with Aksum) inhabited by these tribal Barbaroi peoples (in an area the Greeks designated as one of the Berber countries) who traded with Arabians, South Asians & peoples from the Mediterranean world alike. 

Each port-town is visibly mapped on that modern mapping of the Periplus' directions for example or even this other mapping made by a hobbyist historian I tend to correspond with:

I won't go into details about every single port lest this post end up too cluttered but for example Mosyllum or Mosylon which was not only mentioned by the Greeks but also Roman writers trading with it for Cinammon [8, page 229] is described with the following in the Periplus:

"Beyond Mundus, sailing toward the east, after another two days' sail, or three, you reach Mosyllum, on a beach, with a bad anchorage. There are imported here the same things already mentioned, also silver plate, a very little iron, and glass. There are shipped from the place a great quantity of cinnamon, (so that this market-town requires ships of larger size), and fragrant gums, spices, a little tortoise shell, and mocrotu, (poorer than that of Mundus), frankincense [from] the “far-side”, ivory and myrrh in small quantities."

Many of the names of these places are Greek distortions of what they were probably originally called. And of course there is archaeological evidence of old settlements of this sort across Northern Somalia, one town Opone is believed with some evidence to correspond with the town Hafun (Somali: Xaafuun, Arabic: حافون) with evidence of a sedentary settlement, tombs, ruined homes with court yards, cut building blocks & old pottery found in the area.

Found by Neville Chittick & company

Various archaeological teams of German, British, American & even Somali origins managed to encounter several sites all across Northern Somalia, to name but a few individuals:

Along with other teams and individuals finding evidence of trade, ruins and even the continuity (continued usage) of sites that in age look quite old. A plethora of sites likely dating back to antiquity (before the Middle ages) would be Heis, Amud (this site seems Aksumite-like), Wargaade (this particular site is mentioned by and was aided in being preserved by Sada Mire), Zeila, Hafun, Berbera, Botiala and so on.

"Ancient Egyptian, Roman and Persian Gulf pottery has been recovered from the site by an archaeological team from the University of Michigan. In the 1970s, Neville Chittick, a British archaeologist, initiated the British-Somali expedition where he and his Somali colleagues encountered remains of ancient drystone walls, houses with courtyards, and the location of the old harbour." [3, page 8]

Intriguingly the same type of boat used by both these Barbaroi of Northern Somalia & the Aksumites of Late Antiquity was used in the region well into the early modern period by Somalis. I.e. one type of traditional Somali boat called the "Beden" is a variant of the Red-Sea Indian Ocean trade ship long used by South Asian, Southeast African, Arabian & Horn African sea traders as is outlined for example in this text from a comprehensive book on the Aksumite civilization:

"The Aksumite technique whereby ships were made by binding with ropes, not by using nails, which is also mentioned by the Periplus as existing on the East African coast (Huntingford 1980: 29), lasted until recently in the Somali, Hadrami, and East African coastal regions, where such `sewn boats' were common. Procopius' information is a very good indication that when he speaks of Kaleb's fleet he was actually referring to Aksumite ships rather than others simply using Aksumite ports. It cannot be said what proportion of goods might have been shipped in Aksumite vessels, but as a trading nation with a maritime outlet of great importance, and later on an empire to administer overseas, it is certain that Aksum's merchant fleet or navy was a useful, even vital, part of the apparatus of commerce and government." [2, page 186)

On another note; the Barbaroi (or Berber or as it is sometimes translated; "Barbarian") epithet however did not cease to be once one was out of Northern Somalia & Northeastern Sudan back in antiquity. Barbaroi peoples are described to inhabit the Danakil/ Afar triangle as well as parts of what is now Eritrea by various sources of Roman (Latin), Greek & even Aksumite origin.

One of the most famous is in an Aksumite document that describes an Aksumite King of King's conquests of various tribes and peoples across his realm. Within the Danakil he mentions groups of these tribes of Barbaria (regions of the Horn inhabited by these tribal pastoral nomadic peoples):

"I defeated also the barbarian people of Rauso who live by the aromatics trade, in immense plains without water, and the Solate, whom I also defeated, imposing on them the task of guarding the sea-lanes."

The directions he gives with his general conquests and description he offers with vast plains without water (desert landscape) inhabited by these tribes looks to be as this modern mapping (by that acquaintance) shares; the Danakil desert:

It is today inhabited by the Afar mostly who intriguingly keep on the same tradition of gathering blocks of salt from the unforgiving desert (if not the most unforgiving) to be traded in Ethiopia as they were back in the late antiquity based period of Kaleb's reign [2, 152]. In fact salt-blocks gathered from these nomadic groups in the Danakil remained a form of currency for the medieval Abyssinian Empire [12, page 103] as they were for certain segments of Aksumite society for centuries.

Many other instances of Barbaroi-Barbarian-Berber tribes are mentioned across the area of the Aksumite Empire/ Kingdom's reign, many by Roman & Greek writers. One has a part in describing how Christianity came to the region, a dominant religion in Ethiopia & Eritrea nowadays that has a history stretching back as early as the 4th Century CE in the region. 

It plays into the story of Frumentius, a Tyrian man who would find himself enslaved within the court of an Aksumite King, having a part in the upbringing of this King of King's son, Aezana of Aksum; a man who would not only convert much of his realm to Christianity and abolish its pagan traditions (Frumentius would become Aksum's first Bishop) but also win many great conquests for the pre-medieval state.

The following events are written about by Tyrannius Rufinus:

"One Metrodorus, a philosopher, is said to have penetrated to further India in order to view places and see the world. Inspired by his example, one Meropius, a philosopher of Tyre, wished to visit India with a similar object, taking with him two small boys who were related to him and whom he was educating in humane studies. The younger of these was called Aedesius, the other Frumentius. When, having seen and taken note of what his soul fed upon, the philosopher had begun to return, the ship, on which he traveled put in for water or some other necessary at a certain port. It is the custom of the barbarians of these parts that, if ever the neighbouring tribes should report that their treaty with the Romans is broken, all Romans found among them should be massacred. The philosopher's ship was boarded; all with himself were put to the sword. The boys were found studying under a tree and preparing their lessons, and, preserved by the mercy of the barbarians, were taken to the king. He made one of them, Aedesius, his cupbearer. Frumentius, whom he had perceived to be sagacious and prudent, he made his treasurer and secretary. Therefore they were held in great honour and affection by the king."[2, page 171]

 These particular Barbaroi tribes were subservient to the Aksumite King of Kings of the time, guarding the trade routes across the Red Sea region (areas today inhabited by Sahos, Bejas, Tigrinya, Afar, Tigre, Rashaida (the last group being recent migrants) etc.) on his behalf. One must wonder if peoples ancestral to the modern Tigre were among these pastoral nomadic tribes described across the Northeast African coast, they do not speak a Cushitic language like the other groups (Somalis, Bejas, Sahos, Afars) but it's not like the Aksumites, Romans & Greeks were aware of the Afro-Asiatic language family or the difference between Ethiopian Semitic & Cushitic to begin with.

Danakil Desert

One of the most interesting things about these Barbaroi peoples is not simply that foreign groups such as the Greco-Romans & sometimes even the Aksumites felt the need to conflate them together under one epithet but that there is actually a certain level of cultural similarity between all of them described even in historical texts from antiquity to the medieval period.

"The geographer Artemidorus, writing around 100 BCE in passages passed down to us by Diodorus Siculus and Strabo, described them as living "a nomadic life on their flocks, each group with its tyrant. At the time of the Etesian winds, when there are heavy rains, they live on blood and milk, which they mix together."

 That was a 100 BCE and earlier description of the lifestyle of certain Blemmye tribes in Northeastern Sudan (ancestral Beja tribes). This practice of drinking cattle blood mixed with milk is not exclusive to them, in fact one book would go so far as to dub it a "Cushitic Custom" (unfortunately I can't find a sample of it to share online).

However a Chinese source on Northern Somalia during the early medieval period (800-900 CE) describes the local nomadic pastoralist Somali inhabitants as not only being able to hold back the forces of the "Tazi" (The Caliphates) with a force of 200,000 soldiers (likely an exaggeration to merely put the point across that they had a powerful fighting force) but also having practiced this same custom of drinking cattle blood with milk:

"The people do not eat any of the five grains but they eat meat: more frequently even they pick a vein of one of their oxen, mix the blood with milk and eat it raw."  [17]

The Chinese author, Duan Chengshi referred to the area as "Bobali" (or some variant of such), however this is likely not an example of the word "Somali" but likely a distortion of the Beber-Barbara-Barbaroi term in some way [4, page 48].  Medieval Somalis were either designated by their clan names such as in the Futuh Al-Ḥabasha ("The Conquest of Abyssinia". Granted, the word "Somali" is employed in this document), or they were referred to with the word Barbara or some variant of it. 

The word "Somali" was actually only first employed in a victory hymn arranged by the Abyssinian Emperor Yeshaq I upon winning a victory against a Muslim Sultan & his troops, it was apparently used to describe the Sultan's forces. [13, page 2] Even then it was not used widely until much later.

These aren't the only similarities and connections between the pastoral nomadic peoples of the coastal regions of the Horn & Northeastern Sudan. Virtually all of them are speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages with the majority excluding Tigre being speakers of only one branch within the family-> Cushitic, albeit with sub-branches within this branch separating them.

Inquiries into some of their languages such as Saho-Afar & Beja even show evidence of them being historically geographically contiguous [6, page 1], in fact Beja; the sole member of the North Cushitic subbranch's connection to other Cushitic languages was, to some extent by one linguist, bridged by its connection to two Lowland East Cushitic languages; Saho & Afar, all three languages being similar in morphology and the only Cushitic languages to follow what he dubs the root and pattern system [7, page 1]. 

A depiction of Saint Frumentius of Ethiopia

The contact between the Beja & Tigre is also well-known, to a point where a segment of the Beja (the Beni-Amer) are known to often speak Tigre alongside Beja or even instead of it, supposedly intermixing with the Tigre. 

The Tigre while they are Ethiopian Semitic speakers are also descended predominantly like other Ḥabeshas (though some would argue they do not culturally fit within the "Ḥabesha" designation) would from originally Cushitic-Agaw speakers before their ancient ancestors made a shift to Semitic likely around ~2800-3000 yBP [9].

Many of these groups are also likely closely related as it has been found that all of the Cushitic & Ethiopian Semitic inhabitants of the Horn tested so far for their autosomal DNA are very closely related groups albeit there are distinctions between them to be made. 

 Sadly Sahos, Afars (true Afars) and Bejas have not had their autosomal DNA results published in any paper/ study however we have had show of their uniparentals (Y-DNA & mtDNA) which show a clear relation with all of the populations already tested for their autosomal DNA data: [-] , [-].

 It has personally always amazed me how similar these groups were in culture all the way down to their attire, until even the early modern period of recorded history where one could observe things such as their armaments or images of them going along with their day to day lives, almost feeling as though they were observing the same ethnic group spread out across Northeast Africa. 

Early Modern Period

The moniker's usage (or variants of it) didn't cease for Somalis after the Middle Ages began however... In fact the the Islamic-Arab world much like it would have known the Levant as "Bilad-Al-Shaam" (Country of Shaam) knew everything from Zeila down to Mogadishu during the Middle Ages as "Bilad Al-Barbar" (Country of the Berbers) or "Barbara" [5, page 130], a region with many demographics alongside Somalis from Afars, Oromos, Arabians & Persians but largely dominated in most places by the pastoral-nomadic & tradesman Somali whom the Barbara term was mostly used on.

The Islamic-Arab world having inherited many documents from the classical & late antiquity based Greco-Roman world was likely carrying on the old designations left behind to a certain extent.

Early Modern Beja

At this point & even when Duan Chengshi visited; Islam had long since, seemingly through trade, wrapped its clutches around the region. One of the first Mosques built outside of the Arabian Peninsula was in fact the Masjid Al-Qiblatayn. During this period (~600-1100 CE) the Somali had begun adopting claimed Arabian origins likely as I.M Lewis muses [10, pages 128-129] below- :

"The traditions of descent from noble Arab families related to the Prophet are most probably expressions of the importance of Islam in Somali society."

-to strengthen Somali society's ties to Islam. Somalis & other Horn Africans clearly have some high West Asian-related input (~35-50%) however this is certainly not admixture of a recent nature owed to modern Arabians. Nevertheless, even my own clan origins (I am an ethnic Somali) would claim I am essentially a Hashemite, descended from Aqeel Ibn Abi Talib (an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad) through his supposed descendant Abdirahman bin Isma'il al-Jabarti

Early Modern Saho

 Frankly, it's unlikely these venerated Somali Saints were ever actually Arab migrants (if they were-> they most likely weren't actual clan founders but simply adopted as such) who took "native" wives & converted the locals to Islam as some sources will posit, acting as though the region was colonized by Somalis & Arabs during the early middle ages and frankly; the genetic evidence that we don't descend from a recent mixture between un-admixed African populations and modern Arabians is ample.

Needless to say, the medieval Somali founded several polities such as the Ajuran Sultanate,  the Warsangali Sultanate , possibly the Ifat Sultanate (Wilinwili/ Walashma dynasty) whom they seemingly mostly soldiered, and had some joint Somali-Arab polities such as the ruling class of the Sultanate of Mogadishu

Early Modern Afar Nomad

Somali control over the south from what can be surmised was mostly a medieval phenomenon, if you refer back to the Periplus map or the Periplus itself, the south of Somalia was during antiquity (1st Century CE) for example; ruled over by the Himyarite Kingdom of old pre-Islamic Yemen. Cities such as Mogadishu with a name that literally means "Seat of the Shah" (Maq'ad-i-Shah, مقعد شاه) also had an early Persian & generally foreign influence about them.

It was only in the North of Somalia where since antiquity the Barbaroi peoples of the Horn were mentioned to be dominant and outside rule beyond a bit of an Aksumite influence was unheard of [1, page 27, paragraph 14], Greek, Chinese & Islamic world authors all mentioning the independence streak in the North until the Ottomans final seized large portions of the Northern coast.

Traditional Beja weaponry

However authors such as Yaqut Al-Hammawi by the 12-13th Century CE described Mogadishu for example as being inhabited by what can be translated into "dark skinned Berbers" (medieval Somalis) [14, page 36]. By the time of Ibn Battuta (14th Century CE), the medieval equivalent of  the "Berber Country" of the 1st Century CE stretching across Northern Somalia had found its way down to Southern Somalia. 

When Ibn Battuta visited the Somali Peninsula during the Middle Ages he described the inhabitants of Zeila with the following [11]:

"He described the inhabitants as "Barbara," Muslim blacks who were followers of the Imam al- Shafi'i, although Battuta notes that the majority were "rejectors," i.e. (Shi'ite) people who rejected the first three caliphs. They herded camels and sheep"

He finally also described the Sultan of Mogadishu at the time to have been a "Barbara" and to have spoken Arabic & a language that was neither Arabic, Persian or Swahili he dubbed Mogadishan (or Maqdishi or some such variant) with equal fluency (assumed to be the Benadiri variant of Somali). [15] [16] He humorously did not stay long in Zeila where he found its stench unbearable due to how the local Barbara slaughtered their camels in its alleyways. He noted that it was a large city with a sizable bazaar nonetheless.

Honestly, there's a long history for all of these medieval polities from the Ajuran & their conflicts with the expanding Oromo tribes as well as the Portuguese, the Adal & their bloody war with the Abyssinian Empire under Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim and the Warsangali among other groups' movements all the way until the arrival of the Early Modern Period. But I'll leave it mostly at that with the history of the Barbaroi-Barbara term in Somalia.

Traditional Somali shield, more normally beige like the very similar Beja shield.

The other Cushitic speaking groups to have historically been touched by this title of Barbaroi and various variants of it also founded historical sultanates/kingdoms (all also becoming Islamized at one point or the other) such as for example the Aussa Sultanate of the Afar venerated as a part of general Ethiopian history & also as the following text from Stuart Munro-Hay's extensive book on the Aksumite civilization notes; the Beja started gaining strong political weight across areas of what is now Eritrea  during the medieval period:

"At just this time, in northern Abyssinia, the Beja tribes were growing stronger, and in 831 a treaty between the caliph al-Mu`tasim and Kannun ibn Abd al-Aziz, `king' of the Beja (Hasan 1973: 49-51), seems to recognise his power even as far south as Dahlak. This may well indicate that there had been disputes between the Beja and the Ethiopians, with the Ethiopians, at least temporarily, coming off rather the worse in the conflict." [2, page 93]

One Islamic world source of the middle ages went so far as to mention about five Beja kingdoms [2, page 89].

Ultimately it's quite intriguing how all of these coastal Cushites & Ethio-Semites (the Tigre) have long since had similar customs, diets (unsurprising in some respects given their shared pastoralism), modes of dress and even shared historical terms, although the term Barbaroi while it morphed off into its own thing for Somalis in the Middle Ages is honestly a generic term for Greeks, it would also be used to describe certain peoples unfamiliar with Greek in Europe itself. 

Anyway, future archaeological, linguistic and genetic study (gathering samples from more ethnic groups... Sequencing ancient genomes?) on the region when the time comes will no doubt make all of this even more interesting.

Reference List:


1. As just some interesting trivia: both modern Northern Somalia & Northern Sudan are home to towns/ cities carrying the old Barbaroi-Berber epithet in their name. Berbera in Northern Somalia which is actually thought to correspond with one of the towns in the Periplus & Berber in North Sudan.

2. You're welcome to read all about the rest of the Barbaroi ports & towns in Northern Somalia in the Periplus I've shared. It's interesting that one of their main commodities was Frankincense (something the Silk-Road trading world of the time came to know the region for) given that Somalia is one of the world's premiere suppliers of Frankincense to this day. And Somali even supposedly its word for "Frankincense" to Old-South-Arabian.

3. You're welcome to read up more on Beja history in Egypt & North Sudan, they're written about by the following Greco-Roman writers: Herodotus , Strabo , Diodorus Siculus, Agatharchides, Pliny, Tacitus, Josephus.

4. The modern translation of "Barbaroi" or "Berber" as Barbarian is not always entirely correct, to my understanding the Greeks didn't necessarily always use it to connote that a group or groups were entirely "Barbaric" but this was often a meaning of the term indeed and the word is the root of the word "Barbarian".

It was also, in part, that they did not speak Greek (the Aksumites' rulers such as King Zoskales mentioned in the Periplus were familiar with Greek and even left behind inscriptions in Greek) & that their culture seemed foreign, this could often mean the Greeks looked down on said group as the Greco-Romans often viewed their culture as superior to others.

5. The Maasai who are as per Tishkoff et al. 2009 about ~50% Cushitic and known to have pre-historic West Asian ancestry as per Pickrell et al. 2013 spread by South-Cushitic pastoralists also interestingly have this practice of drinking cattle blood with milk, they seem to practice it to this day.


1. Although I would note that if pastoral nomadic lowland residing Ethio-Semites did exist before the Middle Ages and if they were ancestral to Tigres; one might want to doubt that they would have been seen as distinct from Ge'ez speaking Aksumites beyond mere life style, as one friend would put it: "Tigre is closely related to Tigrinya and Ge'ez, and in ancient times they would (most likely) have been the same language, or shared a high degree of mutual intelligibility." This is indeed true as anyone familiar with Ethio-Semitic linguistics would tell you...


  1. Wow. The horn had such an long history!

    1. Well, glad this was an interesting read for you.

  2. Excellent overview! As a Somali im curious Awale whats your take on the potential of archeology in the horn and the potential to answer questions and further the study of these ancient people who had contact with the ancient greeks?

    Do you think there is the possibility of the term/label barbaroi being of horner origin as greeks were Known to adopt what was foreign put a stamp on it as their own.

  3. "Excellent overview! As a Somali im curious Awale whats your take on the potential of archeology in the horn and the potential to answer questions and further the study of these ancient people who had contact with the ancient greeks?"

    A massive amount of potential... Sadly there's been some looting in certain parts of Somalia:

    But there's still a lot of left in terms of pottery and other such items and of course the actual sites and cities while ruined still remain and can be studied quite extensively. On the Ethiopian side; there's A LOT that can also be done. Much of Aksum has barely been excavated and they're still making intriguing finds like the following:

    Without going on and on; I'll say that there's a lot we could learn about the Horn's history via archaeology and hopefully someday even the sampling of various ancient remains. This way we can conclusively tie various groups to their modern counterparts or try and explain how many modern groups in the Horn "came to be".

    "Do you think there is the possibility of the term/label barbaroi being of horner origin as greeks were Known to adopt what was foreign put a stamp on it as their own."

    We may learn someday what the actual term (or terms) these peoples used to describe themselves was but it is ultimately quite evident that Barbaroi was a Greek term. They used it outside of the Horn as I mentioned for example. It was just a term directly taken from their language that they used for foreign people unfamiliar with Greek and to also sometimes denote that said people by their perspective were somehow "Barbaric".