Horn of Africa
Countries in the Horn of Africa, are  Eritrea,  Djibouti,  Ethiopia,  Somalia

The Horn of Africa (Amharic: የአፍሪካ ቀንድ?, Arabic: القرن الأفريقي‎, Somali: Geeska Afrika, Tigrinya: ቀርኒ ኣፍሪቃ) (alternatively Northeast Africa, and sometimes Somali Peninsula; shortened to HOA) is a peninsula in East Africa that juts hundreds of kilometers into the Arabian Sea and lies along the southern side of the Gulf of Aden. It is the easternmost projection of the African continent. Referred to in medieval times as Bilad al Barbar ("Land of the Berbers"),[1][2][3] the Horn of Africa denotes the region containing the countries of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia.[4][5][6][7]

It covers approximately 2,000,000 km² (770,000 sq mi) and is inhabited by about roughly 100 million people (Ethiopia: 85 million, Somalia: 9.3 million, Eritrea: 5.2 million, and Djibouti: 0.86 million). Regional studies on the Horn of Africa are carried out, among others, in the fields of Ethiopian Studies as well as Somali Studies.


Geography and climate

The Horn of Africa as seen from the NASA Space Shuttle in May 1993. The orange and tan colors in this image indicate a largely arid to semiarid climate.

The Horn of Africa is almost equidistant from the equator and the Tropic of Cancer. It consists chiefly of mountains uplifted through the formation of the Great Rift Valley, a fissure in the Earth's crust extending from Turkey to Mozambique and marking the separation of the African and Arabian tectonic plates. Most of the region is mountainous which arose through faults resulting from the Rift Valley, with the highest peaks in the Semien Mountains of northwestern Ethiopia.

Extensive glaciers once covered the Simien and Bale Mountains but melted at the beginning of the Holocene. The mountains descend in a huge escarpment to the Red Sea and more steadily to the Indian Ocean. Socotra is a small island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. Its size is 3,600 km² (1,390 sq mi) and it is a territory of Yemen, the southernmost country on the Arabian peninsula.

The Horn of Africa. NASA image

The lowlands of the Horn are generally arid in spite of their proximity to the equator. This is because the winds of the tropical monsoons that give seasonal rains to the Sahel and the Sudan blow from the west. Consequently, they lose their moisture upon reaching Djibouti and Somalia, with the result that most of the Horn receives little rainfall during the monsoon season. On the windward side in the west and center of Ethiopia and the extreme south of Eritrea, monsoonal rainfall is heavy.

In the mountains of Ethiopia, many areas receive over 2,000 mm (80 in) per year, and even Asmara receives an average of 570 mm (23 in). This rainfall is the sole source of water for many areas outside Ethiopia, most famously Egypt, which — in terms of rainfall — is the driest nation on Earth.[clarification needed]

In the winter, the northeasterly trade winds do not provide any moisture except in mountainous areas of northern Somalia, where rainfall in late autumn can produce annual totals as high as 500 mm (20 in). On the eastern coast, a strong upwelling and the fact that the winds blow parallel to the coast means annual rainfall can be as low as 50 mm (2 in).

Temperatures on the Red Sea coast are some of the hottest in the world, typically around 41°C (106°F) in July and 32°C (90°F) in January, though east coast temperatures are somewhat cooler because of the upwelling of the current. As elevation increases, temperatures decrease so that at Asmara, maximum temperatures are around 20°C (68°F), though frosts are frequent on cloudless nights. On the highest peaks of the Simien Mountains however, temperatures rarely reach 14°C (57°F) and can be as low as –10°C (14°F) on cloudless nights.



Shell middens 125,000 years old have been found in Eritrea,[8] indicating the diet of early humans included seafood obtained by beachcombing.

The Red Sea crossing

According to both genetic and fossil evidence, archaic Homo sapiens evolved to anatomically modern humans solely in Africa between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, with members of one branch leaving Africa by 60,000 years ago and over time replacing earlier human populations such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus. The recent single origin of modern humans in East Africa is the near-consensus position held within the scientific community.[9]

Today at the Bab-el-Mandeb straits the Red Sea is about 12 miles (20 kilometres) wide, but 50,000 years ago it was much narrower and sea levels were 70 meters lower. Though the straits were never completely closed, there may have been islands in between which could be reached using simple rafts.

It has been estimated that from a population of 2,000 to 5,000 individuals in Africa,[10] only a small group of possibly as little as 150 to 1,000 people crossed the Red Sea.[11] Of all the lineages present in Africa only the female descendants of one lineage, mtDNA haplogroup L3, are found outside Africa. Had there been several migrations one would expect descendants of more than one lineage to be found outside Africa. L3's female descendants, the M and N haplogroup lineages, are found in very low frequencies in Africa (although haplogroup M1 is very ancient and diversified in North Africa and on the Horn of Africa) and appear to be recent arrivals.

Other scientists have proposed a Multiple Dispersal Model, in which there were two migrations out of Africa, one across the Red Sea travelling along the coastal regions to India (the Coastal Route), which would be represented by Haplogroup M. Another group of migrants with Haplogroup N followed the Nile from East Africa, heading northwards and crossing into Asia through the Sinai. This group then branched in several directions, some moving into Europe and others heading east into Asia. This hypothesis attempts to explain why Haplogroup N is predominant in Europe and why Haplogroup M is absent in Europe.

Ancient history

Ancient trading centers in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula according to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

Together with northern Somalia, Djibouti, and the Red Sea coast of Sudan, Eritrea is considered the most likely location of the land known to the ancient Egyptians as Punt (or "Ta Netjeru," meaning god's land), whose first mention dates to the 25th century BC.[12] The ancient Puntites were a nation of people that had close relations with Pharaonic Egypt during the times of Pharaoh Sahure and Queen Hatshepsut.

D'mt was a kingdom located in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia that existed during the 8th and 7th centuries BC. With its capital at Yeha, the kingdom developed irrigation schemes, used plows, grew millet, and made iron tools and weapons. After the fall of Dʿmt in the 5th century BC, the plateau came to be dominated by smaller successor kingdoms, until the rise of one of these kingdoms during the first century, the Aksumite Kingdom, which was able to reunite the area.[13]

Ezana's obelisk at Aksum, symbol of the Aksumite civilization.

The Kingdom of Aksum (also known as "Axum") was an ancient state located in the north of modern-day Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea that thrived between the 1st and 7th centuries. A major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India, Aksum's rulers facilitated trade by minting their own currency. The state also established its hegemony over the declining Kingdom of Kush and regularly entered the politics of the kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, eventually extending its rule over the region with the conquest of the Himyarite Kingdom. Under Ezana, Aksum became the first major empire to convert to Christianity, and was named by Mani as one of the four great powers of his time, along with Persia, Rome and China.

Northern Somalia was an important link in the Horn, connecting the region's commerce with the rest of the ancient world. Somali sailors and merchants were the main suppliers of frankincense, myrrh and spices, all of which were valuable luxuries to the Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Mycenaeans, Babylonians and Romans.[14][15] The Romans consequently began to refer to the region as Regio Aromatica. In the classical era, several flourishing Somali city-states such as Opone, Mosyllon and Malao also competed with the Sabaeans, Parthians and Axumites for the rich Indo-Greco-Roman trade.[16]

The birth of Islam opposite the Horn's Red Sea coast meant that local merchants and sailors living on the Arabian Peninsula gradually came under the influence of the new religion through their converted Arab Muslim trading partners. With the migration of Muslim families from the Islamic world to the Horn in the early centuries of Islam, and the peaceful conversion of the local population by Muslim scholars in the following centuries, the ancient city-states eventually transformed into Islamic Mogadishu, Berbera, Zeila, Barawa and Merka, which were part of the Berber civilization.[17][18] The city of Mogadishu came to be known as the "City of Islam"[19] and controlled the East African gold trade for several centuries.[20]

Middle Ages and Early Modern era

Ruins of the Sultanate of Adal in Zeila.

During the Middle Ages, several powerful empires dominated the regional trade, including the Sultanate of Adal, the Ajuuraan State, the Warsangali Sultanate, the Zagwe dynasty, and the Gobroon Dynasty.

The Adal Sultanate was a medieval multi-ethnic Muslim state in the Horn. At its height, it controlled large parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea. Many of the historic cities in the region, such as Maduna, Abasa, Berbera, Zeila and Harar, flourished during the kingdom's golden age, a period that left behind numerous courtyard houses, mosques, shrines and walled enclosures. After the death of Sa'ad ad-Din II, Adal succeeded the Ifat Sultanate as the pre-eminent local Muslim power. Under the leadership of rulers such as Sabr ad-Din II, Mansur ad-Din, Jamal ad-Din II, Shams ad-Din, General Mahfuz and Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, Adalite armies continued the struggle against the Solomonic dynasty, a campaign historically known as the Conquest of Abyssinia or Futuh al Habash.

The Warsangali Sultanate was an imperial ruling house centered in northeastern and in some parts of southeastern Somalia. It was one of the largest sultanates ever established in the territory, and, at the height of its power, included the Sanaag region and parts of the northeastern Bari region of the country, an area historically known as Maakhir or the Maakhir Coast. The Sultanate was founded in the late 13th century in northern Somalia by a group of Somalis from the Warsangali branch of the Darod clan, and was ruled by the descendants of the Gerad Dhidhin.

The citadel in Gondershe, an important city in the medieval Ajuuraan Empire.

Through a strong centralized administration and an aggressive military stance towards invaders, the Ajuuraan Empire successfully resisted an Oromo invasion from the west and a Portuguese incursion from the east during the Gaal Madow and the Ajuuraan-Portuguese wars. Trading routes dating from the ancient and early medieval periods of Somali maritime enterprise were also strengthened or re-established, and the state left behind an extensive architectural legacy. Many of the hundreds of ruined castles and fortresses that dot the landscape of Somalia today are attributed to Ajuuraan engineers,[21] including a lot of the pillar tomb fields, necropolises and ruined cities built during that era. The royal family, the House of Gareen, also expanded its territories and established its hegemonic rule through a skillful combination of warfare, trade linkages and alliances.[22]

The Zagwe dynasty ruled many parts of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea from approximately 1137 to 1270. The name of the dynasty comes from the Cushitic-speaking Agaw people of northern Ethiopia. From 1270 CE on for many centuries, the Solomonic dynasty ruled the Ethiopian Empire.

In the early fifteenth century Ethiopia sought to make diplomatic contact with European kingdoms for the first time since Aksumite times. A letter from King Henry IV of England to the Emperor of Abyssinia survives.[23] In 1428, the Emperor Yeshaq sent two emissaries to Alfonso V of Aragon, who sent return emissaries who failed to complete the return trip.[24]

The first continuous relations with a European country began in 1508 with Portugal under Emperor Lebna Dengel, who had just inherited the throne from his father.[25] This proved to be an important development, for when the empire was subjected to the attacks of the Adal Sultanate General and Imam, Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (called "Gurey" or "Grañ", both meaning "the Left-handed"), Portugal assisted the Ethiopian emperor by sending weapons and four hundred men, who helped his son Gelawdewos defeat Ahmad and re-establish his rule.[26] This Ethiopian–Adal War was also one of the first proxy wars in the region as the Ottoman Empire, and Portugal took sides in the conflict.

When Emperor Susenyos converted to Roman Catholicism in 1624, years of revolt and civil unrest followed resulting in thousands of deaths.[27] The Jesuit missionaries had offended the Orthodox faith of the local Ethiopians, and on June 25, 1632, Susenyos's son, Emperor Fasilides, declared the state religion to again be Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and expelled the Jesuit missionaries and other Europeans.[28][29]

The Sultanate of Hobyo's cavalry and fort.

The Gobroon Dynasty (Geledi Sultanate) was a Somali royal house that ruled parts of East Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was established by the Ajuuraan soldier Ibrahim Adeer, who had defeated various vassals of the Ajuuraan Empire and established the House of Gobroon. The dynasty reached its apex under the successive reigns of Sultan Yusuf Mahamud Ibrahim, who successfully consolidated Gobroon power during the Bardera wars, and Sultan Ahmed Yusuf, who forced regional powers such as the Omani Empire to submit tribute.

The Sultanate of Hobyo was a 19th century Somali ruling house founded by Sultan Yusuf Ali Kenadid. Initially, Kenadid's goal was to seize control of the neighboring Majeerteen Sultanate, which was then ruled by his cousin Boqor Osman Mahamud. However, he was unsuccessful in this endeavor, and was eventually forced into exile in Yemen. A decade later, in the 1870s, Kenadid returned from the Arabian Peninsula with a band of Hadhrami musketeers and a group of devoted lieutenants. With their assistance, he managed to establish the kingdom of Hobyo, which would rule much of northeastern and central Somalia during the early modern period.[30]

Modern history

Building of regional administration in Asmara.

In the period following the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, when European powers scrambled for territory in Africa and tried to establish coaling stations for their ships, Italy invaded and occupied Eritrea. On January 1, 1890, Eritrea officially became a colony of Italy. In 1896 further Italian incursion into the horn was decisively halted by Ethiopian forces. By 1936 however, Eritrea became a province of Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana), along with Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland. By 1941, Eritrea had about 760,000 inhabitants, including 70,000 Italians.[31] The Commonwealth armed forces, along with the Ethiopian patriotic resistance, expelled those of Italy in 1941,[32] and took over the area's administration. The British continued to administer the territory under a UN Mandate until 1951, when Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia, as per UN resolution 390(A) and under the prompting of the United States adopted in December 1950.

The strategic importance of Eritrea, due to its Red Sea coastline and mineral resources, was the main cause for the federation with Ethiopia, which in turn led to Eritrea's annexation as Ethiopia's 14th province in 1952. This was the culmination of a gradual process of takeover by the Ethiopian authorities, a process which included a 1959 edict establishing the compulsory teaching of Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia, in all Eritrean schools. The lack of regard for the Eritrean population led to the formation of an independence movement in the early 1960s (1961), which erupted into a 30-year war against successive Ethiopian governments that ended in 1991. Following a UN-supervised referendum in Eritrea (dubbed UNOVER) in which the Eritrean people overwhelmingly voted for independence, Eritrea declared its independence and gained international recognition in 1993.[33] In 1998, a border dispute with Ethiopia led to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.[34]

Place Menelik in Djibouti City in 1905.

From 1862 until 1894, the land to the north of the Gulf of Tadjoura situated in modern-day Djibouti was called Obock and was ruled by Somali and Afar Sultans, local authorities with whom France signed various treaties between 1883 and 1887 to first gain a foothold in the region.[35][36][37] In 1894, Léonce Lagarde established a permanent French administration in the city of Djibouti and named the region Côte française des Somalis (French Somaliland), a name which continued until 1967.

In 1958, on the eve of neighboring Somalia's independence in 1960, a referendum was held in the territory to decide whether or not to join the Somali Republic or to remain with France. The referendum turned out in favour of a continued association with France, partly due to a combined yes vote by the sizable Afar ethnic group and resident Europeans.[38] There was also widespread vote rigging, with the French expelling thousands of Somalis before the referendum reached the polls.[39] The majority of those who voted no were Somalis who were strongly in favour of joining a united Somalia, as had been proposed by Mahmoud Harbi, Vice President of the Government Council. Harbi was killed in a plane crash two years later.[38] Djibouti finally gained its independence from France in 1977, and Hassan Gouled Aptidon, a Somali politician who had campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum of 1958, eventually wound up as the nation's first president (1977–1999).[38]

Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (the "Mad Mullah"), leader of the Dervish State.

Muhammad Abdullah Hassan's Dervish State successfully repulsed the British Empire four times and forced it to retreat to the coastal region.[40] Due to these successful expeditions, the Dervish State was recognized as an ally by the Ottoman and German Empires. The Turks also named Hassan Emir of the Somali nation,[41] and the Germans promised to officially recognize any territories the Dervishes were to acquire.[42] After a quarter of a century of holding the British at bay, the Dervishes were finally defeated in 1920 as a direct consequence of Britain's new policy of aerial bombardment.[43] As a result of this bombardment, former Dervish territories were turned into a protectorate of Britain. Italy faced similar opposition from Somali Sultans and armies, and did not acquire full control of parts of modern Somalia until the Fascist era in late 1927. This occupation lasted until 1941, and was replaced by a British military administration. Northern Somalia would remain a protectorate, while southern Somalia became a trusteeship. The Union of the two regions in 1960 formed the Somali Republic. A civilian government was formed, and on July 20, 1961, through a popular referendum, a new constitution that had first been drafted the year before was ratified.[44]

Due to its longstanding ties with the Arab world, Somalia was accepted in 1974 as a member of the Arab League.[45] During the same year, the nation's former socialist administration also chaired the Organization of African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union.[46] In 1991, the Somali Civil War broke out, which saw the collapse of the federal government and the emergence of numerous autonomous polities, including the Puntland administration in the northeast and Somaliland, an unrecognised self-declared sovereign state that is internationally recognised as an autonomous region of Somalia,[47] in the northwest. Somalia's inhabitants subsequently reverted to local forms of conflict resolution, either secular, Islamic or customary law, with a provision for appeal of all sentences. A Transitional Federal Government was subsequently created in 2004.[48] Modern Ethiopia and its current borders are a result of significant territorial reduction in the north and expansion in the east and south toward its present borders, owing to several migrations, commercial integration, treaties as well as conquests, particularly by Emperor Menelik II and Ras Gobena.[49] From the central province of Shoa, Menelik set off to subjugate and incorporate ‘the lands and people of the South, East and West into an empire.’[49][50] He did this with the help of Ras Gobena's Shewan Oromo militia, began expanding his kingdom to the south and east, expanding into areas that had not been held since the invasion of Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, and other areas that had never been under his rule, resulting in the borders of Ethiopia of today.[51] Menelik had signed the Treaty of Wichale with Italy in May 1889, in which Italy would recognize Ethiopia’s sovereignty so long as Italy could control a small area of northern Tigray (part of modern Eritrea).[52] In return Italy, was to provide Menelik with arms and support him as emperor.[53] The Italians used the time between the signing of the treaty and its ratification by the Italian government to further expand their territorial claims. Italy began a state funded program of resettlement for landless Italians in Eritrea, which increased tensions between the Eritrean peasants and the Italians.[53] This conflict erupted in the Battle of Adwa on 1 March 1896, in which Italy’s colonial forces were defeated by the Ethiopians.[54]

Haile Selassie's reign as emperor of Ethiopia is the best known and perhaps most influential in the nation's history.

The early 20th century in Ethiopia was marked by the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, who came to power after Iyasu V was deposed. In 1935, Haile Selassie's troops fought and lost the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, after which point Italy annexed Ethiopia to Italian East Africa.[55] Haile Selassie subsequently appealed to the League of Nations, delivering an address that made him a worldwide figure and 1935's Time magazine Man of the Year.[56] Following the entry of Italy into World War II, British Empire forces, together with patriot Ethiopian fighters, liberated Ethiopia in the course of the East African Campaign in 1941.[57] Haile Selassie's reign came to an end in 1974, when a Soviet-backed Marxist-Leninist military junta, the Derg led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, deposed him, and established a one-party communist state, which was called the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In July 1977, the Ogaden War broke out after the government of President of Somalia Siad Barre sought to incorporate the predominantly Somali-inhabited Ogaden region into a Pan-Somali Greater Somalia. By September 1977, the Somali army controlled 90% of the Ogaden, but was later forced to withdraw after Ethiopia's Derg received assistance from the USSR, Cuba, South Yemen, East Germany[58] and North Korea, including around 15,000 Cuban combat troops. In 1989, the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically-based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and eventually managed to overthrow Mengistu's dictatorial regime in 1991. A transitional government, composed of an 87-member Council of Representatives and guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional constitution, was then set up. The first free and democratic election took place later in 1995, when Ethiopia's current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was elected to office.

Ethnicity and languages

Besides sharing similar geographic endowments, the countries of the Horn of Africa are, for the most part, linguistically and ethnically linked together,[7] evincing a complex pattern of interrelationships among the various groups.[59]

Tigre women

There are presently several relatively widely-spoken tongues in the region, most belonging to the Afro-Asiatic language family. The Semitic languages of Amharic, Tigrigna and Gurage are concentrated in Ethiopia and Eritrea. For Cushitic languages, Oromo is the most widely spoken native language in the Horn, with its speakers found almost exclusively in Ethiopia. Somali speakers, as well as being the majority in Somalia[60] and Djibouti, also comprise 97% of the Somali region in Ethiopia. Afar speakers are another Cushitic-speaking group with a significant presence in three of the states: Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

There are also dozens of other smaller linguistic groups, like the Nilo-Saharan Kunama and Nara languages, which are spoken as a mother tongue by the area's Nilotic ethnic minorities.[61]

Among the major ethno-linguistic groups of the region are:


The countries of the Horn of Africa have been the birthplace of many ancient, as well as modern, cultural achievements in several fields including agriculture, architecture, art, cuisine, education, literature, music, technology and theology to name but a few.

The Northern Stelae Park in Axum with King Ezana's Stele at the centre. The Great Stele lies broken.

Ethiopian agriculture established the earliest known use of the seed grass Teff (Poa abyssinica) between 4000-1000 BCE.[62] Teff is used to make the flat bread injera/taita. Coffee also originates in Ethiopia and has since spread to become a worldwide beverage.[63] Ethiopian art is renowned for the ancient tradition of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian iconography stretching back to the wall paintings of the 7th-Century C.E.[64] Somali architecture includes the Fakr ad-Din Mosque, which was built in 1269 by the first Sultan of Mogadishu.[65] Ethiopia, too is renowned for its ancient churches, such as at the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Lalibela.[66]

The Horn has produced numerous indigenous writing systems, most notably the script known as Ge'ez (ግዕዝ Gəʿəz), (also controversially called Ethiopic) for 2000 years.[67] It is an abugida script that was originally developed to write the Ge'ez language. In speech communities that use it, such as the Amharic and Tigrinya, the script is called fidäl (ፊደል), which means "script" or "alphabet".

The Osmanya writing script.

In the early twentieth century, in response to a national campaign to settle on a writing script for the Somali language (which had long since lost its ancient script[68]), Osman Yusuf Kenadid, a Somali poet and leader in the Majeerteen Sultanate of Hobyo and nephew of Sultan Yusuf Ali Kenadid, also devised a phonetically sophisticated alphabet called Osmanya (also known as far soomaali; Osmanya:

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