Berbera ( _so. "Berbera") is a city in northwestern Somalia. It was for centuries the capital of the Somaliland region and also the colonial capital of British Somaliland from 1870 to 1941 when it was moved to Hargeisa. Located strategically on the oil route, Berbera has a deep-sea port, completed in 1969 and it is still the main commercial seaport for Somalia.


The city was first described in the eighth chapter of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea written by a Greek merchant in the first century CE. Here it is referred to as "Malao." Quotation | After Avalites there is another market-town, better than this, called Malao, distant a sail of about eight hundred stadia. The anchorage is an open roadstead, sheltered by a spit running out from the east. Here the natives are more peaceable. There are imported into this place the things already mentioned, and many tunics, cloaks from Arsinoe, dressed and dyed; drinking-cups, sheets of soft copper in small quantity, iron, and gold and silver coin, not much. There are exported from these places myrrh, a little frankincense, (that known as far-side), the harder cinnamon, duaca, Indian copal and macir, which are imported into Arabia; and slaves, but rarely. ["The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea", ch. 8 [] ]

Duan Chengshi, a Tang Dynasty scholar, described in his written work of 863 CE the slave trade, ivory trade, and ambergris trade of Bobali, which is now Berbera (see Maritime section of Tang Dynasty for more).

The city was also described in the 13th century by Arab geographers and travellers.

However, as I.M. Lewis notes, "beyond the fact that during the period of Portuguese domination in the Red Sea the town was sacked in 1518 by Antonio de Saldanha, little of its history is known before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries." [I.M. Lewis, "A Modern History of the Somali", fourth edition (Oxford: James Currey, 2002),p. 21] In 1546, the Ottoman Empire occupied the western regions of Somaliland including Berbera and made Zeila the regional capital due to their strategic location on the Red Sea.

One certainty about Berbera over the following centuries was that it was the site of an annual fair, held between October and April, which Mordechai Abir describes as "among the most important commercial events of the east coast of Africa." [Ref Ethiopia|Abir-1968|pages= p. 16] The major Somali tribe of Isaq in Somalia, caravans from Harar and the Hawd, and Banyan merchants from Porbandar, Mangalore and Mumbai gathered to trade. All of this was kept secret from European merchants, writes Abir: "Banyan and Arab merchants who were concerned with the trade of this fair closely guarded all information which might have helped new competitors; and actually through the machinations of such merchants Europeans were not allowed to take part in the fair at all." [Abir, "Era of the Princes", p. 17]

The British explorer Richard Burton made two visits to this port, and his second visit was marred by an attack on his camp by several hundred Somali spearmen the night of 19 April 1855, and although Burton was able to escape to Aden, one of his companions was killed. [Lewis, "A Modern History", p. 36] Burton, recognizing the importance of the port city wrote: Quotation |In the first place, Berberah is the true key of the Red Sea, the centre of East African traffic, and the only safe place for shipping upon the western Erythraean shore, from Suez to Guardafui. Backed by lands capable of cultivation, and by hills covered with pine and other valuable trees, enjoying a comparatively temperate climate, with a regular although thin monsoon, this harbour has been coveted by many a foreign conqueror. Circumstances have thrown it as it were into our arms, and, if we refuse the chance, another and a rival nation will not be so blind." [ Richard Burton, "First Footsteps in East Africa", Preface] It was not long before these words proved prescient. In 1875 the rulers of Ottoman Egypt re-established their direct rule; they then withdrew their garrison in 1884 to concentrate their forces against the Mahdi in Sudan. Despite this, Britain took Berbera and it served until 1941 as the winter capital of British Somaliland and the main seaport.


Berbera is a seaport, with the only sheltered harbour on the south side of the Gulf of Aden; its population in 2000 was approximately 200,000. The weather of Berbera is very dry, hot and wet during the rainy season. The landscape around Berbera, along with Somalia's coastal lowlands, is desert or semi-desert where the temperatures in the summertime can approach upwards of 50°C. Most of the city residents are forced to seasonally migrate to the cooler inland cities during these hot times.


Berbera is the terminus of roads from Hargeisa and Burco, and an airport now adds to its accessibility. Berbera exports sheep, gum arabic, frankincense, and myrrh. .


Since the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, it has grown as a major export port for Ethiopia, and is now the main source of foreign currency for the self-declared Republic Somaliland. The city is also home to a long runway, built by the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s and from the 1980s onward was designated by NASA as an emergency landing strip for the U.S. Space Shuttle.

Berbera has a number of Ottoman buildings scattered around the city, mementos of the Ottoman occupation. Many of the buildings have never been entered and they have survived the bombings during the Siad Barre regime.


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