Warsangali Sultanate

Warsangali Sultanate
Saldanadda Warsangeli
سلطنة الورسنجلي
Somali Sultanate
Location and extent of the Warsangali Sultanate circa 1857.
Capital Las Khorey
Languages Somali · Arabic
Religion Islam
Government Absolute Monarchy
   1298–1311 (first) Garaad Dhidhin
  1897–1960 (last) Mohamoud Ali Shire
   Established 1218
   Decline 1886
Succeeded by
British Somaliland
Today part of  Somalia

The Warsangali Sultanate[1] (Somali: Saldanadda Warsangeli, Arabic: سلطنة الورسنجلي) was a Somali imperial ruling house centered in northeastern and in some parts of southeastern Somalia.[2] 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 Garaad Dhidhin. In the late 19th century, the influential Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire governed the Sultanate, assuming control during some of its most turbulent years. The Akil Dhahar ruled south of Sanaag and some portions of the Bari region. In 1884, the United Kingdom established the protectorate of British Somaliland through various treaties with the northern Somali sultanates, including the Warsangali Sultanate.


Akil Dhahar

Although there is a dearth of historical testimony on Akil Dhahar, according to oral tradition, he fought against the Abyssinians. In honor of his accomplishments, Akil Dhahar's name is immortalized in the valley and mountains of the city known as Dhahar.

Ruins of the Warsangali Sultanate in Las Khorey.

I. M. Lewis, in his book A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa, refers to the Sultan from the colonial literature as a "man of unusual influence", a "man of mercurial image", and a "man of unusual strength". Several Somali Sultanates existed in Somalia prior to the European imperialism of the 19th century, but the Warsangali Sultanate was the only one with a robust tax-based centralized administration. Lewis writes:

Vestiges of a similar degree of centralized administration on the pattern of a Muslim Sultanate, survive today in the Protectorate among the Warsangali. Prior to 1920, the Garaad had at his command a small standing army with which, with British support, he fought Sayyid Mahamad Abdille Hassan's forces. But Garaad's powers' are dwindling under modern administration.
Sultanates such as these, generally only arose on the coast or through commanding an important trade route, and were largely dependent on the possession and control of a port or other exploitable economic resources. They were in direct trade and diffuse political relations with Arabia, received occasional Arab immigrants, and were the centres from which Islam expanded with trade into the interior. The Sultanates had to fight to maintain their positions of supremacy against the periodic incursions of raiding parties of nomads, and their authority was never great.

Northern Somali sultanates

Warsangali Sultanate in 1857.

In 1896, a challenge of leadership emerged between a father and son. The powerful Garaad Ali Shire's authority was dwindling and young Mohamoud Ali Shire, with the tacit support of the Isse Garaad (Bohogayslabe) sub-clan of the Warsangali Darod, sought to undermine the power of his father. Before then, internal conflict among the Warsangali sub-clans had surfaced and had had an effect on Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire and his ascension to power. The disarray caused by the young Mohamoud among the Warsangali was finally settled by the proposal that Mohamoud fils should become Sultan, while his father could remain Garaad. The Bihidor sub-clan of the Warsangali, however, withdrew their support for the Sultan, deeming him an upstart and an untested authority figure. They subsequently forged an alliance with the Somali religious and nationalist leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's Dervish forces in an attempt to defeat Britain and Ethiopia, two powers that were then also vying for control of the Somali Peninsula. In his paper The 'Mad Mullah' and Northern Somalia, the historian Robert L. Hess touches upon this alliance, writing that "in attempt to break out of Obbian-Mijertein circle, the Mullah sought closer alliances with the Bihidor Warsangali of British Somaliland and Bah Geri of Ethiopia".

Following an unexpected onslaught, the Sultan ordered his army to retreat from its main military posts in Erigavo, a town that at the time served as a reserve well for the Sultan's horses and as a base for his army. Hassan's alliance with the Bihidor clan was instrumental in extending the Dervish sphere of influence and in expanding his Dervish State's hegemony. On 3 March 1905, Italy came close to signing a treaty with Hassan at Illig, offering him the Nugaal territory as a protectorate. Hassan, however, rejected the offer and his Dervish army continued its anti-imperial resistance struggle. In its early proposal, both the Majeerteen and Warsangali Sultanates also opposed the treaty, as they foresaw potential threats to their own local authority from its hypothetical implementation. These Sultanates thus collaborated to defeat the Dervish forces:

The first success in this Anglo-Italian cooperation came in December 1910. In that month, the British Warsangali and the Italian Mijertain peacefully resolved all their outstanding disputes and, convening in Bander Kasim, agreed to act jointly in combating Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan and his Dervishes. The Mijertain–Warsangali Accord led to a common offensive against the Mullah, whose forces were cut off from arms and munitions smuggled in from the coast. (Hess, 427) In 1920, the Dervishes unexpectedly captured Badhan and besieged Las Khorey. The British Governor at Aden soon sent RAF biplanes to contain the advance of the Dervish army into the Warsangali country. Though the air strikes that bombarded Badhan, Jidali and Talex never did considerable harm to the Dervishes, the Dervishes were still powerful but disorganized and dispersed into unknown areas. Finally, the forces of Warsangali and Dervishes met at Jidali and this was in fact the final decimation of the Dervish movement.
The Mijertein Somalis, who in June succeeded launching counter-attack with the aid of their Warsangali allies..Mullah and his followers were driven out of Italian Somaliland into British Somaliland, where they occupied Buhotleh with great cruelty and oppressed the Dolbahante who had shifted their allegiance back to British Somaliland.

As a result, the Dervishes abandoned the Nugaal territory and retreated into the Hawd.

Somali-British treaties

Historically, the British used indirect rule to their advantage to control and exploit territories. Following the British treaty with the Warsangali in 1886, the British Somaliland protectorate was formed. Much of the territory's economy at the time was centered on the trade relationship it had with Aden, Yemen, which was chiefly based on the export of livestock, frankincense, and myrrh in return for food, fabric, and other materials. The protectorate was subsequently administered from Aden until 1898, just before the rise to prominence of Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan.

The British realized that isolated efforts to pacify Somali authority with treaties were not sufficient, and that doing so could incite trouble within the protectorate. In 1884, the British government thus signed protection treaties with the Issa, Gadabuursi and Isaaq Somali clans, all at once. This particular tripartite agreement was beneficial to the British, as it permitted them to operate harmoniously alongside the existing clan social systems of northwestern Somalia. However, Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire and his administration in the northeastern part of the Somali territories wielded enough power to continue to exercise independent operation and rule. Article V of the British treaty with the Warsangali acknowledges this continued sovereignty of the Warsangali territories, adding that the British government appointed an ambassador to the region and was in the process of building an office there:

Article V. The British Government shall have the power to appoint an Agent or Agents to reside in the Territories of the Warsangali, and every such Agent shall be treated with respect and consideration, and be entitled to have for this protection such guard as the British Government deem sufficient.

Another Article of the treaty between the Warsangali and the British highlights the independence of the Warsangali from colonial interference vis-a-vis their territories:

Article III. The Warsangali are bound to render assistance to any vessel, whether British or belonging to any other nation, that may be wrecked on the shores under their jurisdiction and control, and to protect the crew, passengers, and cargo of such vessels, giving speedy intimation to the Resident at Aden of the circumstances; for which act of friendship and good-will a suitable reward will be given by the British Government.

Civilization, society and Islam

Islam was introduced into the Sanaag region as early as the 7th century, with most of the area's inhabitants following the Shafi'i madh'hab of Sunni Islam. Thus, it appears that Sufism and saint veneration, the mystical movement and ecstasy in Islam, was embraced among the Warsangali clans of Sanaag and spread to other areas of Somalia. For instance, Haylaan, a small town located 20 km south of Badhan, houses the sepulchre of Darod Ismaiil, the founder of the Darod clan. The Somali scholar Said Ali Nur indicates that regions such as Zeila, Sanaag and Harar became centers of dispersal for the founders of many Muslim communities in the Horn. In fact, the founder of the Darod clan is venerated as a saint by many members of said clan. This sort of veneration is internalized in the customs of all Somalis, and these figures are known as "ancestor saints". They are means by which man's appeal to the mercy and blessings of God through the saints is strengthened. These saints, however, are not worshipped, but venerated, and the respect shown to them is clearly based upon their intermediary role. The structure of the Elaayo mosque where, among other masjids, actual worship took place, is still of remarkable strength; almost marble.

Sheikh Darod's tomb in Haylaan, Somalia.

Initially, due to their many ancient settlements, the northeastern cities of Las Khorey and Elaayo formed a growing international hub and served as important destinations. The Sultan's revolt against the British, however, led to the ultimate decline of these coastal areas, as the British then shifted their administration to the western side of northern Somalia. The erstwhile commercial centers of Las Khorey and Elaayo consequently diminished in importance.[3]

However, the ascendancy of Somali society in terms of trade, civilization and contact with ancient pharaohs continued for many centuries. In northern Somalia, which is believed to have been the location of the famous Land of Punt, existed numerous notable examples of sophisticated architecture, agricultural innovation and civil engineering. Irrefutable evidence is the existence of 15 storey towers in Las Khorey that were built during the Garaad dynasty. Materials used in the local Somali architecture included, among other things, a specific type of wood:

The gum-producing trees grow on the sterile hills near the coast in the Sanaag and Bari regions. In this districts there also grows a tree known in Somali as 'damask', a species of willow valuable for house- and boat-building purposes. It grows along the banks of the 'tugs' or dry water-courses that in the rainy season drain the interior. (Burale).

Moreover, according to historical testimony by the British Lieutenant John Hanning Speke in his journal What led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, published some 31 years before the Somali-British treaty of 1886 wherein the English agreed to provide military and logistical support to the Isaaq near Aden in Yemen, the decline in power of the Warsangali Sultanate began thus:

The Warsangali complained to me sadly of their decline in power since the English had interfered in their fights with the (Isaaq), which took place near Aden about seven years ago, and had deprived them of their vessels for creating a disturbance, which interfered with the ordinary routine of Traffic. They said that on that occasion, they had not only beaten (Isaaq) but had seized their vessels; and that prior to this rupture, they had enjoyed paramount superiority over all the tribes of the Somali; but now they were forbidden to transport Soldiers or make reprisals on the sea, every tribe was on an equality with them." (Chapter II the Voyage-Somali Shore, Garaad Mohamoud Ali Shire).

Speke also discussed the relative strength of the Sultanate's administration, opining that Garaad Mohamoud Ali was a capable leader:

Of course no Mortal man was like their Garaad Mohamoud Ali in leading them to war. He was like the English or the French, and in settling disputes, he required no writing office, but sitting on the woolsack.

Warsangali-Dervish collaboration

Warsangali Sultanate cavalry in 1908.

The two Somali leaders, Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire and Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, were in the spotlight. The British Somaliland protectorate's administration had dealt with each one of them secretly, and had worked to prevent a possible bilateral alliance of power-sharing and common economic and political integration on their part. A notable incident took place in 1908, when British airplanes bombarded Jidali, Badhan and Taleex. This led to the dispersal of the Dervish into many areas, and it took a long period for the Sayyid to recoup his strength. However, despite the rift between them, Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire and his army within the British Somaliland protectorate's claimed areas of Sanaag were severely disturbed by the sudden ebb in Dervish activities. To demonstrate his concern, Sultan Shire ordered his army to open fire on a British ship that was about to land at the port of Las Khorey. I. M. Lewis cites this brief incident in his book, A Modern History of the Somali:

The Warsangali clan within the British protectorate on the eastern coast who under their spirited leader Garaad Mahamud 'Ali Shire had now decided to throw in their lot with the Dervishes and in January 1908, fired on a British dhow as it was landing on their coast. This incident has led to a hostile exchange of letters with the consul at Berbera and it was evident that the Dervishes would soon be on the March again.[4]

Furthermore, Hassan's association with Mohamoud Ali Shire as brother-in-law gave him access to the Maakhir Coast, which served as a gateway to the Arabian peninsula for the importation of firearms and ammunition. The Dervishes thus resumed their movements, which rendered the British nervous, especially since their alliance with the Isaaq forged in a treaty from 1885 had proved ineffectual.

The British ran out of options and were forced to collaborate with the Italians and the Majeerteen Sultanates for an attack that forced the Dervishes from their main strongholds such as Taleex and Jidali. Sporadic resistance using guerrilla tactics ensued. However, while Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire's government was feared by the British and many Somali clans, some Warsangali sub-clans also viewed the Sultan's government with suspicion because of its authoritarianism. They consequently declared independence from his dominions, and began a rebellion to topple the leader. This internal conflict among the Warsangali sub-clans coincided with the Dervishes' struggle to expel the British and Italian imperialists. In an attempt to lure supporters to side with him, the Sayyid composed a poem for this incident:

Mar hadday ku doortan isku diirad ma ihin
Dabcigaygu maoggola nin ku dallaasa e
War sow deero iyo cawl adigu kama dhigin?
Iney se Kuududahayaan sow ma ba dareensanid?
Sow dukaammadoodi daarahaaga kuma guran?
Sow doonyahodii dukhaan naar ahkamashidin
Our visionary are varied once they chose you
My nature is averse to those who contempt you
Didn't I turn you into gazelle and antelope
(refers to the internal conflict among the Warsangali clans)
Hast thou sense their fierce resentment
Hadn't you taken their stores into your houses
(refers to the English)
Hadn't I shelled their ships into plumes of smoke

The Sultan's troops killed many men of the Bihidoor clan, a subclan of the Warsangali. According to testimony by John Hanning Speke in his journal and elders of the Warsangali sub-clans, this led to defiance and hostility on the part of the Bihidoor. Members of the Bihidoor nonetheless settled in Xiingalol, which was then the most populous city in Sanaag, as well as in the long plateau of Xadeed in large numbers.


Despite a lack of stability and struggles with the imperialists, Sultan Shire was secretly invited to a conference in Yemen, ostensibly to discuss possible ways of settling differences. After a short session before the meeting was scheduled to begin, he was taken into custody by the British authorities. Sultan Shire was later tried without proper representation in a kangaroo court. Due to the Sultan's vehement and active opposition to foreign rule over his territory and dread on the part of the British of the prospect of another twenty years of costly and protracted battles with yet another Somali potentate, he was sentenced to exile in the Seychelles for a period of seven years (a place where the British often confined prominent anti-imperialist leaders). However, Shire continued to play a prominent role in local affairs until his eventual death a few months after independence, as the British administration sought his support before introducing any major policy changes so as to avoid alienating the influential leader.

Timeline of events in northern Somalia

Rulers of the Warsangali Sultanate

Rulers of the Warsangali Sultanate up to and after Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire:[1]

# Sultan Reign Notes
1 Garaad Dhidhin 1298–1311 Established the Warsangali Sultanate in the late 13th century.
2 Garaad Hamar Gale 1311–1328 Son of Garaad Dhidhin. Expanded rule into the southern Somali Peninsula.
3 Garaad Ibrahim 1328–1340
4 Garaad Omer 1340–1355
5 Garaad Mohamud I 1355–1375
6 Garaad Ciise I 1375–1392
7 Garaad Siciid 1392–1409
8 Garaad Ahmed 1409–1430
9 Garaad Siciid II 1430–1450
10 Garaad Mohamud II 1450–1479
11 Garaad Ciise II 1479–1487 Father of Garaad Ali Dable.
12 Garaad Omar 1487–1495 Following Garaad Ciise II's death, various pretenders to the throne battled each other to succeed the ruler. Power was eventually transferred for a short period to Ciise II's brother, Garaad Omar.
13 Garaad Ali Dable 1491–1503 Exiled in Yemen after the death of his father, Garaad Ciise II. Returned with cannon fire and defeated the Garaad of Dhulbahante's troops in the Battle of Garadag.
14 Garaad Liban 1503–1525 Eldest son of Garaad Ali Dable.
15 Garaad Yuusuf 1525–1555
16 Garaad Mohamud III 1555–1585
17 Garaad Abdale 1585–1612
18 Garaad Ali 1612–1655
19 Garaad Mohamud IV 1655–1675
20 Garaad Naleye 1675–1705
21 Garaad Mohamed 1705–1750
22 Garaad Ali 1750–1789
23 Garaad Mohamud Ali 1789–1830
24 Garaad Aul 1830–1870
25 Garaad Ali Shire 1870–1897 Father of Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire, with whom he briefly engaged in a power struggle.
26 Sultan Mohamoud Ali Shire 1897–1960 Led the Sultanate during some of its most turbulent years. Fought against and signed treaties with the British. Eventually exiled to the Seychelles for ignoring imperial entreaties.
27 Sultan Abdul Sallan 1960–1997
28 Sultan Siciid Sultan Abdisalaan 1997–present

See also


  1. 1 2 Warsangeli Sultanate
  2. Culture and customs of Somalia p. 138
  3. Pre-Independency Socio-Economic of British Somaliland
  4. I. M. Lewis, A modern history of the Somali: nation and state in the Horn of Africa, (James Currey: 2002), p. 74.


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