Laas Geel: Somaliland’s best-kept secret
Hidden in the badlands of Somaliland is an outcrop of rock paintings from one of the world’s oldest pastoral traditions. The caves of Laas Geel offer a glimpse into what the semi-autonomous country has to offer.
If you like your art ancient, this is the place
"This is one of the most important rock art sites in eastern Africa for two reasons” said Xavier Gutherz, the French archeologist who brought Laas Geel to the world's attention in 2002. "The high number and quality of the panels of rock art, and the originality of the representations of cattle and characters." The caves lie about 55 kilometers northeast of the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa.
A local secret
"Locals knew about Laas Geel before, but avoided it as they didn’t understand it and were afraid," explained Somaliland tourism specialist Abdisalam Mohamed. There are about 12 painted shelters scattered around a granitic outcrop that rises above the confluence of two 'wadis' or dry watercourses. When it rains they fill with water, giving the place its name Laas Geel, the "camel’s waterhole."
The sheltered location and Somali climate have preserved paintings aged between 5,000 and 10,000 years. Images of human figures among animals, depict people drinking from cow udders and living off their herds, explained Abdisalam. Experts say, Laas Geel shows a pastoralist lifestyle that existed in the Horn of Africa thousands of years before it reached western Europe.
Work of the devil
"When I was a boy we thought these pictures had some sort of devilish connection," said 57-year-old Musa Abdi, who has spent his whole life around Laas Geel. These days he helps look after the site. "Now I have learnt about them. They have become a part of my blood. If this place becomes better known it can help Somaliland become a recognized country."
Just the tip of the 'iceberg'
Some of the rocky shelters contain as many as 350 individual paintings. And Las Geel isn’t alone. Somali archeologist Sada Mire has recorded ancient rock art in about 100 places in Somaliland. These include Dhagax Khoure, 45km northwest of Hargeisa, and Dhambalin, 100km east of the coastal town of Berbera. More than 1,000 such sites, she estimates, await discovery.
Few signs show the way
Laas Geel lies off the main asphalt road from Hargeisa to Berbera - a potential tourist destination itself due to pristine beaches and a historic old center of crumbling Ottoman architecture. It is reached after a bumpy cross-country drive. "The place is still completely natural so you don’t recognize it as the tourist attraction," said one German tourist.
Long lost animals
Wild animals such as giraffes, which no longer exist in Somaliland’s rocky, arid climate, also appear at Laas Geel (seen on top left of picture). They suggest a shift in weather patterns since the paintings were made. Abdisalam points at what could be jackals or hyenas that appear to be hunting the giraffe.
The place could draw crowds
Laas Geel draws a few foreign tourists and members of the Somaliland diaspora. "When tourists go to Ethiopia they often ask for an extension so they can come to see Laas Geel," said Khalid Muhamed, a Somaliland-based tour operator. The semi-autonomous state still suffers under the region's political instability. There are hopes that the site can one day attract many more.
Elusive world heritage status
A UNESCO team visited Laas Geel, but as Somaliland is not recognised by the United Nations, and Somalia has not ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention, world heritage status for the site remains elusive. Meanwhile, the Somaliland government hasn’t allocated a budget to protect it. Some paintings have been reduced to ochre-colored smears due to water, dust and animal activity.
The sun sets on the landscape surrounding Laas Geel and its mysteries. No one knows what the intent of its creators was. Some speculate the paintings represent art for art’s sake. Gutherz contends that sort of art didn’t exist in prehistoric times, rather the paintings are works of ritual significance. After thousands of years, we will never know for sure.