Five-thousand-year-old rock art is tucked into an outcropping 40 miles northeast of Hargeisa, the capital of this breakaway region of Somalia. But its ambiguous political status has made protecting the site especially challenging.
LAAS GEEL, SOMALILAND—Hidden in the Somali desert, beneath stunning, ancient rock cave paintings, the thin trail of a snake traces a winding line across the dust. A few strands of once-protective barbed wire are pushed to the side; goat tracks abound.
Exposed to the elements, the colors have changed since caretaker Musa Abdi Jama first saw them at a distance in 1969. Back then, everyone in the local villages thought the place was haunted. No one visited.
Today, the aging pastoralist laughs at the memory of the myths he heard about the place as a child – passed on to him as they were from one generation to the next around dinnertime family campfires.
“We believed it was drawn by the devil with blood,” he says, “and believed that when we slaughtered a goat for protection, the devil would come and suck the blood from the sand.”
The uniformed Mr. Jama uses a cane to point out features of the Neolithic paintings: the hunters with bows and arrows; long-horned cattle, antelope, giraffes, and elephants; and women giving water to a dog – being “more kind” than the hunters, he says.
Striking in their red and dun colors and more than 5,000 years old, the cave paintings are tucked away in the overhangs of a nondescript rock outcropping. The cave lies at the end of a miles-long track across inhospitable desert, 40 miles northeast of Hargeisa, the capital of the remote Horn of Africa nation of Somaliland – a de facto state that declared independence from Somalia in 1991. The nation, whose territory was once a British colony, has remained largely peaceful, even as the rump Somalia state to the south has been torn by conflict for decades.
But Somaliland remains internationally unrecognized – and that ambiguous political status is a key difficulty preventing Laas Geel paintings and other Somali treasures from being listed as a United Nations World Heritage site, which would provide a major boost in protecting and promoting this historical heritage.
To be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list, a site must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of 10 criteria. Somaliland’s rock art appears to meet at least two of those, including bearing “a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.”
A listing would provide new protections, along with prestige on par with the more-famous paintings in France’s Lascaux or Spain’s Altamira caves.
Yet the Somalia government in Mogadishu has yet to ratify UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention – despite registering intent to do so last year. No Somali site was included in the 21 new cultural sites designated in early July when the World Heritage Commission met in Krakow, Poland.
The new designations include caves and Ice Age art in the Swabian Jura mountains in Germany, and three sites in Africa, including Eritrea, Angola, and South Africa.
Official recognition and protection status is required by UNESCO if sites such as Laas Geel are to be preserved, says Saad Ali Shire, the foreign minister of Somaliland.
“It’s not just important to Somaliland; it’s a global heritage. It belongs to me as much as it belongs to you,” says Dr. Shire. “If we lose it, it’s not just a loss to Somaliland, but a loss to everyone.”
A visit to Laas Geel
Today, when caretaker Jama speaks about protection at Laas Geel, he is not speaking about a fear of demons. Instead, he worries about deterioration of a site that could attract visitors and put Somaliland on the archaeological map.
The day after Jama pointed a French archaeological team to the site in 2002 – the first outsiders to “discover” the caves, and date them to 5,000 years old – he says he received a surprise message from the Somaliland president, telling him: “You are responsible for this area.”