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The Connection Between Ancient China and Somalia

The relationship between China and African countries has been going strong for many years. But there are some connections that date back to ancient times, like the relationship between ancient China and the Somalis of the long-gone Ajuran Empire.

Ajuran Empire

Not much is known about the Ajuran Sultanate. But history tells us that it was a prominent kingdom in ancient Somalia that ruled between the 13th century and the late 17th century. It was an impressive empire with great accomplishments. Ajurans used to dominate the Indian Ocean trades during the kingdom’s rule.

The sultanate was also the only empire in Africa that harnessed hydraulic engineering. Canals in its lands extend like veins from the Juba River, watering farmlands and irrigating crops. Wells and cisterns built during the Ajuran era still stand to this date.

When it comes to the political system, the Ajuran sultanate was centralized. The sultan was head of the kingdom while a strong military force enforced his rule. The military was rather impressive as it had managed to repel the Portuguese colonizers and the Oromo, an ethnic group based in neighboring Ethiopia.

The sultanate was also the only empire in Africa that harnessed hydraulic engineering. (Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)
The sultanate was also the only empire in Africa that harnessed hydraulic engineering. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Ancient trading relationship

Beginning from the Tang Dynasty to the Qing, trade between East Africa and China was a regular occurrence. Chinese ceramics, from the Tang-Sung transition period to modern times, are found in almost every urban settlement in East Africa, implying a productive relationship.

As for diplomatic relations, the existence of Chinese coinage dating from the Song to Ming dynasties was found in Kilwa, Mambrui, Manda, and Mogadishu, suggesting foreign missions conducted by China in ancient Africa.

Some of the currency found in Africa was discovered to be “restricted,” meaning its issuance required a direct diplomatic gesture from the ruling Chinese emperor.

Somali relations in the middle ages

China and Somalia have long been trading partners. The director of antiquities in Somaliland, Dr. Sada Mire, said that archeological records of trade between the two nations have existed since the first millennium A.D. Chinese records and chronicles also point to trade in Somali coastal towns, including Mogadishu, the capital city of the Ajuran kingdom.

The Somalis exported zebras, giraffes, horses, other exotic animals, incense, and ivories to the Ming Dynasty of China, while the Chinese traded celadon wares, muskets, and spices.

This strong relationship cemented Somali merchants as the leaders of commerce between Africa and Asia at the time. The partnership also allowed Chinese and Somali languages to influence each other.

The Somalis exported zebras, giraffes, horses, other exotic animals, incense, and ivories to the Ming dynasty of China while the Chinese traded celadon wares, muskets, and spices. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)
The Somalis exported zebras, giraffes, horses, other exotic animals, incense, and ivories to the Ming Dynasty of China, while the Chinese traded celadon wares, muskets, and spices. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Sa’id of Mogadishu

Records about Sa’id of Mogadishu’s life and achievements are scarce. He was born in 1301 in the capital city of Mogadishu of the Ajuran Empire. As a teenager, Sa’id sought knowledge and left the capital city to study in Mecca and Medina for over 2 decades. At this time, he became a respected scholar with many followers from the region.

His journey brought him to various locations in the world, including China and India. Accounts say that he was the first African ambassador to China. Being the first African to study Mandarin, he translated various Chinese texts into the Somali language.

Said’s recorded achievement credits him to be the man behind the Somali domination over Chinese-African trade. As an African ambassador, he was also aware of the political landscape in China.

It was said that during his stay in a mosque in India, he met the Morrocan scholar Ibn Battuta. The two exchanged knowledge, scholastic works, and their many travels. In one topic, Sa’id shared with Ibn about his travels in China and the political situation there.

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