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


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.

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 Seamarker the town was sacked in 1518 by Antonio de Saldanha, little of its history is known before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries." In 1546, the Ottoman Empire occupied the northwestern regions of Somalia including Berbera. It also made Zeilamarker the regional capital due to the latter's strategic location on the Red Seamarker.

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." The major Somali clan of Isaaq in Somaliamarker, caravans from Hararmarker and the Hawd, and Banyan merchants from Porbandarmarker, Mangaloremarker and Mumbaimarker 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."

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 Adenmarker, one of his companions was killed. Burton, recognizing the importance of the port city wrote: 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 Sudanmarker. 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 Adenmarker; its population in 2000 was approximately 100,000. 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.


Ship docked at Berbera port
Berbera is the terminus of roads from Hargeisamarker and Burcomarker, and an airport now adds to its accessibility. Berbera exports sheep, gum arabic, frankincense, and myrrh. Its seaborne trade is chiefly with Adenmarker in Yemenmarker 240 km/150 mi to the north. Prior to the Somali civil war, Berbera was home to a small naval port that was built by the Sovietsmarker, then later used by the Americansmarker. This is now part of the commercial port.


Since the Eritrean-Ethiopian Warmarker, it has grown as a major export port for Ethiopiamarker, and is now the main source of foreign currency for the secessionist Somaliland region. On 29 July 2009, State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Tekeda Alemu met with Somaliland Foreign Affairs Minister, Abdillahi Mohamed Dualeh over improving Ethiopia's use of the port. The city is also home to a long runway, built by the Soviet Unionmarker 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.


  1. I.M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali, fourth edition (Oxford: James Currey, 2002),p. 21
  2. Abir, Era of the Princes, p. 17
  3. Lewis, A Modern History, p. 36
  4. "Ethiopia, Somaliland envisage exploiting Barbara port", Ethiopian News Agency, 29 July 2009 (accessed 1 November 2009)

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