City of traders: Fardowsa

The medieval city of Fardowsa (also Ferdusa or Ferdowsa) is located at the outskirts of the modern village of Sheikh, about 60 km south of Berbera, in a plateau immediately south of the mountain pass that connects Berbera with the interior. It sits thus on a strategic position that undoubtedly was fundamental for its development and growth. Until the 1930s the only settlement in the area was a small religious community –tariqa- that gave name to the current village of Sheikh. In the recent decades the site has progressively expanded affecting the southern part of the site and destroying many of the structures in its periphery.

Although there are several references to the existence of ruins in the area by 19th-century British travelers who used this pass on their way to the south of Somaliland, the site was archaeologically identified only in 2001 by French archaeologist François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar, who visited it briefly and documented its general characteristics. The materials collected during previous research –an Arab coin, glass bangles, pottery sherds including Chinese porcelain- indicated a chronology starting in the 14th-15th centuries and suggesting a height of occupation between the 14th and 18th centuries. 

The site was also briefly surveyed in 2015 by the Incipit-CSIC team, and in 2016 two test pits were conducted to its northeast and southwest sides.

The test pits served to document the interior of two houses and yielded a huge amount of pottery, animal bones and other archaeological materials that confirmed the medieval chronology of the site and its importance for the understanding of the trade routes connecting the Berbera region with central Somaliland.

Glazed bowl from the Middle East found during the 2020 excavation. ©Álvaro Minguito 

In 2020, a major excavation was conducted in the eastern part of the site, clearing about 300 sq.m and documenting two large rectangular buildings with several rooms each, surrounded by a small stone fence.

The excavation confirmed the excellent state of preservation of the structures, which in some cases stand more than 1.20 meters high. Further details of the structures include the perfect sealing of the archaeological deposits and the variety and sophistication of the material culture found in the site, which shows connections with Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. A large amount of information was gathered during the month-long campaign at the site, but only some parts of the two buildings were fully excavated. A second excavation campaign will be undertaken in 2021.

Fardowsa is one of the most exceptional medieval settlements in Somaliland due to its size, the state of preservation of its archaeological remains and to its strategic position as the node of the trade routes that crossed the northern part of the Horn of Africa. The surveys and excavations we have conducted so far provide an astonishing amount of information about the urban layout of the town, the daily life of its inhabitants, the role of Fardowsa in the international trade networks and the organisation of the medieval society in Somaliland, including what seems to be the existence of elites in the urban settlements. During the next years, the StateHorn project will continue to excavate the large buildings discovered in 2020, and will expand the research to map adequately the site and to understand its relationship with other neighbouring settlements.

Photographs of the 2020 excavation at Fardowsa. Glazed bowl from Persia found during the 2020 excavation. ©Álvaro Minguito. 

Referencing this article

Torres. Jorge de (2020). ‘City of traders: Fardowsa’, StateHorn Project, 10 October. Available at: (Accessed: DD/MM/YYYY).