What comes to mind when you think of Somalia? Famine and refuges? Pirates? Terrorism? Probably nothing positive. Well, it’s time to change that. The country is also home to some of the earliest-known and best-preserved cave paintings in Africa. Yet few people have ever seen, much less heard of, Laas Geel.
Laas Geel is in Somaliland, along the Gulf of Aden. The autonomous region—which declared its independence more than 20 years ago—is considered one of the safest areas in Somalia. Yet because much of the world doesn’t recognize its autonomy, UNESCO won’t consider protecting the caves where these paintings are found. So the Somaliland government allows only a small number of tourists to visit the fragile site.
The rock art, which French archaeologists found in 2002, is located outside of Hargeisa. After a slow, 40-mile drive from Somaliland’s capital, it’s another three miles down a bumpy trail in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Laas Geel means “source of water for camels,” though the water is long gone. Two dry riverbeds are surrounded by parched badlands. No one lives here. Only the occasional nomad moves through as he grazes his livestock. But the harsh, extreme conditions are what preserved these cave paintings.
The colorful paintings are found in 10 caves and rock shelters. They depict nomadic life from at least 3,000 BC, if not earlier. Longhorn cattle are covered in ceremonial robes. Dogs and antelopes surround them. While a giraffe even makes an appearance. They’re pristine and vibrant. They’ve survived bad weather and horrible wars. And they provide a little glimpse into a part of the world whose history is largely unknown. Hopefully more people will have the opportunity to see this amazing art. Somalia could use a new story.