Once Upon a Time in Mogadishu

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A peek into the “pleasant” colonial past of the world’s most dangerous city.


When the great Arab explorer Ibn Battuta landed on Mogadishu’s shores in 1331, he was greeted with a feast fit for a king. Hundreds of camels were slaughtered daily to feed the flourishing port city, where a man could eat for ten. The sultan, clad in silk and fine Jerusalem cloth, was followed by a procession of trumpets and colorful canopies upon which golden birds perched.

How times have changed in Somalia. Today, centuries of European colonization and political strife, coupled with interludes of devastating drought and flooding, have created a failed state that’s become a haven for lawlessness. For years, Somalia was passed between foreign powers: first the Portuguese, then the British, then the French and Italians. Upon its declaration of independence in 1960, the country’s artificially drawn borders proved incapable of anything resembling stability. Now, Somalia remains in a constant state of conflict.

Once known as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean,” tourists flocked by the plane-full until the country descended into civil unrest in the 1990s. Now the only visitors are aid workers and their heavily armed bodyguards. When a Canadian tourist landed in Mogadishu last year, immigration officials thought he was either a spy or insane.

Above, young foreigners enjoy a warm day at Lido Beach. Sydney Oats, a former Royal Air Force (RAF) electrical fitter who was stationed in Mogadishu in 1949, provided this photo, as well as several others. He told Foreign Policy that Lido Beach, with its white beaches and breathtaking view, was the best part of Mogadishu, where young soldiers spent their afternoons nearly every day. Until 1991, when President Siad Barre was overthrown by a coalition of warlords after 22 years in power, Lido Beach was a popular club scene. This week brought news that Somalis are finally returning to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean after years of deserted beaches. But this brief beach-going interlude may be short lived. With pirates patrolling the coastline and the terrorist network al Shabaab arming children with AK-47s, Mogadishu remains arguably the most dangerous city in the world.

Sydney Oats

The late 1880s proved disastrous for many African nations, as the European “Scramble for Africa” carved up the continent into 30 separate colonies. By 1900, the European reign stretched across 90 percent of Africa, adding ten million square miles to their sphere of influence.

A Bantu slave woman is pictured on the right, around 1882 in Mogadishu. The Bantu people are not ethnically Somali, as they were captured by Arab slave traders and sold into Somalia throughout the nineteenth century. On the left, a man is dressed in traditional attire, the Italian postcard text on the back reading, Il Nomade.

Mogadishuimages.wordpress.com; Wikimedia Commons

Starting in the late 1890s, Mohammad Abdullah Hassan rallied the Somali people to fight against European expansion in East Africa. With Hassan’s impassioned battle cry, the Dervish State was created, encompassing northern Somalia. Meanwhile, on the eastern shores, the Sultan of Zanzibar leased the city of Mogadishu to Italy in 1905. Known as Mogadiscio, the city became the capital of Italian Somaliland, which stretched from the Eastern tip of British Somaliland all the way down the coast to Kenya.

To the right, Somali soldiers stand for a portrait photograph, taken in Yemen in the early 1900s. A French postcard shows a young man wearing traditional attire on the left.


The 1930s marked an era of prosperity for Somalia. Italians flocked to the newly chic Mogadishu as their empire in the Horn of Africa rapidly expanded. In 1935, the Italians also invaded Ethiopia, taking the capital Addis Ababba the year after.

Here, an Italian soldier relaxes in Somalia, circa 1935.

Fiore S. Barbato

Dated 1935, this photograph shows the grand port’s entrance gates in Mogadishu.


Italian Somaliland was integrated into Africa Orientale Italiana, or Italian East Africa, in 1936, along with Ethiopia and Italian Eritrea.

Above, the Italian S.S. Dvilio is pictured off the coast of Somalia, circa 1936.

Fiore S. Barbato

Above, a picturesque downtown Mogadishu around 1936. Pictured on the right is Arba Rukun mosque, known as the Mosque of the Four Pillars. Built in 1269 AD, the mosque predates Ibn Battuta’s historic arrival in Somalia. The Italian-built Catholic cathedral, which now lies in ruins, sits in the center, and the Triumphal Arch, honoring Italian King Emmanuel III, on the left.


In March of 1936, the Crown Princess of Italy boarded the hospital ship Cesara. A band played Italy’s national anthem while seaplanes flew above, honoring her departure. As the hospital ship pulled away from its port in Rome, the princess, wearing her Red Cross uniform, is said to have given a Fascist salute to a cheering crowd. On her journey, she worked in military hospitals in Eritrea and Mogadishu.

Above, the princess visits a monument in Mogadishu on April 18, 1936.

Fiore S. Barbato

Sydney Oats is pictured on the bottom left in July of 1949. Upon arrival in Mogadishu, he described the city as a “hot and sultry” place. Oats was on the last RAF plane to leave Mogadishu when the mission was closed one year later.

Sydney Oats

Blood stained the streets of Mogadishu on Jan. 11, 1948 as Somalis protested the possible return of Italian rule to Italian Somaliland, which had been controlled by the British since 1941. One report stated the clash between Italian supporters and the Somali Youth League, Somalia’s first political party, was fueled with “bullets, arrows, broken bottles and knives,” leaving over 50 Italians dead. One year later, as the U.N. General Assembly debated whether to reinstate Italian control, more protests rattled the city. In November of that year, it was decided that Italians would once again hold trusteeship, but only under the pretext that Somalia would gain independence in ten years.

On the left, the British flag is lowered on April 1, 1950, marking the end of British rule. Pictured to the right, the Italian flag is immediately raised. The picture was provided by the military, as Oats and the rest of the Royal Air Force were not allowed to attend the ceremony for their own safety.

Sydney Oats

A postcard sent in 1950 shows the Garesa Museum. Built in 1872 by the Sultan of Zanzibar, it was later established as a museum by the Italians in the 30s, and later, the national museum after Somalia’s independence. The museum suffered looting and damage at the onset of violence in the 1990s and has remained closed for two decades.


A rooftop view of Mogadishu’s Italian-inspired architecture.


A 1950s photograph shows Somalis packing waiting boats with bananas, one of the country’s main export goods.


A view of the white city of Mogadishu from the Indian Ocean in 1952. Sydney Oats describes the road into Mogadishu as barren for the first several miles, as the city had been shelled and bombed after the Italians had been driven out. The houses that were still standing were overgrown with grass and weeds. While many European expatriates lived in extravagant Italian-inspired homes, Somalis lived in traditional rectangular houses, often lacking windows.


This 1950s postcard shows a majestic Mogadishu street shaded by palm trees. The former offices of the Municipality of Mogadishu were housed in the building on the left, and the lavish Croce del Sud Hotel, to its right.


An aerial view of Mogadishu from a 1950s Somali Airlines postcard (the airline ceased operations in 1991). The cathedral is pictured in the center. Over the years, the cathedral was looted and set afire. But Somalis displaced by conflict now call the ruins of the once great church home. Its doors remain unlocked for squatters who seek shelter inside.


A scenic view of a quiet Mogadishu street paints a surreal view of life in 1950’s Italian-controlled Somalia.


In 1960, British and Italian Somaliland were joined, and Somalia officially gained its independence after centuries of foreign rule. The first elections were held in 1964, with the SYL winning an absolute majority. Somali politics began to flourish, with women taking an active role. Taken from an Associated Press article published in 1966, the photo above shows a pristine main street in Mogadishu. The caption describes Somalia as “perhaps the most democratic country on the dark continent.” A free and fair election has not taken place in Somalia since the 1960s. Four decades later, the country is riveted by despair.



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