Somali people

Once Upon a Time in Mogadishu

Posted on Updated on

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. Read the rest of this entry »