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Maydh “Sheikh Isxaaq”

After reaching the base of the escarpment base at Rugay, the road from Erigavo straightens out to run more or less directly across the flat coastal plain, emerging after 33km – about an hour’s drive – at the venerable port of Maydh (N 11°00.320, E  47°06.588).

It’s a  fascinating stretch of road,  passing through a  wide riverine valley that seems to support a few perennial pools, and is flanked by heavily eroded slopes pockmarked with caves, and overlooked by the forested main escarpment to the south.

En route, it passes within metres of some massive prehistoric cairns, as well as the whitewashed tomb of Sheikh Issa, founder of the Dir Issa clan of western Awdal and Djibouti.

Maydh,  also transliterated as  Mait,  doesn’t look like much of a  place today, comprising as it does only a  tiny cluster of perhaps  100  buildings  (some in the traditional  Swahili style),  housing an estimated  2,000  to  3,000  people,  a  small jetty, and a beach lined with fishing nets and merchant dhows from elsewhere in the Gulf of Aden.

However, it has probably been an active trade port for at least 1,000  years,  quite possibly longer,  considering that the nearby mountains are a  legendary source of frankincense,  an important item of trade for millennia.

Sometime before the end of the 13th century, the area’s older Galla inhabitants were displaced by Islamic settlers, among them Sheikh Isaq, the founder of Somaliland’s dominant clan, whose tomb stands on the beach south of Maydh. The small port is also the mainland springboard for boat trips to Jasiira Maydh, an offshore island that supports seasonally impressive flocks of marine birds.

PRACTICALITIES  A  couple of  4x4s  seem to operate daily as public transport between Erigavo and Maydh, but they tend to be very cramped and it is unlikely the police would permit a foreigner to travel on one. Otherwise, the only realistic way to get to Maydh is in a private 4×4, a trip that takes between four and five hours along the rough road down the Daallo Escarpment – longer if you make a few stops. There is no formal accommodation in Maydh, but with advance permission (ask at the municipal office in Erigavo) you should be allowed to stay at the small and inexpensive beachfront government guesthouse. Failing that, it is usually possible to camp or crash in the security of the marine police camp, although you may be expected to pay a small fee. A small restaurant in the centre of town serves basic fish and pasta dishes, and a few shops sell biscuits and soft drinks.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO  As aspirant beachfront idylls go, Maydh has a somewhat austere location, but it is quite scenic all the same, with its mountainous backdrop being particularly pretty in the soft light of early morning and late afternoon. There is little specific to do in the town itself, and local dress codes probably make swimming problematic, but the atmosphere is very relaxed and friendly if you just feel like hanging out. Outside town, several sites of interest are worth investigating and are detailed below.

Sheikh Isaq’s Tomb  Situated on a small seafront rise about 3km south of Maydh, and clearly visible from the small port’s jetty, the striking domed and whitewashed tomb of Sheikh Isaq is one of the most important cultural landmarks in the whole of Somaliland. The Isaq (or Isaaq) clan, founded by its namesake in the 12th or 13th century, is the most numerically and politically important clan in Somaliland, with its various subclans accounting for the majority of the population of the country’s five largest towns:  Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera, Erigavo and Gebiley.  Foreigners are usually allowed to look at the exterior,  but not to enter the compound,  and photography may be forbidden. The tomb attracts pilgrims from all over Somaliland and further afield, particularly on Isaq’s birthday, commemorated on the 20th day of the Islamic month of Safar (which will fall between late September and early November between 2018 and 2020). There is also reason to believe the medieval town of Maydh was centred around the site of the tomb, although at the moment it remains unexcavated.

Jasiira Maydh  Situated  13km  offshore,  Jasiira  Maydh  (also known as  Rabshie or Mait Island) is a dramatic, barren granite outcrop that rises steeply from above the waves to a  maximum altitude of  125m.  Less than  2km  long but nowhere more than  300m  wide,  the  45ha  island is an important seasonal breeding site for several species of marine bird, and it is thus listed as one of the country’s six ‘Important Bird Areas’, and has also been proposed as a future marine protected area. The breeding season is from June to September when up to 100,000 birds are sometimes estimated to be present, but there are few birds at other times of the year when locals from the mainland visit the island regularly to collect guano. Most numerous during the breeding season is brown noddy, with up to 20,000 pairs, while other species recorded frequently include masked booby, brown booby, sooty tern, bridled tern, white-cheeked tern, the localised Socotra cormorant and the spectacular red-billed tropicbird.

To get here from  Maydh you can either ask to charter the marine police’s motorboat, which costs around US$300–400 per party for the round trip (assuming it is available), or you can cut a deal with one of the local boat owners, which is more likely to cost US$50–60 per group. Either way, it is best to set sail in the early morning, when the sea is relatively calm, and there is little point in visiting between October and May when the breeding birds are absent.

SHEIKH ISSA’S TOMB AND THE TAALA GALLA The most conspicuous artificial landmark between Rugay and Maydh, standing in bold whitewashed contrast to the surrounding hills, some 300m east of the main road, is the Tomb of Sheikh Issa (N 10°58.496, E 47°13.900), which lies about halfway between the two villages. This Dir Somali clan, whose main population base is now in Djibouti, reputedly traces its lineage back to Aqeel bin Abi Talib, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in the late 7th century. It is unclear when exactly Sheikh Issa founded the clan that now bears his name, but some sources suggest he was a contemporary of Sheikh Isaq, which would suggest the Maydh area was an important springboard of Islamic infiltration into the Somali interior. There seems to be no problem with non-Islamic foreigners visiting and photographing this tomb.

Between Sheikh Issa’s Tomb and Rugay, the road passes through an area studded with dozens of immense tumuli (stone burial cairns), the most elaborate of which must stand 5m tall and 10m wide. Different coloured stone is used for different lateral sections, and the cairns are enclosed in a larger circular clearing demarcated by an outer boundary ring of stones. These impressive and enigmatic mounds are known locally as Taalla Galla, literally ‘Graves of the Galla’ (an archaic name for the Oromo people, now numerically dominant in southern Ethiopia). The cairns are also often referred to by locals as ‘Christian graves’, which might indicate some link with the ancient Christian Empire of neighbouring Ethiopia (a separate cultural entity to the  Galla/Oromo),  or might simply be a  way of expressing their non- Islamic origin. Either way, these fascinating and evocative structures most likely pre-date the local arrival of Islam, which would mean their construction took place in the 13th century or earlier. Little excavation has taken place, but the few cairns that have been opened contain a small central burial chamber covered by a large flat rock. It has been suggested, perhaps a little fancifully, that the pyramidal shape of the tumuli demonstrates a religious or cultural link with Ancient Egypt, which is thought to have traded with the coast of present-day Somaliland.

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