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What to see & do in Berbera

The oldest quarter of Berbera, known locally as Darole, is also the most northerly part of town, hemmed in by the old port to the west, a series of tidal flats to the north, and several recently resettled suburbs to the south and east.

Darole itself can be divided into two distinct districts, with a rough boundary being the road that runs eastwards from the municipal building.

The more northerly of these two districts, essentially the former residential quarter, is centered on old Darole Square and is studded with venerable mosques and other architecturally noteworthy buildings.

By contrast, the southern district, stretching west from the main market, is less architecturally distinguished and more commercially oriented,  making it closer in feel to other modern Somali towns such as Burao or Hargeisa.

Strong on the character but remarkably run down and poorly documented,  the narrow roads and alleys that run through the older part of Darole with Elmi Bodhari bakery are lined with handsome pastel-colored buildings dating back to the  Ottoman era. 

Among the most striking of these are the  Ottoman  Mosque (with three-story minaret),  the row of single-story homesteads opposite it,  the buildings Darole  Square, and several other dispersed two and three-story mansions in varying states of repair and disrepair. 

Architectural oddities include the buildings marked  ‘domed mosque’ and ‘old synagogue’ (the latter reputedly boarded up by departing Jews during World War I and now survived by three crumbling walls), and several flat-roofed mosques, vaguely reminiscent of certain west African Islamic architectural styles, in the backstreets to the east of the main road.

We’ve been unable to determine the age of any of Darole’s buildings, or for that matter any other pertinent historical details about them.

It seems logical to assume, however, that most of these buildings post-date Burton’s description of Berbera as a ‘wretched clump of dirty mat-huts’ and also that they pre-date the withdrawal of Ottoman Egypt.

This would suggest that they are predominantly from the period 1860–80, but this hasn’t been confirmed. It is also unclear to what extent the current semi-ruinous state of many of these buildings is attributable to bombing and other military activity associated with the civil war 1989–91, or simply the result of decades of neglect.

Whatever the case, the architecturally fascinating northern quarter of Darole rewards casual exploration, revealing new sights at every turn, and one can’t help but be conscious of its immense potential for rehabilitation and restoration.

Central Berbera is also bursting with human interest. Most people still dress in the traditional style and they are exceptionally friendly, particularly the giggling gangs of camera-loving children that will sooner or later attach themselves to any stray traveller.

The market area, although more subdued than you might expect, is well worth a look, and plenty of small local eateries and juice stalls offer shade and refreshment when you are ready to escape the afternoon heat.

The arid location of this isolated old port town is underscored by the camel herds that mill around the alleys, holding up the traffic as they feed on a low branch or thoughtfully contemplate a change of direction.

We were told by locals that the males occasionally become a little aggressive and frisky when approached the wrong way – probably not a huge concern, but still reason enough to give them a few meters berth.

Outside the old town,  the most interesting part of  Berbera is the district of Sha’ab, running out towards the new port.

The Ottoman Mosque here has a balconied minaret similar to the one in the town center, and it is said locally to be one of the oldest buildings in Berbera, although its age cannot be confirmed.

The new port like Malao some 2,000 years ago, ‘sheltered by a spit running out from the east’ is worth a look, but you’ll need to obtain permission from the Municipal Headquarters first, and possibly the harbourmaster, too.

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