World Travel Guide > Guides > Africa > Somalia

Somalia History, Language and Culture

History of Somalia

Somalia developed from a string of Arab sultanates along the northeast coast of Africa, which in turn had grown up from trading posts established from the 17th century onwards. As Arab influence waned, the British, French and Italians established protectorates on the Somali coast during the late-19th century. These were the subjects of various treaties, forged amid frequent border clashes between the colonial powers and the neighbouring Ethiopians.

Modern Somalia was created on 1 July 1960 from British and Italian Somalilands. Inherited tribal rivalries and territorial disputes have dominated the country's subsequent history. The Somali Youth League held on to power throughout the 1960s, mostly under the leadership of President Shermake. Throughout that decade, the government aggressively pursued claims to the Ethiopian Ogaden region and parts of Kenya's Northern Frontier District, the latter resulting in a severance of diplomatic relations with the UK between 1964 and 1968. After President Shermake was assassinated in October 1969, a military coup installed Mohamed Siad Barre as president of the renamed Somali Democratic Republic. The new government built up close relations with the Soviet Union, which was especially keen to make use of the port of Berbera. However, the Soviets were also close to the revolutionary regime in Ethiopia, whose relations with Somalia deteriorated throughout the 1970s. Forced into a choice, the Soviets opted for Ethiopia, to which Siad Barre responded by building up links with the West and the USA in particular.

His government collapsed in 1991 as civil war broke out and various regional factions jostled for position leaving the country without an effective central government. Various efforts backed by the international community to set a transitional government largely failed, although in 2004 the military was re-established and defeated the Islamic Court Union in the south. That lead to the formation of the militant Al-Shabaab terrorist group.

However, in 2012 a new provisional constitution was enacted and the Federal Government of Somalia established with its capital in Mogadishu and in 2016 the first US ambassador to Somalia for 25 years took up his post as the United Nations welcomed a new timetable for elections towards the return of a multi-party system in 2018.

Did you know?

• Although home to a wealth of diverse regional cultures, all Somali food is halal.

• Ancient dry stone burial pyramid structures known as 'taalo' litter the landscape.

• During the early years of the civil war several autonomous regions were set up including Puntland, Somaliland and Galmudug, which survive to this day.

Somalia Culture

Religion in Somalia

The state religion is Islam and the majority of Somalis are Sunni Muslims. There is a small Christian community, mostly Roman Catholic.

Social Conventions in Somalia

Traditional dance, music, song and craftsmanship flourish despite gradual modern development. Informal wear is acceptable and there is no objection to bikinis on the beach. Visitors should respect local customs.

Language in Somalia

Somali and Arabic are the official languages. Swahili is spoken, particularly in the south. English and Italian are also widely spoken.

A digital image at

Book a Hotel