The Bond film Quantum of Solace attracted some derision from its Western audience, on release, when it was revealed that the villainous plot at the heart of it involved seizing control of a country’s water supply. Perhaps this represents the view of people who live in countries where the climate makes worrying about water supplies a minor issue, or perhaps it is simply that modern irrigation and water storage technology has rendered such concerns moot. Still, even a hundred years ago a common plot in cowboy movies was to seize control of land through cutting off the water supply. But that is simply a shadow of how much power control of water has given throughout history. For four hundred years, until as recently as the 18th century, the Ajuran Sultanate ruled a giant empire across the Horn of Africa, and it was water that gave them this power.
The origins of the Ajuran Sultanate are somewhat obscure. They were an oral culture, and most of what is known of them is through the traditions of those who in the end overthrew them. So all that follows is often inference, and may be inaccurate. Every old stone structure in Somalia is ascribed to the Ajurans, and ever clan claims to have been the ones who destroyed them. Broadly speaking then, a region of modern Somalia known as the Ogaden, that was ruled by the Garen Kingdom. The rulers of this kingdom were foreign to the region, said to come from the Berber coast and claim descent from “the saint Balad”. It was this descent that they claimed their kingship, with their ruler taking the title of Imam, a title more commonly associated with the leader of worship rather than the state. The ruler of this empire was not as direct a ruler as those in other kingdoms. Even the Songhai state is one that makes sense to our eyes – a pyramidal shape, one man at the top. Things were different in the Horn of Africa. Multiple powerful nation states co-existed. The Ajurans came to control them all, in a patron-client relationship. They extracted taxes, in the form of goods (some scholars even suggest that the name Ajuran came from the local word “ajara”, meaning “to tax”), and in return they offered the one thing those in this hot climate could not do without. Water.
The slaves of the Sultanate constructed great limestone wells, producing gathering points for the nomadic people. By bring these people to these new towns, the imam brought them under his rule. Castles and barracks in those towns helped to keep the people in line – stone castles, impregnable to attack from any rebellious locals. The slaves constructed canals, irrigating the arid lands and creating farmlands, again under the imam’s rule. The water flowed along the canals at his bidding, and those who would not pay their taxes would receive no water. More than taxes, too. The Ajurans were notorious for practising a form of “droit de seigneur” where the imam could claim any bride for the first week of her marriage, as well as placing a high tax on all dowries in his domain. Needless to say, their rule is not remembered fondly in the local tradition.
What they are remembered for, however, is for being one of the few states strong enough to hold of the Europeans. The Portuguese commander Tristão da Cunha had raided his way down the coast of Africa, but the Ajuran-controlled city state of Moghadishu held him at bay. Moghadishu was culturally the centre of the empire, a powerful city-state in its own right, and its currency was the de facto trading scrip of the empire with foreign powers. Da Cunha did not even attempt an attack, while his countryman João de Sepúlveda would try to do so unsuccessfully. Eventually in the 1580s the Ajurans allied with the Ottoman Empire, and wound up warring with the Portuguese for control of the Indian Ocean.Over the next two hundred years the conflict would continue, with cities trading hands throughout the conflict.
The soldiers of the Ajuran Sultanate were Mamluks, a traditional form of military for the area. Slaves were purchased and trained as soldiers, gaining their freedom (of a sort) when they completed training, becoming instead indentured as soldiers. It was a good way to get an independent military with loyalty to the state and to their fellow soldiers, rather than to their tribe. Mamluks were common in many kingdoms, but one tradition that was famously begun by the Ajurans was the festival of Istunka. To this day in the town of Afgooye two teams will assemble on either side of the dried-up Shabelle River, armed with sticks (Istunka literally translates as “stick fight”) and supported by poets and cheering supporters to battle. Nowadays the prize is simply renown, and the battle has become a tourist attraction. Tradition has it, however, that the original battle was for control of the river, and the precious water it bore once the rainy season began.
In the end, then, it was not external enemies who destroyed the Sultanate, but internal ones. High taxes and the exercise of the imam’s “droit de seigneur” bred resentment, and the fall of the client-state of Moghadishu started a domino effect that ended in the breakdown of the kingdom back into separate warring clans. Each has their own tradition of how they were the ones who overthrew the Ajurans, with the final decisive battle fought in their territory. There are more stories told of the defeat of the Ajurans than of their rule, and even tales of a child born wearing a golden ring destined to overthrow them. If it were not for the tangible evidence of their constructions left behind, and the memories of the Portugese who fought them, they might be considered legends. As it is, in the end we know little more than nothing about what must have been one of the most powerful confederations in African history.