Adal Sultanate

For other uses, see Adal.
Sultanate of Adal

combination of three banners used by Ahmad al-Ghazi[1]

Territory of the Sultanate of Adal and its vassal states circa 1500.
Capital Zeila (original capital, as Emirate under Ifat Sultanate from 1415-1420)[2]
Dakkar (new capital, as Sultanate from 1420-1520)[2]
Harar (1520-1577)[2] Aussa (1577-1577[3]
Languages Somali, Harari, Arabic, Ge'ez, Afar, Harla
Government Monarchy
Historical era Middle Ages
   Established 1415
  War against Yeshaq I 1415–1429
  Capital moved to Dakkar 1433
  Succession Crisis 1518–1526
  Capital moved to Harar 1520
  Abyssinian–Adal war 1529–1543
   Disestablished 1577
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Ifat Sultanate
Ottoman Empire
Sultanate of Harar
Today part of  Djibouti

The Adal Sultanate or Kingdom of Adal was a multi-ethnic medieval Muslim state located in the Horn of Africa. Founded by Sabr ad-Din II after the fall of Sultanate of Ifat.[4] It flourished from around 1415 to 1577.[5] The sultanate and state was established by the inhabitants of the Harar Plateau.[6] [7] At its height, the polity controlled large parts of Somaliland, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea.


The origins of the name Adal are obscure. But al-'Umari mentions it with Shoa and Zeila as being an integral part of the Muslim confederation led by Ifat.[8]

In the thirteenth century, Arab writer, Al Dimashqi, refers to the Adal Sultanate's capital, Zeila, by its Somali name "Awdal" (Somali: "Awdal").[9]

The sultanate's historic geographical location, the present-day Gadabuursi Awdal region, bears its original name.



Ruins of the Adal Sultanate in Zeila, Somalia.

Islam was introduced to the Horn region early on from the Arabian peninsula, shortly after the hijra. Zeila's two-mihrab Masjid al-Qiblatayn dates to about the 7th century, and is the oldest mosque in the city.[10] In the late 9th century, Al-Yaqubi wrote that Muslims were living along the northern Somali seaboard.[11] He also mentioned that the Adal kingdom had its capital in the city,[11][12] suggesting that the Adal Sultanate with Zeila as its headquarters dates back to at least the 9th or 10th century. According to I.M. Lewis, the polity was governed by local dynasties consisting of Somalized Arabs or Arabized Somalis, who also ruled over the similarly-established Sultanate of Mogadishu in the Benadir region to the south. Adal's history from this founding period forth would be characterized by a succession of battles with neighbouring Abyssinia.[12]

Adal is mentioned by name for the first time in the 14th century, in the context of the battles between the Muslims of the northern Somali and Afar seaboard and the Abyssinian King Amda Seyon I's Christian troops.[13] Adal originally had its capital in the port city of Zeila, situated in the eponymous Awdal region in modern-day northwestern Somalia. The polity at the time was an Emirate in the larger Ifat Sultanate ruled by the Walashma dynasty.[2]

Rise & Disintegration

In 1332, the King of Adal was slain in a military campaign aimed at halting Amda Seyon's march toward Zeila.[13] When the last Sultan of Ifat, Sa'ad ad-Din II, was also killed by Dawit I of Ethiopia at the port city of Zeila in 1410, his children escaped to Yemen, before later returning in 1415.[14] In the early 15th century, Adal's capital was moved further inland to the town of Dakkar, where Sabr ad-Din II, the eldest son of Sa'ad ad-Din II, established a new Adal administration after his return from Yemen.[2][15] During this period, Adal emerged as a center of Muslim resistance against the expanding Christian Abyssinian kingdom.[2]

The Sultan of Adal (right) and his troops battling King Yagbea-Sion and his men. From Le Livre des Merveilles, 15th century.

After 1468, a new breed of rulers emerged on the Adal political scene. The dissidents opposed Walashma rule owing to a treaty that Sultan Muhammad ibn Badlay had signed with Emperor Baeda Maryam of Ethiopia, wherein Badlay agreed to submit yearly tribute. This was done to achieve peace in the region, though tribute was never sent. Adal's Emirs, who administered the provinces, interpreted the agreement as a betrayal of their independence and a retreat from the polity's longstanding policy of resistance to Abyssinian incursions. The main leader of this opposition was the Emir of Zeila, the Sultanate's richest province. As such, he was expected to pay the highest share of the annual tribute to be given to the Abyssinian Emperor.[16] Emir Laday Usman subsequently marched to Dakkar and seized power in 1471. However, Usman did not dismiss the Sultan from office, but instead gave him a ceremonial position while retaining the real power for himself. Adal now came under the leadership of a powerful Emir who governed from the palace of a nominal Sultan.[17]

Adalite armies under the leadership of rulers such as Sabr ad-Din II, Mansur ad-Din, Jamal ad-Din II, Shams ad-Din and general Mahfuz subsequently continued the struggle against Abyssinian expansionism.

Emir Mahfuz, who would fight with successive emperors, caused the death of Emperor Na'od in 1508, but he was in turn killed by the forces of Emperor Dawit II (Lebna Dengel) in 1517. After the death of Mahfuz, a civil war started for the office of Highest Emir of Adal. Five Emirs came to power in only two years. But at last, a matured and powerful leader called Garad Abuun Addus (Garad Abogne) assumed power. When Garad Abogne was in power he was defeated and killed by Sultan Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad, and In 1554, under his initiative, Harar became the capital of Adal. This time not only the young Emirs revolted, but the whole country of Adal rose against Sultan Abu Bakr, because Garad Abogne was loved by the people of the sultanate. Many people went to join the force of a young imam called Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, who claimed revenge for Garad Abogne. Al-Ghazi assumed power in Adal in 1527, however he did not remove the Sultan, but instead left him in his nominal office. Yet, when Abu Bakr waged war on him, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim killed Abu Bakr, and replaced him with his brother Umar Din.[18]

In the 16th century, Adal organised an effective army led by Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi that invaded the Abyssinian empire.[2] This campaign is historically known as the Conquest of Abyssinia or Futuh al Habash. During the war, Ahmed pioneered the use of cannons supplied by the Ottoman Empire, which were deployed against Solomonic forces and their Portuguese allies led by Cristóvão da Gama. Some scholars argue that this conflict proved, through their use on both sides, the value of firearms such as the matchlock musket, cannons and the arquebus over traditional weapons.[19] After the death of Imam Ahmad, the Adal Sultanate lost most of its territory in Abyssnian lands. In 1550 Nur ibn Mujahid assumed power after he killed Abyssinian emperor Gelawdewos.[20] Due to constant Oromo raids both Adal and Abyssinian rulers struggled to consolidate power outside of their realms. During the rule of Muhammed Jasa in 1577 he transferred the capital from Harar to Aussa. The Adal Sultanate subsequently ended due to infighting with Afar tribes.[21]

Sultans of Adal

Name Reign Note
1 Sulṭān SabiradDīn SaʿadadDīn 1415–1422 Son of SaʿadadDīn Aḥmed. Won some early victories before being soundly defeated by Emperor Yeshaq.
2 Sulṭān Mansur SaʿadadDīn 1422–1424 Son of SaʿadadDīn Aḥmed. Defeated the Abyssinians at Yedaya, only to be defeated and imprisoned by Yeshaq.
3 Sulṭān JamaladDīn SaʿadadDīn 1424–1433 Won several important battles before being defeated at Harjai, he was assassinated in 1433.
4 Sulṭān AḥmedudDīn "Badlay" SaʿadadDīn 1433–1445 Son of SaʿadadDīn Aḥmed, known to the Abyssinians as "Arwe Badlay" ("Badlay the Monster"). AḥmedudDīn turned the tide of war against the Abyssinians and decisively defeated the forces of Emperor Yeshaq and liberated the land of Ifat. AḥmedudDīn founded a new capital at Dakkar in the Adal region, near Harar, creating the Sultanate of Adal. He was killed in battle after he had launched a jihad to push the Abyssinians back out of Dawaro.
5 Sulṭān Maḥamed AḥmedudDīn 1445–1472 Son of AḥmedudDīn "Badlay" SaʿadadDīn, Maḥamed asked for help from the Mameluk Sultanate of Egypt in 1452, though this assistance was not forthcoming. He ended up signing a very short-lived truce with Baeda Maryam
6 Sulṭān ShamsadDin Maḥamed 1472–1488 Son of Maḥamed AḥmedudDīn, he was attacked by Emperor Eskender of Abyssinia in 1479, who sacked Dakkar and destroyed much of the city, though the Abyssinians did not attempt to occupy the city and were ambushed on the way home with heavy losses.
7 Sulṭān Maḥamed ʿAsharadDīn 1488–1518 Great-grandson of SaʿadadDīn Aḥmed of Ifat, he continued to fight to liberate Dawaro along with Garad Maḥfūẓ of Zeila. He was assassinated after a disastrous campaign in 1518 and the death of Garad Maḥfūẓ.
8 Sultan Maḥamed Abūbakar Maḥfūẓ 1518–1519 Seized the throne, sparking a conflict between the Karanle and Walashma
9 Sulṭān Abūbakar Maḥamed 1518–1526 He killed Garād Abūn and restored the Walashma dynasty, but Garād Abūn's cousin Imām Aḥmed Gurēy avenged his cousin's death and killed him. While Garād Abūn ruled in Dakkar, Abūbakar Maḥamed established himself at Harar in 1520, and this is often cited as when the capital moved. Abūbakar Maḥamed was the last Walashma sultan to have any real power.
10 Garād Abūn ʿAdādshe 1519–1525 Successor to Maḥamed Abūbakar Maḥfūẓ and the Karanle party of the struggle for the throne.
11 Sulṭān ʿUmarDīn Maḥamed 1526–1553 Son of Maḥamed ʿAsharadDīn, Imām Aḥmed Gurēy put Maḥamed ʿAsharadDīn's young son ʿUmarDīn on the throne as puppet king in Imām Aḥmed Gurēy's capital at Harar. This essentially is the end of the Walashma dynasty as a ruling dynasty in all but name, though the dynasty hobbled on in a de jure capacity. Many king lists don't even bother with Walashma rulers after this and just list Imām Aḥmed Gurēy and then Amīr Nūr Mujahid.
12 Sulṭān ʿAli ʿUmarDīn 1553–1555 Son of ʿUmarDīn Maḥamed
13 Sulṭān Barakat ʿUmarDīn 1555–1559 Son of ʿUmarDīn Maḥamed, last of the Walashma Sultans, assisted Amīr Nūr Mujahid in his attempt to retake Dawaro. He was killed defending Harar from Emperor Gelawdewos, ending the dynasty.


The Walashma dynasty of the Ifat and Adal sultanates all possessed Arab genealogical traditions,.[22]

During Adal's initial period, when it was centered in city of Zeila in present-day northwestern Somalia, the kingdom was primarily composed of Somalis, Afars, Hararis and Arabs.[7]

Edwald Wagner connects the name 'Adal' with the Danakili (Afar) tribe Ada'ila and the Somali name for the clan Oda 'Ali, proposing that the kingdom may have largely been composed of Afars.[23]

Here the Portuguese infantries had their first glimpse of Ahmad and document their observations, as recorded by Castanhoso:

While his camp was being pitched, the king of Zeila Imam Ahmad ascended a hill with several horse and some foot to examine us: he halted on the top with three hundred horse and three large banners, two white with red moons, and one red with a white moon, which always accompanied him, and [by] which he was recognized.[24]

Among the earliest mentions of the Somali by name had come through a victory poem written by emperor Yeshaq I of Abyssinia against the king of Adal, as the simmur are said to have submitted and paid tribute. "Dr Enrico Cerulli has shown that Simur was an old Harari name for the Somali, who are still known by them as Tumur.* Hence, it is most probable that the mention of the Somali and the Simur in relation to Yishaq refers to the king's military campaigns against Adal, where the Somali seem to have constituted a major section of the population." [25]

On his background:

Of the early history of the Imam Ahmad but little is known. He was the son of one Ibrahim el Ghazi, and both he and his father were common soldiers in the troop of Garad Aboun. Nothing even is said as to his nationality. He was certainly not an Arab : probably he was a Somali, for we find him closely connected with many who were Somalis.[26]


Various languages from the Afro-Asiatic groups were spoken in the vast Adal Sultanate. The languages spoken were region based and included Somali, Harari, Argobba, and Afar. Arabic was a common uniform language given that these populations were Muslim and that the Walashama dynasty spoke Arabic.[27]

In the predominately Somali capital of the Adal Sultanate, Zeila, and local Somali territories, the Arabic and Somali languages were most commonly present.[28]

Accounts of the previous Ifat Sultanate, given its expansive region, note an "Abyssinian" speaking presence which J. D. Fage suggests is Ethio-Semitic.[29]


During its existence, Adal had relations and engaged in trade with other polities in Northeast Africa, the Near East, Europe and South Asia. Many of the historic cities in the Horn of Africa such as Abasa and Berbera flourished under its reign with courtyard houses, mosques, shrines, walled enclosures and cisterns. Adal attained its peak in the 14th century, trading in slaves, ivory and other commodities with Abyssinia and kingdoms in Arabia through its chief port of Zeila.[2] The cities of the empire imported intricately colored glass bracelets and Chinese celadon for palace and home decoration.[30]


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The Adalite military was divided in several sections such as the infantry consisting of swordsmen, archers and lancers that were commanded by various generals and lieutenants. These forces were complimented by a cavalry force and eventually later in the empire's history; by matchlock-technology and cannons during the Conquest of Abyssinia. The various divisions were symbolised with a distinct flag.

The Adal soldiers donned elaborate helmets and steel-armour made up of chain-mail with overlapping tiers.[31] The Horsemen of Adal wore protective helmets that covered the entire face except for the eyes, and breastplates on their body, while they harnessed their horses in a similar fashion. In siege warfare, ladders were employed to scale buildings and other high positions such as hills and mountains.

M. Lewis writes:

Somali forces contributed much to the Imām’s victories. Shihab ad-Din, the Muslim chronicler of the period, writing between 1540 and 1560, mentions them frequently (Futūḥ al-Ḥabasha, ed. And trs. R. Besset Paris, 1897.). The most prominent Somali groups in the campaigns were the Samaroon or Gadabursi (Dir) clans is very vague as to their distribution and grazing areas and Of the Isāq only the Habar Magādle clan (Aidagale, Arab &a Habar Yonis seem to have been involved and their distribution is not recorded. Finally several Dir clans also took part.[32]

Richard Pankhurst clarifies in the up to date translation and analyses of the Futuh Al-Ḥabaśā (The Conquest of Abyssinia),[33] that the Habar Maqdi/Makadi is the Habr Makadur of the Gadabursi [10][11]

Ethnic Somalis being the majority of the army is further evidenced in the Oxford History of Islam:

The sultanate of Adal, which emerged as the major Muslim principality from 1420 to 1560, seems to have recruited its military force mainly from among the Somalis.[34]

Abyssinian–Adal conflict

Main article: Abyssinian–Adal war
Ruins of the Sultanate of Adal in Zeila.

In the mid-1520s, Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi assumed control of Adal and launched a war against Abyssinia, which was then under the leadership of Dawit II (Lebna Dengel). Supplied by the Ottoman Empire with firearms, Ahmad was able to defeat the Abyssinians at the Battle of Shimbra Kure in 1529 and seize control of the wealthy Ethiopian highlands, though the Abyssinians continued to resist from the highlands. In 1541, the Portuguese, who had vested interests in the Indian Ocean, sent aid to the Abyssinians in the form of 400 musketeers. Adal, in response, received 900 from the Ottomans.

Imam Ahmad was initially successful against the Abyssinians while campaigning in the Autumn of 1542, killing the Portuguese commander Cristóvão da Gama in August that year. However, Portuguese musketry proved decisive in Adal's defeat at the Battle of Wayna Daga, near Lake Tana, in February 1543, where Ahmad was killed in battle. The Abyssinians subsequently retook the Amhara plateau and recouped their losses against Adal. The Ottomans, who had their own troubles to deal with in the Mediterranean, were unable to help Ahmad's successors. When Adal collapsed in 1577, the seat of the Sultanate shifted from Harar to Aussa in the desert region of Afar and a new sultanate began.[35]

Oromo expansion

Main article: Oromo migrations

After the conflict between Adal and Abyssinia had subsided, the conquest of the highland regions of Abyssinia and Adal by the Oromo (namely, through military expansion and the installation of the Gadaa socio-political system) ended in the contraction of both powers and changed regional dynamics for centuries to come. In essence, what had happened is that the populations of the highlands had not ceased to exist as a result of the Gadaa expansion, but were simply incorporated into a different socio-political system.


A sword symbol on a stele at Tiya.

The Adal Sultanate left behind many structures and artefacts from its heyday. Numerous such historical edifices and items are found in the northwestern Awdal province of Somaliland, as well as other parts of the Horn region where the polity held sway.[36]

Archaeological excavations in the late 19th century and early 20th century at over fourteen sites in the vicinity of Borama in modern-day northwestern Somaliland unearthed, among other artefacts, silver coins identified as having been derived from Qaitbay (1468–89), the eighteenth Burji Mamluk Sultan of Egypt.[36][37] Most of these finds are associated with the medieval Adal Sultanate.[38] They were sent to the British Museum for preservation shortly after their discovery.[37]

In 1950, the British Somaliland protectorate government commissioned an archaeological survey in twelve desert towns in present-day Somaliland, near the border with Ethiopia. According to the expedition team, the sites yielded the most salient evidence of late medieval period affluence. They contained ruins of what were evidently once large cities belonging to the Adal Sultanate. Three of the towns in particular, Abara, Gargesa and Amud, featured between 200 and 300 stone houses. The walls of certain sites still reportedly stood 18 meters high. Excavations in the area yielded 26 silver coins, unlike the copper pieces that were more common in polities below the Horn region. The earliest of these recovered coins had been minted by Sultan Barquq (1382–99), also of the Egyptian Burji dynasty, and the latest were again Sultan Qaitbay issues. All of the pieces had been struck in either Cairo or Damascus. A few gold coins were also discovered during the expedition, making the area the only place in the wider region to yield such pieces. Besides coinage, high quality porcelain was recovered from the Adal sites. The fine celadon ware was found either lying on the surface, or buried at a depth of seven and a half inches, or ensconced within dense middens four to five feet high. Among the artefacts were grey granular sherds with a crackled blue-green or sea-green glaze, and white crystalline fragments with an uncrackled green-white glaze. Some Ming dynasty ware was also discovered, including many early Ming blue-and-white bowl sherds. They were adorned with tendril scrolls on a bluish ground and ornamented with black spotting, while other bowls had floral patterns outlined by grey or black-blue designs. Additionally, a few Ming red-and-white sherds were found, as well as white porcelain fragments with bluish highlights. The Adal sites appeared to reach an Indian Ocean terminus at the Sa'ad ad-Din Islands, named for Sultan Sa'ad ad-Din II of the Ifat Sultanate.[39]

Additionally, local tradition identifies the archaeological site of Tiya in central Ethiopia as Yegragn Dingay ("Gran's stone") in reference to Imam Al-Ghazi. According to Joussaume (1995), who led archaeological work there, the site is relatively recent. It has been dated to between the 11th and 13th centuries CE. Tiya contains a number of megalithic pillars, including anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic/non-phallic stelae. Flat in form, these structures are characterized by distinctive, elaborate decorations, among which are swords, a standing human figure with arms akimbo, and plant-like symbols.[40]

See also


  1. "the king of Zeila [Imam Ahmad] ascended a hill with several horse and some foot to examine us: he halted on the top with three hundred horse and three large banners, two white with red moons, and one red with a white moon, which always accompanied him, and [by] which he was recognized." Richard Stephen Whiteway, The Portuguese expedition to Abyssinia in 1541-1543 as Narrated by Castanhoso, Kraus Reprint, 1967, p. 41
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Lewis, I. M. (1999). A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. James Currey Publishers. p. 17. ISBN 0852552807.
  3. Abir, Mordechai. Ethiopia and the Red Sea. Routledge. p. 139. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  4. Briggs, Phillip. Somaliland. Bradt Travel Guides. Retrieved 25 April 2016.
  5. elrik, Haggai (2007). "The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 1050 to c. 1600". Basic Reference. USA: Lynne Rienner. 28: 36. doi:10.1017/S0020743800063145. Retrieved 2012-04-27.
  6. Fage, J.D (2010). "The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 1050 to c. 1600". ISIM Review. UK: Cambridge University Press (Spring 2005): 169. Retrieved 2009-04-10.
  7. 1 2 David Hamilton Shinn & Thomas P. Ofcansky (2004). Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. Scarecrow Press. p. 5. ISBN 0810849100.
  8. Cambridge History of Africa Volume 3 From c.1050 to c. 1600, Cambridge University Press, 2008, page 149
  9. Fage, J.D (2010). "The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 1050 to c. 1600". ISIM Review. UK: Cambridge University Press (Spring 2005): 139.
  10. Briggs, Phillip (2012). Somaliland. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 7. ISBN 1841623717.
  11. 1 2 Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 25. Americana Corporation. 1965. p. 255.
  12. 1 2 Lewis, I.M. (1955). Peoples of the Horn of Africa: Somali, Afar and Saho. International African Institute. p. 140.
  13. 1 2 Houtsma, M. Th (1987). E.J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913–1936. BRILL. pp. 125–126. ISBN 9004082654.
  14. mbali (2010). "Somaliland". Basic Reference. London, UK: mbali. 28: 217–229. doi:10.1017/S0020743800063145. Retrieved 2012-04-27.
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  24. Richard Stephen Whiteway (1902). The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 1541-1543 as Narrated by Castanhoso. Hakluyt Society. p. 41.
  25. The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 3, Cambridge University Press, 2008, page 154
  26. Richard Stephen Whiteway (1902). The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 1541-1543 as Narrated by Castanhoso. Hakluyt Society. p. 38.
  27. Giyorgis, Asma (1999). Aṣma Giyorgis and his work: history of the Gāllā and the kingdom of Šawā. Medical verlag. p. 257. ISBN 978-3-515-03716-7.
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  29. Fage, J.D (2010). "The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 1050 to c. 1600". ISIM Review. UK: Cambridge University Press (Spring 2005): 146–147. Retrieved 2009-04-10.
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  31. Conquest of Abyssinia by Shibab ad-Din pg 43
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