Mogadishu, now the capital city of Somalia, was one of the first Muslim settlements on the East African coast and its first secure harbor. Though it had been settled long before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, this expansion made it an important commercial center for the trade of cloth, ivory, hides, slaves, spices, cattle and porcelain with merchants from Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia and China. Ibn Battuta in 1331 writes of Mogadishu as an enormous sized town presided over by a Sultan or Shaikh. In the sixteenth century, Mogadishu came under the control of the Portuguese, but eventually fell under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1871. Twenty years later, the Sultan leased it to the Italians who then bought the city in 1905 and made it the capital of their colonial Somaliland until World War II.
Like many other East African coastal cities, Mogadishu is characterized by its multi-storey coral stone houses. This coral stone was mined on land and bound with a coral cement collected in the shallow coastal waters. These whitewashed houses are often decorated with sculptural plasterwork and ornately carved lintels, doors and windows. The interiors are often furnished with equally ornate wooden storage chests, chairs and beds. Mogadishu decorative arts have their own unique motifs, though some occur elsewhere along the coast. The twelve or eight-petal rosette, surrounded by many little four-petal asters and encased in a rectangular panel, is often used in door panels or window frames. Meticulously carved and smoothly plastered niches are another element common in Mogadishu. These can be found in the nineteenth century Garesa Palace, built by the Sultan of Zanzibar, surrounded by lively, organic, and floral carved motifs.
The skyline of Mogadishu is punctuated by the minarets of mosques. The pre-modern city counted twenty-eight mosques. Of the three that remain from before the twentieth century, the Jamia Mogadishu, or the Friday mosque al Gaime
, in the district of Hamer Weyne, is the oldest. A Kufic inscription in the mosque dates the site to 1238 /635 AH. All that remains of the original mosque today, is a single round coral tower, measuring thirteen and a half meters high and over four meters in diameter at its base. This tower's doorway is narrow and surrounded by a multiple ordered recessed arch, perhaps one of the first examples of the recessed arch that was to become a prototype for the East African mihrab. The mosque, rebuilt in the 1930s, now surrounds the once freestanding tower. Some elements around the mihrab resemble its thirteenth century predecessor, including the mihrab's side pilasters, decorated with porcelain bowls. Among Mogadishu's other significant sites are the Fakhr al-Din mosque
, perhaps the only pre-modern building in East Africa designed by an architect that is still in use today, the nineteenth century Mosque of Abd Al-Aziz, and the Mnara tower, which still stands along the many tombs of a thirteenth century cemetery.
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