Lost Ancient Muslim City Discovered in Ethiopia Could Reveal Details of Islam's History in Africa

Harla mosque
A 12th-century mosque discovered in Harlaa, in eastern Ethiopia. The mosque is similar in style to others found in East Africa, suggesting connections between Islamic communities in the region. T. Insoll

A lost city thought to be more than 1,000 years old has been discovered in Ethiopia and may offer insight into Islam's origins in the country.

The settlement, located near Ethiopia's second largest city of Dire Dawa, in the east of the country, consisted of buildings constructed with large stone blocks, which gave rise to a local myth that giants lived there. Researchers believe it may date back as early as the 10th century.

Archaeologists discovered a 12th-century mosque in the settlement at Harlaa, as well as evidence of Islamic burials and headstones. The team, from the University of Exeter and the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, also found artifacts from as far afield as India and China, suggesting that the region functioned as a hub for foreign traders.

Prophet Muhammad died in the mid-seventh century, and Islam is thought to have spread to the East African coastline sometime in the eighth century. But an earlier tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad sent some of his first followers to Abyssinia—modern day Ethiopia—in the early seventh century.

There are almost 250 million Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, around 30 percent of the region's total population, according to the Pew Research Center. But Ethiopia has a strong Christian majority: Almost two-thirds of the population are Christian, while most of the rest are Muslim.

"Islamic archaeology has been neglected in Ethiopia because people have concentrated on other things," professor Timothy Insoll, the project leader and an archaeologist at the University of Exeter, tells Newsweek .

Double Burial
A burial site located in Harlaa, in eastern Ethiopia. Researchers are analyzing the remains to try to determine the diet of the area’s ancient inhabitants. T. Insoll

Ethiopia has been an important excavation site for research into the earliest human civilizations: Lucy, a 3.18 million-year-old fossil, who was a member of the early human ancestor Australopithecus afarensis, was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.

"[The recent discovery] is addressing the almost complete absence of Islamic archaeology [in Ethiopia,]" says Insoll. The mosque bore similarities to others discovered in Tanzania and Somaliland, a region of Somalia that has declared its autonomy, suggesting contact and connections between early Islamic communities in East Africa.

The researchers also discovered fragments of glass vessels, rock crystal, carnelian (a semiprecious gemstone), glass beads, cowry shells and pottery. Some of these artifacts came from India and China, and the team also found coins from 13th-century Egypt. Local farmers had occasionally come across objects such as Chinese coins.

Beads and other artifacts found in Harlaa, in eastern Ethiopia. Some of the objects came from India and China. T. Insoll

The discoveries in Harlaa constitute the first evidence of links between Ethiopia and the Gulf, India and North Africa hundreds of years ago.

Archaeologists also located the remains of 300 people buried in a cemetery that are being examined to see what kind of diet they had.

Insoll says that the project took two years to complete and that further excavations could reveal even earlier artefacts.