Archaeological research in Ethiopia has largely centered around early humans, but there’s more to the country’s past than just our origins. Researchers recently found an ancient city at Harlaa, Eastern Ethiopia, that offers clues into the early days of international trade between the 10th and early 15th centuries. Legends has it the city was once the home of giants.


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Archaeological work has been lacking around Harlaa, where University of Exeter researchers, working with archaeologists from Leuven and Addis Ababa, recently uncovered the forgotten city. But local farmers, who had found pottery and even Chinese coins, suspected there may be more to find in the area. The massive size of some of the building stones for the city – which is around 1,640 feet by 3,280 feet big – led to stories it had once been populated by giants.

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Giants didn’t live there, according to Timothy Insoll, professor in the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the university. But the area was home to a wealth of archaeological treasures. Researchers uncovered a 12th century mosque as well as indications of Islamic burials. They found glass vessel pieces, beads, and imported cowry shells. They unearthed pottery that came from faraway places like China, the Maldives, Madagascar, and Yemen. They also discovered silver and bronze coins that came from Egypt in the 13th century.

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Insoll said in a statement, “This discovery revolutionizes our understanding of trade in an archaeologically neglected part of Ethiopia…The city was a rich, cosmopolitan center for jewelry-making and pieces were then taken to be sold around the region and beyond. Residents of Harlaa were a mixed community of foreigners and local people who traded with others in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and possibly as far away as the Arabian Gulf.”

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Archaeologists partnered with the local community to excavate the area over two years. So far they’ve dug down around eight feet, and plan to continue the work next year. Many findings will be displayed in a heritage center operated by locals for a new source of income. Some pieces will go to Ethiopia’s national museum in Addis Ababa.

Via the University of Exeter

Images courtesy of Tim Insoll

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