Djibuoti: Punt & Macrobians

We are back one again for the ABC of World history. We have now landed on D and a dice roll determined today I would talk to you about Djibouti which for those of you unaware of its location, it is a country in the Horn of Africa and bordered by Somaliland (that part of Somalia that is desperately trying to be acknowledged a its own state), Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti has had many names throughout history, been part of many states and nations, and governed by different groups, whether it was the local Somali and Afar peoples, the Islamic empires that took over the north of Africa, or the French colonists in its most recent history. However, officially as the Republic of Djibouti, it has existed since its independence granted by French authorities in 1977. It has a long history as anthologist and archaeologist agree that its strategic location would have been key for the crossing of the early homonym groups, and there is consensus that it has been consistently occupied since at least the Neolithic. I must confess that I was incredibly tempted to start talking about the wonderful archaeological remain that are found around this area or the incredible painting of giraffes in Balho, but today I decided to talk about the uncertain history of Djibouti. Because, you see, its geographical location, means that it is a perfect breeding ground for all those potential places of antiquity we are not entirely sure where they exactly were. So today I will briefly cover the potential role of Djibouti as the land of Punt and Macrobians.

The Land of Punt

The majority of the information we have regarding the so-called Land of Punt comes from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians who left records of their mysterious trading partner in this land of Punt. Where was Punt exactly? Well, its difficult to say, and the lack of consensus means that we are currently working with the space between Egypt and the red Sea all the way down to the Horn of Africa, so, you know just a few places…So where do the records come from? The Egyptians started mentioning gold coming form Punt since the Fourth Dynasty, and the first official expedition to this region was organised in the Fifth dynasty by Pharaoh Sahure (around 25th century BC). But it wasn’t until the reign of Hatshepsut that the most famous expedition is organised and from, we get most of the information we have to date about Punt. Her chroniclers describe the land at length even describing it as a rich area with anything imaginable littering the land, a place worthy of Gods. The descriptions of the trade good that came to the Egyptians through Punt, suggest that the Puntites were well established as a mercantile nation, as they also traded with goods from adjacent areas, suggesting they had developed a solid network. Reliefs of these trading missions by ship can still be found in Hatshepsut’s temple at Dayr al-Bahri. We even have mentions of the Puntite rulers of this time: King Parahu and Queen Ati. However after the reign of Ramses III, it seems the majority of narratives about the land of Punt become so unreal that perhaps indicate a certain level of mythification and legendary romanticism which makes us questioned what happened between these two nations or if previous records had also been exaggerated.


The Macrobian are a people that we have record of thank to Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC) the Greek writer and geographer. But, we need to take all we know about Macrobians with a pinch of salt as Herodotus is our main source and from the accounts themselves, these come across as sort of mythological people living in the extremities of the world known to the Greeks. He describes the Macrobians as living somewhere south of Ethiopia, which could fit with the current location of Djibouti. He presents them as tall and handsome people, excellent seafarers and living in a prosperous land, which sort of matches the imagery developed earlier by the Egyptian Pharaoes. Herodotus description of diet (milk and meat), remarks on stature and prowess resonates with the pastoral Somali tribes of the area so, it is likely that if Macrobians was a real place it could be aligned with Djibouti. Another reason to believe this is the same area than Punt and perhaps even the same people is the remark on their wealth and gold, to the point that, probably exaggerating, Herodotus remarks that even their slaves were chained in this metal. The biggest issue that we have with Herodotus Macrobians accounts is that later authors of Greece, refer back to these same people (allegedly the same Macrobians) but then placing them in further remote areas corresponding to locations in India, but this again comes mostly from one source written by Pliny the Elder.

As you can see there is a lot of uncertainty around these areas, and I wish I Could clarify these things a little more for you, however the research on these areas is pretty lacking. In fact there aren’t many sources available in English that talk a bit more in depth about the history of Djibouti and the states prior to its formation that make this such a rich historical land. As usual, eurocentric historical ideas take us away from reachign a better udnerstanding of the world as a whole. So I really hope if nothing else, that this series of ABC World History inspires some of you to go look further south than Gibraltar.

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