The Afar (Danakil) claim to be descendants of Ham (Noah’s son). They are located in the East African countries of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. They prefer to be known as the Afar, since the Arabic word “danakil” is an offensive term to them. They are a proud people, emphasizing a man’s strength and bravery. Prestige comes from killing one’s enemies.
Many Afar people live in a remote hostile environment. Those who live in the desert inhabit one of the most rugged regions in the world, known as the Afar Plain or the Danakil Desert. One area, called the Danakil Depression, consists of a vast plain of salt pans and active volcanoes. Much of it lies 200 feet below sea level and has daily temperatures as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit. The average yearly rainfall is less than seven inches.
Most of the Afar are nomads who herd sheep, goats, cattle, and camels. A man’s wealth is measured by the size of his herds. Not all of the Afar are herdsmen. Many of those who work in the Danakil Depression pry loose slabs of solid salt during the dry season, supplying ready-to-use salt in the form of crude blocks.
Although some Muslims are permitted to have four wives, Afar marriages are usually monogamous. Girls may marry as early as age ten. Marriages between first cousins are preferred, particularly between a man and his father’s sister’s daughter. The night of the full moon is favored for a wedding ceremony, and the presence of someone able to read the Koran is required.
Meat and milk are the major components of the Afar diet. Milk is also an important social “offering”. For instance, when a guest is given fresh warm milk to drink, the host is implying that he will provide immediate protection for the guest. If a person is killed while under the protection of an Afar, his death must be avenged as if he were a member of the clan.
The Afar live in camps surrounded by thorn barricades, which protect them from the attacks of wild animals or enemy tribesmen. Their oval-shaped huts, called ari, are made of palm mats and are easily moved.
Traditionally, the society is ruled by sultanates made up of several villages headed by a dardar. Afar are organized into clan families, and into classes — asaimara (‘reds’) who are the dominant class politically, and the adoimara (‘whites’) who are a working class. They practice circumcision for both. A boy is judged for his bravery upon bearing the pain of circumcision, and is then allowed to marry the girl of his choice, though preferably someone from his own ethnic group.
The Afar People have a strong relationship with their environment and its wildlife, sharing land and resources with animals and doing them no harm. It is this tendency that is largely responsible for the preservation of the critically endangered African wild ass (Equus africanus), which has become extinct in more vulnerable environments.
Afar People have their own dressing styles for different occasions. Married women traditionally wear a black headscarf called a shash or musha. For men and women, the main article of clothing is the sanafil, a waist-cloth. Women’s are dyed brown (although today many women adopt multi-coloured sanafil) while men are undyed. Women wear a waist-cloth up to their knees and wear a necklace. Married women wear a black head scarf which covers only the hair, women remain bare breasted. Men wear a waist-cloth as well and wear a shawl wrapped around the torso. Men hair is usually fuzzy while women braid their hair and bead it. Its not uncommon for men to carry a stave, to prod livestock and for balance. Men also carry guns and a small stool.
Afar huts are similar to the Somali aqal. A domed framework of branches is covered with woven grass mats, and is made to be easily dismantled. About 20 huts around a livestock and a meeting place makes a village. Most of whom are still pastoralists and who can pack up and carry their houses on the backs of camels and they carry salt in their camel caravans up to the Ethiopian highlands.
According to history, Afar society has traditionally been organized into independent kingdoms, each ruled by its own Sultan. Among these were the Sultanate of Aussa, Sultanate of Girrifo, Sultanate of Dawe, Sultanate of Tadjourah, Sultanate of Rahaito and Sultanate of Goobad.
The earliest surviving written mention of the Afar is from the 13th-century Arab writer Ibn Sa’id, who reported that they lived in the area around the port of Suakin, as far south as Mandeb, near Zeila. They are mentioned intermittently in Ethiopian records, first as helping Emperor Amde-tsion in a campaign beyond the Awash River, then over a century later when they assisted Emperor Baeda Maryam when he campaigned against their neighbors the Dobe’a.
Along with the closely related Somali and other adjacent Afro-Asiatic-speaking Muslim peoples, the Afar are also associated with the medieval Adal Sultanate that controlled large parts of the northern Horn of Africa. 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 region, such as Maduna, Abasa, Berbera, Zeila and Harar, flourished with courtyard houses, mosques, shrines, walled enclosures and cisterns during the kingdom’s Golden Age.
The Afar Sultanate (Aussa Sultanate) succeeded the earlier Imamate of Aussa. The latter polity had come into existence in 1577, when Muhammed Jasa moved his capital from Harar to Aussa with the split of the Adal Sultanate into Aussa and the Harari city-state. At some point after 1672, Aussa declined and temporarily came to an end in conjunction with Imam Umar Din bin Adam’s recorded ascension to the throne.
The Sultanate was subsequently re-established by Kedafu around the year 1734, and was thereafter ruled by his Mudaito Dynasty. The primary symbol of the Sultan was a silver baton, which was considered to have magical properties.