Bomb damaged coral stone buildings, Berbera, Somaliland. Photo credit, Philip Davies.

Saving Berbera

by Jabir Mohamed

The Commonwealth Heritage Forum is exploring a partnership with institutions in Somaliland to help save the unique coral buildings of Berbera.

Jabir Mohamed was one of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum trainees on the Roebuck Street Research Studio, Barbados, in January 2023. Jabir's goal is to continue developing his skills, and those of others, to help rebuild and preserve the heritage in Somalia that has been damaged due to war and neglect. We are pleased to be exploring opportunities in Somaliland with him.

Jabir writes …

Berbera is a historic port city on the Gulf of Aden. First mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea in the first century AD, Berbera was part of a chain of Somali city-states dotting the Somali coast that grew rich trading frankincense, myrrh, gold, musk, and ivory.

Benefiting from being outside the Roman sphere of influence, Somali and Arab traders hid the Indian origins of cinnamon and made them believe it was produced on the Somali coast. The Romans then named it ‘Regio Cinnamafore’ (“Land of the Cinnamon”).

Berbera was a major port of the Ifat, Adal, and Isaaq Sultanates. It was sacked by the Portuguese in 1518, occupied by Mocha in the 17th century, by the Ottomans in 1801, the Egyptians in 1875, and the British in 1884 when it served as the capital of the British Somaliland Protectorate. Gaining independence in 1960 and the formation of the Somali state, Berbera became the second most important port following Mogadishu.

The city is layered with shared heritage from each period. It contains Somali mosques, homes and markets, colonial British administrative buildings, and Ottoman mosques and townhouses, all built in local coral stone. The Commonwealth Heritage Forum is determined to help save this unique place which is severely at risk of being lost forever.

Today, Berbera is located in the Republic of Somaliland (a self-declared independent state which seceded from Somalia in 1991) where much of the old port was destroyed in the war following Somaliland's declaration of Independence. It was the site of some of the worst atrocities committed by the regime-led Somali government against civilians in what various scholars have referred to as genocide.

Unlike Hargeisa however, where aerial bombardment and shelling destroyed up to 90% of the city, much of the heritage in Berbera is still standing, but unfortunately crumbling from neglect and abandonment. However, Berbera is once again becoming an important centre for commerce and trade. With the increase in international investments in the port, the built heritage faces a new threat from unthinking redevelopment and the lack of any laws protecting this heritage.

Following lobbying by local heritage experts and the Director of the Hargeisa Cultural Centre, the Berbera Municipal Government has introduced a new law that anyone planning on making changes to historic buildings should first seek permission from the local government. This represents a major step forward in the protection of the valuable tangible heritage of the region, which is of outstanding international significance.

Different cultures place different levels of significance on tangible and intangible heritage. In the West, tangible heritage such as buildings, monuments and sites, and also written histories, are regarded as crucially important. Once an historic building has been lost, it has gone forever.

Oral heritage, particularly important in parts of the global south, especially in the Horn of Africa comes in stories, poetry, and folklore. They carry with them utterances from the past to sustain the future. It gives people the space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality.

The Horn of Africa faces many challenges. Diverse futures are being imagined and implemented. Preserving the tangible heritage in our own Somali way needs to be championed. Stone seems so solid compared to our poetry and oral traditions. The beauty of the fragility of the built heritage should be recognised more fully and conserved for future generations. It is what makes our country unique and distinctive.  Somalis also have a Maah Maah (saying)…

Miro gunti ku jira kuwo geed saaran looma daadiyo.

One does not throw away fruit in the pocket for the sake of fruit on the tree.

Former British Residency, Berbera. Photo credit, Philip Davies.

Conserving heritage sites in Guyana

by Francis Maude, Chair of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum

A recent visit to Guyana by Commonwealth Heritage Forum Chairman Francis Maude and CEO Philip Davies has highlighted the urgency for action to preserve and enhance the varied heritage of this little visited nation.

Despite its location on the northern shoulder of South America, culturally Guyana forms part of the English-speaking Caribbean.  The first European settlers were Dutch. With Trinidad (held by the Spanish, then briefly the French) and St Lucia (French), it passed into British hands during the Napoleonic wars. The Dutch were probably the only people who could have drained the flat coastal mangrove swamps and plains into productive land for the cultivation of sugar, coffee, rice and cocoa.

From the 17th century onwards, the Dutch constructed a system of drainage channels which divided the land into regular strips, a few hundred metres wide, arranged perpendicular to the coast and to the main rivers (the Essequibo, Demerara, Berbice and Courentyne) which allowed boats to reach the interior. They protected their colony through forts, including Fort Zeelandia, built on an island in the Essequibo estuary.

The drainage channels (known as kokers) run many miles inland, often the full depth of the coastal plain on which almost the entire population of the nation lives. The names the Dutch gave the strips of cultivated land, which formed the basis for the systems of plantations, reveal the concerns and passions of the pioneering colonists: Werk en Rust; Vreed en Hoop; Johannas Lust. These names yet remain, having survived the Dutch departure. Today, they define the street pattern and development of the City of Georgetown.

Illus 1. The coastal swamps of Guyana were drained by the Dutch and their rectangular grid of ditches and canals (“kokers”) defines the pattern of development to this day. Central Georgetown and the mouth of the Demerara River are at the top of this photo; modern suburbs stretch for miles along the coast, with the former plantations inland. Today, rice, sugar and palm oil are the principal crops. (The author). Illus 2. Central Georgetown from the west, with the Demerara River in the foreground. (The author).

There was an earlier fort and settlement on the east bank of the mouth of the Demerara river during the Dutch period, but the formation of a town came later; on the 14th April 1812, “the town formerly called Stabroek extending from the side line of La Penitence to the bridge in Kingston, entering upon the road to the camp be in future styled by the name of Georgetown.”

Illus. 3. Georgetown in 1775.  Note the “Nieew Stadt” or New Town (in red) and the Fort amid the plantations. NB North is at the bottom of this map. The Stabroek market identified in Illus. 2 is now at the river frontage of the “Nieew Stadt”. (National Trust of Guyana).

The Royal Warrant which declared Georgetown a City was issued in 1842. Development proceeded apace. The earliest railway in South America was operational in the 1840s.

Illus 4. Georgetown in the mid-19th century, less than a century after Illus. 3. Note the railway. (National Trust of Guyana).

Public Buildings, churches, schools, market halls, hotels, fine mansions, public gardens and houses were built within the network of wide streets and avenues formed by the drainage canals. Enhanced later in the 19th century by the construction of the City Hall, the Victoria Law Courts, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the Anglican St George’s Cathedral, (for many years the world’s tallest timber building), the city became known as the Garden City of the Caribbean.

Illus. 5. The Garden City of the Caribbean: Croal Street, Georgetown c. 1900. The (Victoria) Law Courts are on the left. (courtesy of the late Lennox Hernandez). Illus. 6. Central Georgetown, early 1890s. The central spire to St George’s Cathedral is under construction; the City Hall has recently been completed. (courtesy of the late Lennox Hernandez).

In recent years a number of the key historic structures have been repaired, including the Parliament building, St George’s Cathedral and the Roman Catholic Cathedral on Brickdam. The City Hall is at present under restoration, and will look splendid when complete, though the extent of surviving historic fabric has sadly been compromised by the passage of time between the preparation of the construction drawings and specifications, and the execution of the work.

Many other buildings, which collectively gave Georgetown its identity and joy to residents and visitors alike, have been lost, primarily through fire and redevelopment. Perhaps the greatest loss was the fire of 1945, when a great part of the City centre was destroyed. The memory of this loss remains in historic photographs and in a beautifully rendered and tantalising model kept in the National Museum.

Illus. 7. Scaled Model of the area burnt in the Great Fire 1945. Model built in 1950 by Vincent Roth and housed in the National Museum. (The author).

In the reconstruction that followed the fire, the new buildings were of concrete to eliminate the scourge of fire which has destroyed so many cities, not least London in 1666. As in London, so in Georgetown, the fire prompted the adoption of building codes intended to prevent the repetition of such devastation. The new buildings were clever both in their conception and in the manner in which they integrated themselves into the pre-existing townscape. Their scale, massing, balance of solid and void, colour, plot development ratios and the retention of generous green space to permit the prevailing breeze to cool the buildings embodied the knowledge of how to build comfortable buildings in a humid tropical environment, while permitting new forms of architectural expression for contemporary new uses.

Illus. 8. Central Georgetown rebuilt after the 1945 fire. Note the absence of air conditioning plant, the open spaces, the scale, shading and fenestration of the new buildings. (courtesy of the late Lennox Hernandez). 

(Clockwise) Illus. 8a. The City Hall, prior to restoration, now happily under way. (The author). Illus. 8b. A fine timber house with typical Georgetown features including demerara shutters, a tower, exterior balconies and a large plot. (the author). Illus. 8c. St George’s Cathedral under restoration. For over a century this was the tallest timber building in the world. When first built, it showed its timber frame externally as black “half-timbering”, but rainwater penetration soon caused the addition of external weatherboarding. (The author). Illus. 8d. Typical modern street scene with a traditional dwelling house framed by modern over-scaled development as well as single storey structures covering the maximum extent of their plots. (The author).



The cultural value of historic buildings is keenly acknowledged by the leaders of Guyana and of Georgetown. The Prime Minister lives in one, set in spacious grounds on Main Street.

Illus. 9. The Prime Minister’s Residence, Main Street, Georgetown. (The author).

The Public Buildings which house Parliament, the City Hall, the Law Courts, and almost all the key functions of government both local and national are housed in historic buildings. Their settings, however, are being eroded through careless development. Other buildings are insensitively altered or inadequately maintained.

It is not a question of choosing between conservation and new development. Successful cities must have both. The discovery of oil off the Guyanese coast in the Stabroek Block has provided a fillip to the local and national economy. This may provide the resources to support investment in a holistic development plan for Georgetown and it is this, combined with incentives for training, both trades-based and professional, which formed the backbone to the discussions which Philip Davies and I had with local leaders, including the Prime Minister, the Mayor of Georgetown, the Ministers for Tourism, Public Works, and for Culture and Sport, as well as the director of the National Trust for Guyana and the Head of the School of Architecture at the University of Guyana.

Illus. 9a. Philip Davies (CEO of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum), Mark Phillips (the Prime Minster of Guyana), and Francis Maude (author) in front of the Prime Minister’s residence. (Philip Davies)

  • The Commonwealth Heritage Forum has offered to help with a number of potential projects. These include: working with Government, the National Trust for Guyana and the School of Architecture on the preparation of a Conservation Management Plan for the historic core of the City, focussing on the streetscape as well as the individual buildings, many of which are well catalogued already.
  • The establishment of conservation areas where the character of the architecture and of the majority of the urban realm are clearly definable. Within these areas there may well be examples of neglect or inappropriate development, which can be highlighted for future attention.
  • Highlighting priorities for the repair and restoration of key historic buildings ar risk.
  • Setting out policies to guide future development, considering scale, massing, balance of solid and void, colour, materials, plot ratios and the retention of generous green space, as well as the integration of measures to improve sustainability.
  • Training in skills to undertake the repair and restoration of the many splendid buildings which yet remain. It is axiomatic that the most sustainable building is the one that has already been built. Such training would also include an understanding of how and where enhancements such as photovoltaic panels, wheelchair access, improved security, resistance to fire, additional shading and, where necessary, air conditioning can be integrated. Both trade and professional skills are equally important.

Not all Guyana’s heritage falls into the category of the picturesque. One location, which we happened upon by chance, offers the opportunity to consider the development of industry in Guyana based on trade in commodities, such as sugar, rice, timber and much else. Trade provided the bedrock on which Guyana’s development was based. The Transport and Harbour Department Central Workshops, which served both the quay and the railway, are a fascinating time capsule.

The Workshops retain a set of metalworking and woodworking machinery in a set of dedicated spaces. Stores remain containing myriad obsolescent parts for long-abandoned equipment. There are two railway wagons on a short length of track. The workshops remain in limited use, so some of the machinery is still operational. Adjacent is vacant ground which could accommodate additional workshop and training facilities, as well as a café and visitor centre to support public access.

(Clockwise) Illus. 10. Part of the Transport and Harbour Dept Central Workshop. (The author). Illus. 11. Another internal view, with railway track, gantry crane and machinery. (The author). Illus. 12. The last train in Guyana? (The author). Illus. 13. The Central Workshops on Water Street. (The author).

These workshops provide much of what would be needed to establish a training school for traditional crafts as well as the space to develop these further. The location at the centre of Georgetown would encourage the simultaneous development of a unique visitor attraction showcasing the industrial heritage of Guyana. We consider that this is an important story and an educational resource which would be of interest to many.

We look forward to working closely with local partners to secure a sustainable future for Guyana’s spectacular built heritage.

The 2019–2021 Rescue Restoration of the town centre of Wupperthal, Cederberg, South Africa.

by Graham Jacobs, a member of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum's International Advisory Committee

Historical Background

In late December 2018, a disastrous fire gutted the historic town centre and half of the residential area of Wupperthal, an isolated Moravian mission settlement in the heart of the rugged Cederberg region of South Africa’s Western Cape Province. This is an area where most inhabitants rely either on subsistence farming or social grants to eke out an existence from the surrounding wilderness landscape. The fire was not only catastrophic for the town’s historic thatched vernacular buildings, but also the community. The disaster resulted in one fatality while approximately 200 people were left destitute. To make matters worse, most of the severely damaged buildings had either been underinsured or not insured at all. That included the 12 buildings gutted by fire in the town centre.

Aerial view showing the gutted state of some of the buildings in the town centre after the fire. Top centre are the remains of Leipoldt House with its vernacular T-shaped floor plan and semicircular stoep. To the left are the remains of the first school building in the settlement (now the mission shop). Below are the remains of the Community Hall. (Drone image: Goal Zero Consulting, 22 January 2019).

Wupperthal was established in 1830 as the first Rhenish mission station in South Africa. It was laid out on two pre-existing farms in the isolated but fertile Tra-Tra Valley approximately 81km from Clanwilliam and about 250 km north of Cape Town. By 1834 a church and school had been built to serve the local population that soon came to include freed slaves from surrounding farms and surviving first nation Khoe San that had been detribalized in the wake of an earlier devastating smallpox epidemic at the Cape. One of the founding missionaries at the settlement, Rev Gottlieb Leipoldt, initially used what was almost certainly the original farmhouse of the more established of the two farms as the first parsonage. This remains the oldest known building in Wupperthal. It is now known as Leipoldt House in honour of this founder missionary.

The mission station expanded rapidly and by the 1850’s, the town centre, or ‘kerkwerf’ (church precinct) included a new parsonage, new school buildings, a tannery and a small shoe factory. The residential portion of the village, comprising terraces of thatched vernacular houses, grew up against the hillside to the northeast of the town centre. In 1965, the mission settlement was formally taken over by the Moravian Church after the Rhenish Mission Society left South Africa.

Because of its physical isolation within one of the Western Cape’s primary wilderness areas, Wupperthal remained a veritable architectural time capsule for almost two centuries.

Action Immediately after the Fire

Various private and public bodies were quick to react and offer assistance despite the disaster having occurred during South Africa’s end of year festive season holidays. Public sector structural engineers initially pronounced that the gutted buildings would have to be demolished as a public hazard. The Western Cape Provincial Heritage Authority however disagreed and a prominent South African businessman came to the rescue by offering to finance the restoration and reconstruction work.

Before work could commence, sun dried clay brick walls were propped and stabilized. Damp proof sheeting was fastened over all exposed wall caps to prevent walls from collapsing after impending winter rains. (Most of the Western Cape falls within a winter rainfall area).  The debris of each of the gutted buildings was carefully sifted for historic artefacts including ironmongery and other surviving period features. All recovered items were tagged and bagged for re-use in their pre-existing locations, where possible.

The Project

Work began in earnest on 1 August 2019 after the relevant heritage and building plans approvals were granted and a suitable contractor appointed. One of the conditions of the heritage approval was that an appropriately qualified and experienced conservation architect assisted by a historical archaeologist be appointed to monitor the work. The project structural engineer was also engaged on the basis of his experience working with old and ancient structures.

Examples of historic ironmongery recovered after the fire. These included a large 19th C front door lock (bottom left). Most were recovered from the ashes and rubble of the Winkelhuis.  Most, including the badly damaged and heat-seized door locks, were able to be reconditioned and subsequently  reinstalled as part of the restoration work. (24 January 2019).

It had been clear from the onset that the restoration of the settlement would not only be about its buildings, but also its people. A key purpose of the project was therefore to provide the opportunity for locals to develop niche skills in the use of traditional materials such as locally sourced stone, lime mortars and lime renders. The idea was that these skills could then be employed as a source of income to sustain families while also maintaining the settlement’s vernacular structures and other historic farm complexes in the surrounding area.

Harnessing heritage to empower people became an underlying ethos of the project. From the outset there was no stage during which locals did not make up at least 50% of the work complement while most of the time, that proportion was closer to 75%. Work was undertaken with constant engagement of the community through the Moravian Church, both at local and provincial levels. One aspect of construction in which many locals were already skilled, was thatching. In that respect, locals proved to be more adept and effective in working under blazingly hot days than their contracted counterparts from the city. Some of the local labour, accustomed to a hard life of subsistence farming and bartering, received wages for the first time in their lives.

Left: Remains of Leipoldt House after the fire. Probably the original Rietmond farmhouse, pre-dating the arrival of the Rhenish missionaries by about 30 years. (25 October 2019). Right: Exterior of Leipoldt House after restoration and reconstruction. (27 Nov 2020).

Left: Leipoldt House memorial wall: One of the interior walls in Leipoldt House retained in the burnt condition in which it was found to commemorate the disaster. This building is scheduled to become the town’s museum. Right: Contemporary carpenter’s marks: New joinery was stamped with the initials of the joiner and date of fabrication: all in inconspicuous places to serve as a record for future researchers. (8 June 2021).

Left: The front façade of the mid-19th C second parsonage after the fire debris had been cleared. The rammed earth (pisé) construction of the central façade portion is clearly evident as horizontal wall striations. Subsequent additions are in sun-dried clay brick.(30 January 2020). Right: the front façade after restoration/reconstruction (8 June 2021).

Left: Collapsed kitchen hearth in the Shopkeeper’s House after the fire. All intact bricks were recovered and re-used in its reconstruction (24 January 2019). Right: New simple, contemporarily styled kitchen with restored hearth converted to a pantry. (7 April 2021).

Left: The Mission Shop (right) with later cement brick flat roofed kitchen extension (center) and 20th C derelict plastered cement block café building on the far left. Right: The same view after demolition of the kitchen extension and derelict café, reclaiming historic open space between the mission Stores and Leipoldt House. The community hall right of centre is  another of the restored buildings. (8 June 2021).

Reconstructed stone walls behind the restored former school hostel buildings (left) now converted to visitor accommodation as a sustainable source of income for the settlement going forward. (8 June 2021).

Work was undertaken using lime mortars, lime renders and, where necessary, locally sourced stone. This was not only to ensure compatibility with old fabric but also to revive awareness of the economies of using locally sourced material instead of Portland cement, cement bricks and building blocks. These had been in widespread use in the settlement until the fire. In two particular instances, traditional materials had to be shipped in, i.e. poplar and thatch for roof reconstruction. This was due to the shortage of locally available supplies on the scale needed for the entire project. The purpose was to avoid exhausting local resources so that they could be better used for future maintenance.

Lessons from the Project

This is a case where disaster has led to a positive and, hopefully, sustainable outcome. South Africa is a country with one of the highest socio-economic discrepancies of any population in the world.  Heritage conservation here is widely regarded as an elitist pursuit. This project demonstrated to locals that this need not necessarily be the case, and that heritage can be a vehicle for sustainably uplifting poor custodian communities in historic but run-down settlements. These are environments that have the potential to positively change lives through job creation and skills training, provided that such initiatives can be properly managed with productive and respectful  community engagement.

The Conservation Team

Overall Management & Donor: The Rupert Foundation, Johann Rupert.

Project Management & Principal Agent: Goal Zero Consulting, Chris Bornman.

Project Architects: TV3 Architects & Town Planners.

Conservation Architect: ARCON, Graham Jacobs.

Archaeologist: ACO Associates, John Gribble.

Structural Engineer: Henry Fagan & Partners, Henry Fagan.

Principal Building Contractor: Boland Bouers (PTY) Ltd.

Thatching in progress. Many of the locals are skilled thatchers, the one traditional skill that did not require on-the-job training.

Left: taking a break on the steps of the church. Between 50% and 75% of the labour on the project was sourced from within the settlement. Right: laying new rainwater channels using locally sourced stone.


All images in this article are by Graham Jacobs unless otherwise indicated.

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