Djibouti does deals with everybody, the exile Frenchman said. He’s living in Djibouti City for almost three decades, is married to his second Djibouti wife, and owns a transport company.
Not being picky was probably born out of historic necessity, as Djibouti always was a spot of many interests. For thousands of years the Gulf of Aden passage was used by the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Ptolemaists, the Romans, the Greeks, the Byzantines, the Arabs, and then by the Europeans in search of the Spice route.
The Afar nomadic pastoralists migrated from the Danakil in Ethiopia in the North; they were reputed for their martial prowess, men sporting the jile, a curved knife. The nomadic Somali Issa came from the East. Sultanats from the Arabian peninsula crossed the Gulf of Aden and spread Islam. The Portuguese landed on the African coast with an insatiable hunger for slaves.
Djibouti and the Sues Canal
Eventually the opening of the Sues canal fuelled French – British rivalry, so in the late 19th century, the colony of French Somaliland was established. Yet power structures in the waters off the coast remained shaky. In his autobiography, the French adventurer Henry de Monfreid describes his ambitions as a smuggler, arms trader, and pearl diver in the Gulf of Aden escaping the Royal Navy on his dhow sailing under Monsoon winds.
Pirates in the Gulf of Aden
Still today, the waters at the horn of Africa are notorious for pirates. Several nations have troops in Djibouti. Whereas the Americans have built the usual military base with the obligatory Burger King, the Germans and Spaniards operate out of the luxury hotel Kempinski. Italian, French, and Japanese forces are on site, and the Chinese have just arrived as well.
Its location near the Middle East gives Djibouti the highest geopolitical interest: the Gulf of Aden is an essential waterway for Persian Gulf oil. Nonetheless, poverty remains a big concern in Djibouti. Unemployment is common especially in rural areas. Prices in Djibouti are astronomic, making living in the city impossible for most of its inhabitants. The rural hinterlands are among the most hostile places on Earth to live.
«Behind the city, a black lava desert stretches in relentless wasteland over three hundred kilometres up to the Harar plateau. Civilisation turns back from this repellent nature that grants nothing to the life of its creatures. Only the wild and cruel Issa live here as nomads, always ready to do the white traveller in using lance or dagger if he is not already withered by the sun.»
–Henry de Monfreid, «Les secrets de la mèr rouge» (1932).
Hot Springs, Chimneys, and Volcanoes
Overlapping the border regions of Eritrea, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, the Afar Triangle including the Danakil Depression forms the North of the East African Rift, running from the Gulf of Aden in the north to the Kivu region all the way to Mozambique in the south. The floor of the Afar Depression is composed of lava, and the lowlands contain the hottest places on Earth including Lac Assal.
Nomadic Afar people herd camels, sheep, and goats like they have done for hundreds of years. Here, the Somali and Nubian plates are pulling apart, and the thinning of the Earth’s crust causes magma to push to the surface where it heats up springs. Near Lac Abbe, the boiling water erupts and calcium deposits create towering limestone chimneys.