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Yvain 7th December 2020 09:56 PM

Some considerations regarding the Gile - Billao hybrid
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Some times ago, I was lucky enough to acquire a specimen of this very uncommon type of knife, and decided to do some research on its origins, here is the result.

Those of you already familiar with Somalian weapons might indeed notice something weird : while the hilt is characteristic of some billao (from the Somali ethnic group), the blade is, however, definitely similar to those seen on the oldest gile/jile (from the Afar).

We could argue that it is the product of a later pairing of a gile blade on a billao hilt, however, no traces of such re-mounting can be found on this knife. Moreover, this isn’t the only example of this hybrid type, and at least another one as been presented on this forum : . Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, we do have one contemporary source depicting this hybrid type. Indeed, one example of those knives can be seen on a postcard (see second picture and detail crop), which, thankfully provides us a lot of information.

We can learn, indeed, that the postcard was edited by K. Arabiantz in Djibouti. Although I didn’t found much on Arabiantz, the Quai Branly museum gives us the information that he was both a photograph and an editor between 1905 and 1920. I was able to find another version of this postcard on the Boston museum of fine arts website : , bearing the inscription : “Djibouti, le 3 juin 1909 / Paul Gallot”. From this, we can learn that the picture must have been taken between 1905 and 1909. Everything on the postcard being written in French, and the presence of a stamp reading : “IMPR. / REUNIES / DE / NANCY” (associated printers of Nancy), let us know that Arabiantz was most likely French, or at least working with French associates. This information is extremely useful, as it considerably reduces the geographical scope of our research. Indeed, the territory controlled by the French in Somalia was actually really small compared to the territories occupied by the Afar and the Somali. It is thus likely that this picture was taken in Djibouti itself or its surrounding (aka the “Côte Française des Somalis”, as it was called at the time), as there wouldn’t have been any reason for a postcards photograph to step out of the security offered by the colonial powers.

So, we do know when and where this type of knife was used, but the most important question remains : who used them ? Well, the men pictured on the postcard are described as “Somali warriors”, which actually doesn’t gives us much information. Sure, they aren’t Afar (at least according to the editor of the postcard), but considering the multitude of Somali clans and sub-clans, this isn’t telling us much. That is, until we take a look at the geographical disposition of the clans and ethnic groups of this area.

Indeed, as can be seen on the map attached (fourth picture, courtesy of the CIA, yes, no kidding …, the main Somali clan around Djibouti are the Issa, neighbors, as you can see, of the Afar. Things thus are getting more precise, and we might be looking at a couple of Issa warriors.

Still, that doesn’t explain why an Issa, that is, a Somali, would use a knife whose blade is directly inspired by an Afar (thus, not Somali) dagger.

Indeed, Afar and Issa are often portrayed as mortal enemies, and one only need to look at the geopolitical situation of Djibouti, Somalia, and Ethiopia in our days to verify the veracity of this statement. In fact, the rivalry between Afar and Issa is often described as being hundreds of years old. In those circumstances, it is indeed difficult to imagine how cultural exchanges could have developed enough in a state of perpetual warfare for a weapon type to transfer from a group to another.

The solution to this problem might be found in “Anatomy of Issa-Afar violence” by Muauz Guidey Alemu. In this article, the author analyses the roots and the evolution of the Afar – Issa conflict, pointing out two extremely interesting points. One, the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, though short-lived, had the effect to bring into the country large stockpiles of guns and ammunition, that were used both by the Afar and the Issa. In effect, the clashes between the two groups became more deadly with the use of modern weapons of war, lasted longer, and became more violent, with strategical goals of lasting occupation of territories, or even outright elimination of the other group. Two, the fact that the Issa were loyal to the Italian, while the Afar engaged in active resistance furthered the divide between the two ethnic groups.

As it as been often observed, violence between ethnic groups doesn’t stop at borders, and the worsening of the relation between Afar and Issa spread in all the neighbouring countries were those two groups were present. The issue even worsened when it became linked to the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia in 1963 and 1977, when Somalia attempted to invade Ethiopia on the basis of the Pan-Somalian concept. Today, the deep, entrenched, hatred between the two ethnic groups leaves very little hope in a reconciliation.

However, and as demonstrated by Muauz Guidey Alemu, this was not always the case, and the all-out war situation between the Afar and the Issa seems to be a rather recent development, created by European colonization attempts, and fueled by modern day nationalism. The original conflict between the Issa and the Afar must have been way closer to the occasional clashes for resources that are to be expected between two nomadic, pastoral, populations, interspersed with periods of peace and exchanges between the two groups, especially in the area of Djibouti. This is in fact suggested in the article “Pour une histoire des Arabes de Djibouti, 1896 – 1977”(For an history of the Arabs of Djiouti, 1896 – 1977), in which Alain Rouaud outlines the fact that in the 1930’s the Issa of Djibouti usually associated with the local Afar in their protests against the arrival of outsiders : Yemenis, or even non-Issa Somalis !

With those information in mind, this humble knife seems to be way more than what it looks. It is indeed a testimony of the occasional peaceful exchanges between the Afar and the Issa, now long forgotten in the long, bitter, conflict between the two groups. It is also a symbol of the deleterious effects of colonization and nationalism, and a proof that conflicts in Africa can’t be reduced to mere tribal warfare.

I will be sure to preserve this witness of an other time with as much care as I can.


Anyway, I hope you found this interesting ! I’m in no way a specialist of African geopolitics, and I’m sorry if I misrepresented or over simplified any issue, feel free to correct me if that’s the case !

I added some references below, although I didn’t list every article, recent or less recent, documenting the conflict between the Issa and the Afar, as there is A LOT of them. Search for it in google news and you will find plenty example.

On the more academic side of things, and if you wish to research the matter, be aware that, as the conflict between Afar and Issa is an ongoing political issue, there seems to be a lot of propaganda and disinformation online, from one side or the other. I even found a (very) dubious and biased article published by a predatory journal on the subject ! So keep that in mind and be critical of your sources.


Another billao/gile hybrid (top), presented with a billao (middle), and a gile (bottom) :

A postcard published by K. Arabiantz, with some information regarding his activity :

A dated example of the postcard showing the two Issa warriors :

Ethnic groups and clans distribution in Somali and Djibouti (go to “thematic maps” and “Ethnic groups, from Somalia and Djibouti map, CIA 1977) :

ROUAUD Alain, “Pour une histoire des Arabes de Djibouti”, in Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, n°146, pp. 319-348, 1997 :

ALEMU Muauz Gidey, “Anatomy of Issa – Afar Violence”, in Journal of Developing Societies, n°33 (3), pp. 1-18, 2017 :

Yvain 7th December 2020 10:07 PM

12 Attachment(s)
Now for the technical part (and more pictures !) : this knife is most likely from the beginning of the 20th century. The blade is locally made and very finely forged, with two deep fullers on each sides rejoining in a central ridge before the point. It exhibits the classic asymmetrical shape of the Afar gile, although shorter than most example, and is still very sharp. This is a stiff blade, with a pronounced diamond section at the tip. The tang is full length, and pinned at the end of the pommel.

The hilt is made of simple dark horn, most likely buffalo. The “guard plate” is made of brass, as is the spacer separating the two parts of the hilt, and the three pronged pommel. The pommel was most likely cast, then finely filed and polished (notice the octagonal central prong); surprisingly, it bears a simple but carefully incised cross on one side of the pommel, though I have no idea what it signification might be. The end of the central prong bears a thick copper washer, on which the tang is pinned. The hilt, with its three pronged pommel, is of a very classical Somali design found on many billao from the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century. The grip thickens progressively towards the pommel, making it very ergonomical and easy to maneuver.

This is a very simple but finely crafted knife, that was obviously made to be used, and still feels very effective in the hand ; the slight inward curve would allow for very efficient cuts, and the shape of the blade permits effortless thrust, as there is no need to bend the wrist to do so. There is some very minor blade damages in some areas, suggesting that this blade was effectively used against another blade.

Weight : 152 grams

Total length : 30,7cm

Hilt length (pommel included) : 12,7cm

Hilt length (pommel excluded) : 10cm

TVV 7th December 2020 10:29 PM

Well written and researched post Yvain. Information on giles and billaos tends to be scarce, with some examples shown in Tirri's books and a brief mention in Spring in the chapter on the horn of Africa. You have done a terrific job of finding a period photo of such a hybrid knife and narrowing down the geographic area of its origin to Djibouti or its surrounds and more precisely the Issa tribe, as well as the time period to the early 20th century.

History is full of examples of military enemies adopting weapon forms from each other despite strong animosity, so it should not be that surprising that such hybrid knives with a billao hilt and a curved gile blade would occur. The chap in the leopard skin on the photo you found is wearing what we would call a gile, so it appears the hilt came down to a matter of personal preference.

Kubur 7th December 2020 11:09 PM

I agree, it’s excellent and what serious research should be.
Yvain, please look at this post and you will see a similar story with the so-called Sudanese swords in Ethiopia…

Richard G 8th December 2020 06:27 PM

Do you know what are those curious, almost lyre shaped, objects that they have on their right shoulder?

Rafngard 8th December 2020 06:38 PM

Fantastic research.

For what it's worth, I've met at least one person who was half Afar and half Somali. So at least presently, there is some intermixing. I can't remember which parent was which, but he grew up in Djibouti and was in his early to mid-30s when I met him (about 9 years ago).

For context, I live in Minneapolis, which is a major hub in the Somali diaspora (we have the largest Somali population in the Western Hemisphere), and I used to be an ESL tutor, and it was in this capacity that I met him. I also studied Somali in college.

I also wanted to add that, while I don't know much about the Issa clan specifically (most Somalis I've known didn't want to talk about "Qabil," the term for clan, with me), Somalis generally are known for being very enterprising, and trade-focused, always battering and negotiating. Given that the traditional lifestyle for a lot of Somalis in the north (e.g. the Issa clan) is nomadic pastoralism (unlike the more settled, agricultural Somalis in the south), this makes a lot sense. So borrowing a knife from a neighboring culture doesn't seem much of a stretch to me.

Have fun,

Rafngard 8th December 2020 06:42 PM


Originally Posted by TVV
...more precisely the Issa tribe, as well as the time period to the early 20th century.

This is mostly pedantic, but I can hear my Somali teacher yelling when I read this. The Issa are a clan ("qabil" is the Somali word), not a tribe. There is only one Somali tribe.

...that said a lot of young Somalis in the diaspora will use the term "tribe" for "qabil" also. But my teacher was very, very adamant about this.

Have fun,

Ian 8th December 2020 06:48 PM

Excellent research Yvain! Thank you for presenting it here.

Yvain 8th December 2020 08:34 PM

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Hi everyone !

Thanks for your kind words ! It's always difficult for me to write down the results of my research since English isn't my first language, but it is definitely worth it when I read such interesting answers afterward !

Kubur, thanks a lot for the link, I've skimmed over it quickly (will need to read it more thoroughly) and I think it will be extremely interesting for me as I'm currently researching a very unusual kaskara, and what I'm seeing tends to confirm my suspicions ...

Richard, according to Allan Slatec, those are bow support from the Somali ethnic group (no idea how it was used though ...), see picture attached.

Leif and TVV, regarding the relation between Afar and Issa, I think that people coming from urban centers might be a little less concerned by the ongoing conflict than people living in more rural areas as you pointed out. Though considering the level of violence reached by this conflict, I don't think this happens a lot, or that there is much cultural exchanges between the two groups at the moment. However, I have no doubt it happened in the past, as you rightfully pointed out, since low intensity conflict between nomadic, pastoral, populations was expected in the order of things. Those violent episodes were most likely intersected by periods of peace, exchange, and trade.

colin henshaw 9th December 2020 08:15 AM

Good research, thanks for posting. The conclusions are particularly strengthened by the inclusion of literary references and period photographs. :)

colin henshaw 9th December 2020 08:26 AM

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Originally Posted by Richard G
Do you know what are those curious, almost lyre shaped, objects that they have on their right shoulder?

There are similar (but not identical), carved wooden objects displayed in the Powell-Cotton Museum, Birchington, Kent ... described as "spear holders".

Richard G 11th December 2020 01:54 PM

Curiouser and curiouser. In the photograph neither of them seem to be carrying a bow or any arrows.
In Colin's photo's from the Powell-Cotton Museum I am amazed how the spears seem to stack in the spear holder without touching each other. Witchcraft?
Is Slatec's reference to Rouanda a reference to modern Rwanda? If this is so we are approaching Central Africa which suggests 'support de arc' were quite widespread, yet they are something I don't think I've come across before.
Best wishes

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