An international archaeological research dig that is unearthing new evidence of medieval trading practices around the Red Sea and Indian Ocean has showcased its work to government dignitaries and officials.

The archaeological site of Harlaa, in Eastern Ethiopia, is one of the most important examples of early Islamic civilisation and medieval trading settlements in Africa – and is the focus of new research being conducted by academics in the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

This week, Darren Welch, His Majesty’s Ambassador to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Permanent Representative to the African Union, was a special guest at the site and other locations in Dire Dawa to see the impact of UK support in the region.

Professor Timothy Insoll FBA, Al-Qasimi Chair in African and Islamic Archaeology, and Director of the Centre for Islamic Archaeology, is leading the investigation of Harlaa, which has resumed with new excavations of two early mosques dating to the mid-12th to mid-13th centuries.

Currently funded by a philanthropic donation, the research has uncovered remarkable archaeological evidence of international trading links including with India, Yemen, Egypt, and China. It is now also understood that Harlaa prospered through trade with the interior of Ethiopia and was a centre of bead and jewellery manufacture.

“It was great to welcome the Ambassador and showcase the work we are undertaking at Harlaa,” said Professor Insoll. “The research we have conducted here has revolutionised our understanding of trade in what has been an archaeologically neglected part of Ethiopia. What we have found shows this area was a renowned trade centre, a rich, cosmopolitan hub for jewellery making, which was then taken to be sold around the region and beyond. And this work that we have undertaken is also an excellent example of UK-Ethiopian partnership.”

In partnership with the Ethiopian Heritage Authority, and the Dire Dawa Culture and Tourism Office, the Exeter-led ‘Becoming Muslim’ project is focusing on trade, settlement and Islamisation at Harlaa, and began in 2015, with seven excavation seasons completed to date.

A community museum has been founded at Harlaa and a heritage trail is being established to develop sustainable tourism. Material from the excavations is now also on display in the new historical archaeology gallery in the Ethiopian National Museum.

Speaking at the archaeological site, Ambassador Welch said: “It gives me great pride to see the thriving collaborations between UK and Ethiopian expertise to uncover and better understand this inspiring site.”

While in Dire Dawa, Ambassador Welch also visited a UK-funded Health centre and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) facility, met the beneficiaries of the UK’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), and heard from local communities.