The Swahili Coast—a narrow strip of land that stretches along the eastern edge of Africa from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south—is an area with a long and unique cultural history.
Traditional Sailing in Kilwa
City-states along the east African coast have a longstanding tradition of trade and mingling between various peoples. Many of these former city-states still exist in modern nations. Kilwa, Tanzania, is one such city in which people still use traditional sailing practices
What Is the Swahili Coast?
Travelers have passed through the Swahili Coast for centuries. This is partly because of special wind patterns in the Indian Ocean. Such winds made sailing trips easy.
A Greek merchant‘s guide was found. The writing is from the first century, about 2,000 years ago. It describes ivory, rhino horn, and tortoiseshell available for trade.
This coast is home to a unique culture and language. A mix of African, Arab, and Indian Ocean peoples lived here.
Who Lives on the Swahili Coast?
The original residents were Africans. They spoke the Bantu languages. This group had migrated east from inland areas. They later spread up and down the coast, trading with each other. Later they traded with people from far away.
Around the year 700, Muslim traders settled in the region. Muslims practice the religion of Islam. Most of the traders were Arabs, meaning they spoke Arabic. In the 1100s, Persian settlers arrived. Persia today is the country of Iran. This group was known as the Shirazi. Today, most Swahili people are Sunni Muslims. It is the largest group within the religion of Islam.
The Busy Medieval Times
The Swahili Coast peaked during the medieval period. This happened from around the 11th century to the 15th century. During that time, the Swahili Coast was made up of numerous city-states. They traded across the Indian Ocean. The city-states were independent lands. Their leaders were called sultans. However, they shared a common language, Swahili, and religion, Islam. They traded across the Indian Ocean. Pottery, silks, and glassware were popular items.
Altogether, the city-states are often called “stone towns.” That is because many buildings were constructed using stone. These were coral blocks held together with mortar.
Kilwa and Songo Mnara
Kilwa was a major southern city-state. It is also a major site for archaeologists. It is located on an island off the southern coast of Tanzania. In the medieval period, it kept a trading post at Sofala. Kilwa traded with the gold-rich Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, located to the south.
In medieval times, Kilwa was an important trading center on the East African coast. Its ruins today include the Great Palace. Back then the palace was the largest stone building in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The grounds of the Great Palace were huge. It included a swimming pool. There were about 100 rooms.
On another island just to the south is Songo Mnara. This site was founded by the Kilwa government. No one knows why Kilwa built Songo Mnara. It appears to have been built following a city plan. It has clean lines and coral stone decorations.
Chinese Emperor Yongle ruled from 1403 to 1424, during China’s Ming Dynasty. One of his key officials was Admiral Zheng He. Yongle sent Zheng He on seven sea expeditions. Hundreds of ships were sent for carrying goods and money. Thousands of men were aboard.
Zheng He visited the Swahili Coast. He stopped at Mombasa, Malindi, and Mogadishu. His ships would have been a fascinating sight. The sultan of Malindi sent the Chinese emperor a giraffe and other creatures. The Chinese were impressed with these rare gifts.
However, the Chinese did not stick around in East Africa. The voyages of Zheng He ended with his death and the emperor’s death.
Archaeologists are still finding proof of the Chinese-Swahili connection. In 2010, researchers found a Chinese coin. It was not far from the medieval city-state of Malindi. The coin dated to the Ming Dynasty. A similar coin was found nearby a few years later.
Arrival of the Portuguese
From 1497 to 1498, Portuguese voyager Vasco da Gama arrived. He brought four ships and 170 men. They sailed up the East African coast.
The Portuguese used violence to try to control all trade and business in the Indian Ocean. They established bases and trade offices at several Swahili Coast sites.
Soon, the Swahili Coast city-states began to fall. Dealings with the Portuguese were blamed. Trade declined. However, some city-states did carry on for another few centuries. A few came under the rule of the Omani Empire.
Today, Swahili is the main language of East Africa. It is in the Bantu language family. That group of languages is spoken in much of central and southern Africa. Swahili has been influenced greatly by Arabic.
Indeed, the term “Swahili” comes from Arabic. It means “[people] of the coast.” The language also contains words from Persian, Portuguese, and German. More than 100 million people speak Swahili.