Swahili coast

The Swahili coast is a coastal area of the Indian Ocean in Southeast Africa inhabited by the Swahili people. It mainly consists of Kenya, Tanzania, and northern Mozambique as well as southern Somalia. In addition, several coastal islands are included in the Swahili coast such as Zanzibar and Comoros. Areas of what is today considered the Swahili coast were historically known as Azania or Zingion in the Greco-Roman era, and as Zanj or Zinj in Middle Eastern, Chinese and Indian literature from the 7th to the 14th century.[1][2] The word "Swahili" means people of the coast in Arabic and is derived from the word "sahil" (coast).[3] The Swahili people and their culture formed from a distinct mix of African and Arab origins.[3] The Swahilis were traders and merchants and readily absorbed influences from other cultures.[4] Historical documents including the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and works by Ibn Battuta describe the society, culture, and economy of the Swahili coast at various points in its history. The Swahili coast has a distinct culture, demography, religion and geography, and as a result - along with other factors, including economic - has witnessed rising secessionism.[5]

Swahili coast
Major CitiesDar es Salaam (Mzizima)
Ethnic groups
  Bantu Swahili


Early on, those living on the Swahili coast prospered because of agriculture helped by regular yearly rainfall and animal husbandry.[6] The shallow coast was important as it provided seafood.[6] Starting in the early 1st millennium CE, trade was crucial.[6][7] Submerged river estuaries created natural harbors as well as the yearly monsoon winds helped trade.[6][7] Later in the 1st millenium there was a huge migration of Bantu people.[6]

Indian Ocean Trade

The rise of the Swahili coast city-states can be largely attributed to the region's extensive participation in a trade network that spanned the Indian Ocean.[8][9] The Indian Ocean's trade network has been likened to that of the Silk Road, with many destinations being linked through trade. It has been noted that the Indian Ocean trade network actually connected more people than the Silk Road's.[7] The Swahili coast largely exported raw products like timber, ivory, animal skins, spices, and gold.[7] Finished products were imported from as far as east Asia such as silk and porcelain from China, spices and cotton from India, and black pepper from Sri Lanka.[10] Some of the other imports received from Asia and Europe include cottons, silks, woolens, glass and stone beads, metal wire, jewelry, sandalwood, cosmetics, fragrances, kohl, rice, spices, coffee, tea, other foods and flavorings, teak, iron and brass fittings, sailcloth, pottery, porcelain, silver, brass, glass, paper, paints, ink, carved wood, books, carved chests, arms, ammunition, gunpowder, swords and daggers, gold, silver, brass, bronze, religious specialists, and craftsmen.[8] Other places that traded with the Swahili coast include Egypt, Greece, Rome, Assyria, Sumeria, Phoenicia, Arabia, and Persia.[11] Trade in the region decreased during the Pax Mongolica due to overland trade being cheaper during that period, however, trade by ships provided the advantage that the goods that were transported on them were in bulk, meaning they could be available to the mass market.[7] Many different ethnic groups were involved in the Indian Ocean's trade network, however, especially in the western part of the Indian Ocean, Swahili coast being included, muslim merchants dominated the trade because they had the money to build ships.[7] The yearly monsoon winds carried ships from the Swahili coast to the eastern Indian Ocean and back. These yearly winds were the catalyst for trade in the region as they reduced the risk associated with sailing and made it predictable. The monsoon winds were less strong and reliable as one travelled further South along Africa's coast resulting in settlements being smaller and less frequent towards the South.[6] Trade was further encouraged by the invention of lateen sails which allowed merchants to travel apart from the monsoon winds.[7] Evidence for Indian Ocean trade includes the presence of pot sherds on coastal archaeological sites that can be traced back to China and India.[12]

Slave trade

It has been estimated that between 1500 and 1900 CE as many as 17 million people were sold into slavery from East and North Africa and the Middle East and transported by Muslim slave traders through the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Sahara desert to distant locations.[13] However, these estimates have been contested citing that the total population of Africa during the period may have been about 40 million and the figures of the likes of 17 million people being transported were not likely during that time.[14] A series of slave uprisings took place between 869 and 883 CE in Basra, a city of present-day Iraq, referred to as the Zanj Rebellion. The enslaved Zanj were likely transported from the African Great Lakes area and more southern areas of East Africa.[15] The uprising grew to more than 500,000 slaves and free men as well, who were used in strenuous agriculture labor.[16] The vast majority of the slave rebels were Black Africans, and the 9th century Zanj revolts in Iraq is some of the best evidence of a large number of people being sold into slavery from Eastern Africa.[17]


On the Swahili coast, coin minting can be correlated to an increase in Indian Ocean trade.[18] The earliest coins share many similarities to coins from Sindh. Some estimate that coins were minted on the Swahili coast as early as the mid 9th century until the end of the 15th century CE.[18] The making of coins came comparatively late to this area with many other cultures starting to make coins several centuries earlier. There are archaeological records of foreign coins being used in the area but few coins of foreign origin have been excavated. Previously, it was believed that the coins from the Swahili coast were of Persian origin, but now it is recognized that these are in fact indigenous coins.[18] The coins found on the coast only have inscriptions in Arabic, not Swahili. The coins from this region can be put into five categories: Shanga silver, Tanzanian silver, Kilwa copper, Kilwa gold and Zanzibar copper. Silver is not found locally on the Swahili coast, so the metal had to be imported.[18]

Coastal Islands

There are many islands close to the Swahili coast including Zanzibar, Kilwa, Mafia and Lamu in addition to distant Comoros which is sometimes considered part of the Swahili coast. Several of these islands became very powerful through trade including Zanzibar and Kilwa. Before these islands became trade hubs, it is likely that the abundant local resources were very important to the islands' inhabitants. These resources include mangroves, fishing, and crustaceans.[19] Mangroves were important as they provided wood for boats. However, archaeological digs reveal that the culture of the Swahili people living on these islands was adapted to trade and their maritime surroundings quite early on.[19]


Although today Kilwa is in ruins, historically it was one of the most powerful city states on the Swahili coast.[20] One of the main exports along the Swahili coast was gold and in the 13th century the city of Kilwa took control of the gold trade from Banadir in modern-day Somalia.[21][22][23] By the mid-14th century the sultan of Kilwa was able to assert his power over several other city states. Kilwa levied a customs duty on the gold that was shipped north from Zimbabwe that stopped in Kilwa's port. In Kilwa's Husuni Kabwa, or Great Fort, there is evidence of gardens, a pool, and commercial activities. The fort served as a palace and area to store commercial goods and was built by sultan Al-Hasan Ibn Suleman.[20] The fort consists of a public courtyard, and a private area. Due to the intricate architecture present in Kilwa Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan explorer, described the town as "one of the most beautiful towns in the world."[24] Although Kilwa had been trading for centuries, the city's wealth and control of the gold trade attracted the Portuguese who were in search of gold. During the period of Portuguese subjugation, trade essentially stopped in Kilwa.[20] However, when the Omani overthrew the Portuguese from the area in the late 17th and early 18th century CE, the city experienced an economic resurgence. Kilwa later became the capital of German colonial East Africa.[20]


Today, Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania made up of the Zanzibar Archipelago. The archipelago is 25-50 kilometers (16-31 mi) from the mainland. Its main industries are tourism, spice production such as cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper, and raffia palm trees.[25] In 1698, Zanzibar became part of the Omani sultanate after sultan Saif bin Sultan defeated the portuguese at Mombasa. In 1832 the sultan of Oman moved his capital from Muscat to Stone Town, the main city of the Zanzibar archipelago.[26] He encouraged the creation of clove plantations as well as the settlement of Indian traders. Until 1890 the sultans of Zanzibar controlled part of the Swahili coast known as Zanj which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. At the end of the 19th century Great Britain and Germany subjugated Zanzibar. [27]


Fish and shellfish are common in the Swahili coast's food due to its proximity and reliance on the coast. [28] In addition, Coconuts and many different spices as well as tropical fruits often being used. The Arabic influence can be seen in the small cups of coffee that are available in the area and the sweet meats that can be tasted. The Arab influence is also seen in the swahili language, architecture, and boat design including food as aforementioned.[29]


Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa and the national language of Kenya and Tanzania in addition to being one of the languages of the African Union.[30][31] Estimates of the number of speakers vary greatly but are usually around 50, 80 and 100 million people.[32] Swahili is a Bantu language with heavy influence from Arabic with the word "Swahili" itself descending from the Arabic word "sahil," meaning "coast"; "Swahili" meaning "people of the coast."[30][33] Some hold that Swahili is a completely Bantu language with only a few Arabic loanwords, however, it is more widely accepted that Bantu and Arabic mixed to form Swahili.[33] It has been hypothesized that the mixing of languages was facilitated by intermarriage between natives and Arabs in addition to general interactions.[33] Most likely, Swahili was around in some form before Arab contact but then was heavily influenced. Swahili syntax is very similar to that of other Bantu languages as, like other Bantu languages, Swahili has five vowels (a,e,i,o,u).[33]


The primary religion of the Swahili coast is Islam.[30][34] Initially, unorthodox Muslims fleeing persecution in their homelands may have settled in the region, but it is likely that the religion took hold through Arab traders.[30] The majority of Muslims on the Swahili coast are Sunni, but many people continue non-Islamic traditions.[30] For example, spirits who bring illness and misfortune are appeased and people are buried with valuable items. In addition, teachers of Islam are allowed to become medicine men; having medicine men being a practice carried over from local tribal religions.[30][34] Men wear protective amulets with Quran verses.[34] The historian P. Curtis said about Islam and the Swahili coast, "The Muslim religion ultimately became one of the central elements of Swahili identity."[30]


The earliest known Mosques on the Swahili coast were built of wood and date back to the 9th century CE.[30] Swahili Mosques are typically smaller than elsewhere in the Muslim world and have little decorations.[30] In addition, they typically do not have minarets or inner courtyards.[30] Domestic housing was usually constructed of mud-bricks and were mostly one storey high.[30] Often, they had two long and narrow rooms.[30] Housing is often decorated by carved door frames and window grilles. Larger houses sometimes have gardens and orchards.[30] Houses were constructed close together which resulted in twisty narrow streets.[30]

See also


  1. Felix A. Chami, "Kaole and the Swahili World," in Southern Africa and the Swahili World (2002), 6.
  2. A. Lodhi (2000), Oriental influences in Swahili: a study in language and culture contacts, ISBN 978-9173463775, pp. 72-84
  3. "Swahili Coast". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  4. Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, retrieved 2019-10-30
  5. "Contagion of discontent: Muslim extremism spreads down east Africa coastline," The Economist (3 November 2012)
  6. "Swahili Coast". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  7. Int'l Commerce, Snorkeling Camels, and The Indian Ocean Trade: Crash Course World History #18, retrieved 2019-10-30
  8. Horton, Mark; Middleton, John (2000). The Swahili: The social landscape of a mercantile society. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 063118919X.
  9. Philippe Beaujard "East Africa, the Comoros Islands and Madagascar before the sixteenth century, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa" (2007)
  10. "AFRICA - Explore the Regions - Swahili Coast". www.thirteen.org. Retrieved 2019-10-31.
  11. Finke, Jens (2010-01-04). The Rough Guide to Tanzania. Penguin. ISBN 9781405380188.
  12. BBC Kilwa Pot Sherds http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/transcripts/episode60/
  13. "Focus on the slave trade". BBC. 3 September 2001. Archived from the original on 25 May 2017.
  14. Welle (www.dw.com), Deutsche. "East Africa's forgotten slave trade | DW | 22.08.2019". DW.COM.
  15. Rodriguez, Junius P. (2007). Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 2. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 585. ISBN 978-0313332739.
  16. "Islam, From Arab To Islamic Empire: The Early Abbasid Era". History-world.org. Archived from the original on 2012-10-11. Retrieved 2016-03-23.
  17. Asquith, Christina. "Revisiting the Zanj and Re-Visioning Revolt: Complexities of the Zanj Conflict – 868-883 Ad – slave revolt in Iraq". Questia.com. Retrieved 2016-03-23.
  18. Perkins, John (2015-12-25). "The Indian Ocean and Swahili Coast coins, international networks and local developments". Afriques. Débats, Méthodes et Terrains d'Histoire (6). doi:10.4000/afriques.1769. ISSN 2108-6796.
  19. Crowther, Alison; Faulkner, Patrick; Prendergast, Mary E.; Morales, Eréndira M. Quintana; Horton, Mark; Wilmsen, Edwin; Kotarba-Morley, Anna M.; Christie, Annalisa; Petek, Nik; Tibesasa, Ruth; Douka, Katerina (2016-05-03). "Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade, and the Colonization of Small Offshore Islands in Eastern African Prehistory". The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. 11 (2): 211–237. doi:10.1080/15564894.2016.1188334. ISSN 1556-4894.
  20. Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, retrieved 2019-10-30
  21. "Historic Sites of Kilwa". World Monuments Fund. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  22. "The Story of Africa| BBC World Service". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  23. "Historic Sites of Kilwa". World Monuments Fund. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  24. "Swahili Coast". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  25. "Exotic Zanzibar and its seafood". 2011-05-21. Retrieved 11 June 2011.
  26. Ingrams 1967, p. 162
  27. Appiah; Gates, Henry Louis Jr., eds. (1999), Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, New York: Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-00071-1, OCLC 41649745
  28. "dishes". www.mwambao.com. Retrieved 2019-10-31.
  29. "AFRICA - Explore the Regions - Swahili Coast". www.thirteen.org. Retrieved 2019-10-31.
  30. "Swahili Coast". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  31. "Development and Promotion of Extractive Industries and Mineral Value Addition". East African Community.
  32. "HOME – Home". Swahililanguage.stanford.edu. Retrieved 19 July 2016. After Arabic, Swahili is the most widely used African language but the number of its speakers is another area in which there is little agreement. The most commonly mentioned numbers are 50, 80, and 100 million people. [...] The number of its native speakers has been placed at just under 2 million.
  33. "History and Origin of Swahili". www.swahilihub.com. Retrieved 2019-10-31.
  34. "Swahili - Art & Life in Africa - The University of Iowa Museum of Art". africa.uima.uiowa.edu. Retrieved 2019-10-31.

This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.