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Swahili Towns

Medieval Communities of the Swahili Coast

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Great Mosque at Kilwa

Great Mosque at Kilwa

Claude McNab
Sunken Courtyard of Husuni Kubwa, Kilwa Kisiwani

Sunken Courtyard of Husuni Kubwa, Kilwa Kisiwani

Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011
Courtyard of the Palace at Songo Mnara

Courtyard of the Palace at Songo Mnara

Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

One key to understanding medieval (11th-16th centuries AD) Swahili communities is learning the history and architecture of the Swahili coast, in particular the house types and layouts of the towns themselves.

House Types

The earliest (and later non-elite) houses at Swahili sites, perhaps as early as the 6th century AD, were earth-and-thatch (or wattle-and-daub) structures. The first settlements along the Swahili coast were built almost entirely with earth and thatch: because they are not easily visible, these communities were not fully recognized by archaeologists until the 21st century. Recent investigations have shown that settlements were quite dense across the region and that earth and thatch houses would have been a part of even the grandest stonetowns.

Later houses and other structures were built of coral or stone and sometimes had a second storey. Archaeologists working along the Swahili coast call these stonehouses (whether residential in function or not), and communities with stonehouses are referred to as stonehouse towns or stonetowns. A house built of stone was a structure that was part symbol of stability and a representation of the seat of trade. In the front rooms of stonehouses trade negotiations took place; and traveling international merchants could find a place to stay.

Building in stone happened at a remarkably similar moment along the coast, and after about AD1000 existing settlements like Shanga and Kilwa began to be expanded with stone mosques and tombs. New sites the length of the coast were founded with stone architecture, particularly used for these religious structures. Domestic stonehouses were slightly later, but became an important part of Swahili urban spaces along the coast.

Stonehouses often are associated with open spaces, formed by walled courtyards or compounds with other buildings. Courtyards could be simple and open, or stepped and sunken, like at Gede in Kenya, Tumbatu on Zanzibar or at Songo Mnara, Tanzania. The courtyards may also have been used to keep cattle, or grow high value crops in gardens.

Coral Architecture

After about AD 1300, many residential structures in the larger Swahili towns were built of coral stones and lime mortar and roofed with mangrove poles and palm leaves. Porites coral was cut from living reefs and dressed, decorated and inscribed while still fresh. This dressed stone was used as a decorative feature, and sometimes ornately carved, on door and window frames and for architectural niches. This technology is seen elsewhere in the Western Ocean, such as Gujarat, but was an early indigenous development on the African Coast.

Some coral buildings had as many as four storeys. Some larger houses and mosques were made with moulded roofs and had decorative arches, domes and vaults.

Swahili Communities

The largest Swahili culture stonehouse communities are all within 20 km (12 mi) of the coast. The majority of the population involved in the Swahili culture, however, lived in communities made up of houses of earth and thatch. The entire population continued an indigenous Bantu fishing and agricultural lifestyle, but were undeniably altered by outside influences brought about the international trade networks.

Islamic culture and religion provided the underlying basis for the construction of many of the later towns and buildings in the Swahili culture. The focal point of Swahili culture communities were the mosques. Mosques were typically among the most elaborate and permanent structures within a community. One feature common to Swahili mosques is an architectural niche holding imported bowls, a concrete display of the power and authority of local leaders.

Swahili towns were surrounded by walls of stone and/or wooden palisades, most of which date to the 15th century. Town walls may have held a defensive function, although many also served to deter coastal zone erosion, or keep cattle. Causeways and coral jetties have been identified at Kilwa and Songo Mnara, built and used between the 13th and 16th centuries.

By the 13th century, the towns of the Swahili culture were complex social entities with a literate Muslim population and a defined leadership, linked to a wide-reaching network of international trade. Wynne-Jones (2007) has argued that the Swahili people defined themselves as a network of nested identities, combining indigenous Bantu, Persian and Arabic cultures into a unique, cosmopolitan cultural form.

Swahili Archaeological Sites

Primary centers: Mombasa (Kenya), Kilwa Kisiwani (Tanzania), Mogadishu (Somalia)
Stone towns: Shanga, Manda, and Gedi (Kenya); Chwaka, Ras Mkumbuu, Songo Mnara, Sanje ya Kati Tumbatu, Kilwa (Tanzania); Mahilaka (Madagascar); Kizimkazi Dimbani (Zanzibar)
Towns: Takwa, Vumba Kuu, (Kenya); Ras Kisimani, Ras Mkumbuu (Tanzania); Mkia wa Ng'ombe (Zanzibar)

Sources

This entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Swahili Culture.

Breen C, and Lane PJ. 2003. Archaeological Approaches to East Africa's Changing Seascapes. World Archaeology 35(3):469-489.

Chami FA. 2009. Kilwa and the Swahili Towns: Reflections from an archaeological perspective. In: Larsen K, editor. Knowledge, Renewal and Religion: Repositioning and changing ideological and material circumstances among the Swahili on the East African coast. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitututet.

Chittick HN. 1965. The 'Shirazi' Colonization of East Africa. Journal of African History 6(3):275-294.

Fleisher J. 2010. Rituals of Consumption and the Politics of Feasting on the Eastern African Coast, AD 700–1500. Journal of World Prehistory 23(4):195-217.

Fleisher J, and Wynne-Jones S. 2011. Ceramics and the Early Swahili: Deconstructing the Early Tana Tradition. African Archaeological Review 28(4):245-278.

Wynne-Jones S. 2007. Creating urban communities at Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, AD 800-1300. Antiquity 81:368-380.

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