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Swahili Culture Guide

Guide to the Swahili Coast Civilization

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Swahili culture refers to the distinctive communities where traders and sultans thrived on the Swahili coast between the 11th-16th centuries. Swahili trading communities had their foundations in the sixth century, within a 2,500 kilometer (1,500 mile) stretch of the east African coastline and adjacent island archipelagos from the modern countries of Somalia to Mozambique.

The Swahili traders acted as the middlemen between the riches of the African continent and the luxuries of Arabia, India and China. Trade goods passing through the stonetown ports of the coast included gold, ivory, ambergris, iron, timber and slaves from interior Africa; and fine silks and fabrics and glazed and decorated ceramics from outside the continent.

Swahili Identity

At first, archaeologists were of the opinion that Swahili traders were Persian in origin, a notion that was reinforced by the Swahili themselves who claimed links to the Persian Gulf, and wrote histories such as the Kilwa Chronicle describing a Persian founding dynasty called Shirazi. However, more recent studies have shown that the Swahili culture is a fully African florescence, who adopted a cosmopolitan background to emphasize their links with the Gulf region, and enhance their local and international standing.

Primary evidence of the African nature of Swahili culture is the archaeological remains of settlements along the coast which contain artifacts and structures that are clear predecessors of the Swahili culture buildings. Also of importance is that the language spoken by the Swahili traders (and their descendants today) is Bantu in structure and form. Today archaeologists agree that the "Persian" aspects of the Swahili coast were a reflection of the connection to trade networks in region of Siraf, rather than in-migration of Persian people.

Sources

I wish to thank Stephanie Wynne-Jones for her support, suggestions and images of the Swahili Coast for this project. Any errors are mine.

A Bibliography of the Archaeology of the Swahili Coast has been prepared for this project.

Swahili Economy

Vaulted Ceiling with Inset Persian Glazed Bowls, Songo Mnara
Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

The major wealth of the Swahili coast culture of the 11th-16th century was based on international trade; but the non-elite people of the villages along the coastline were farmers and fishers, who participated in the trade in a much less straightforward way.

The photograph accompanying this listing is of a vaulted ceiling of an elite residence at Songo Mnara, with inset niches containing Persian glazed bowls.

Swahili Towns

One way to get to know the medieval Swahili coastal trading networks is to take a closer look at the Swahili communities themselves: their layout, homes, mosques and courtyards provide a glimpse of the way people lived.

This photo is of the interior of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani.

Kilwa Coins

Coins recovered from Swahili coast sites have provided a fruitful source of information about the multiple uses of currency, as well as social structure, cultural change and history of the Swahili culture.

Swahili Chronology

Mihrab of the Great Mosque at Songo Mnara
Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

Although information gathered from the Kilwa Chronicles is of incredible interest to scholars and others interested in the Swahili Coast cultures, archaeological excavation has shown that much of what is in the chronicles is based on oral tradition, and has a bit of a spin. This Swahili Chronology compiles the current understanding of the timing of events in Swahili history.

The photo to the left is of a mihrab, a niche placed into the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, in the Great Mosque at Songo Mnara.

Kilwa Chronicles

Map of Swahili Coast Sites
Kris Hirst
The Kilwa Chronicles are two texts which describe the history and genealogy of the Shirazi dynasty of Kilwa, and the semi-mythical roots of the Swahili culture.

Songa Mnara (Tanzania)

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

The archaeological site of Songa Mnara includes the remains of a Swahili culture stonetown, occupied between the 14th and 16th centuries.

This photograph is of the courtyard at the palace at Songo Mnara.

Kilwa Kisiwani (Tanzania)

Sunken Courtyard of Husuni Kubwa, Kilwa Kisiwani
Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

The largest town on the Swahili coast was Kilwa Kisiwani, and although it did not blossom and continue as did Mombasa and Mogadishu, for some 500 years it was a powerful source of international trade in the region.

The image is of a sunken courtyard at the palace complex of Husni Kubwa in Kilwa Kisiwani.

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