What Is the Swahili Coast?

On the east coast of Africa—at the western edge of the Indian Ocean—lies a narrow strip of land that has hosted travelers for thousands of years. When ships were powered by sails, the seasonally alternating Indian Ocean monsoon winds allowed for efficient sea voyages up and down the coast.

One of the first written records of the area’s significance, a Greek merchant’s guide from the first century C.E., describes sailing voyages on the Red Sea and the coast of East Africa. This work, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, describes the wealth of ivory, rhino horn, tortoise shell, and palm oil available for trade in each of these east African city-states.

This coastal region, which today stretches along the eastern edge of Africa from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south, is known as the Swahili Coast and is home to a unique culture and language—a multicultural polyglot of African, Arab, and Indian Ocean peoples.

The original inhabitants of the Swahili Coast were Bantu-speaking Africans, who had migrated east from the continent’s interior. They eventually spread up and down the coast, trading with each other, with the people of the interior, and eventually people from other continents.

Not much is known about the history of the Swahili Coast in the immediate centuries after the Periplus, although archaeologists have found hints of connections between this region and the Roman and Byzantine empires.

Starting with the eighth century C.E.—when Muslim traders, mostly Arabs, came to settle permanently in the region—historical records became more detailed. Later, in the 12th century, Persian settlers—known as the Shirazi—arrived. Today, the vast majority of Swahili people are Sunni Muslims.

The Medieval Heyday

The Swahili Coast appears to have reached its zenith during the Medieval Period, from around the 11th to 15th centuries. During that time, the Swahili Coast comprised numerous city-states that traded across the Indian Ocean. The city-states were independent sultanates, although they shared a common language (Swahili) and religion (Islam). They traded across the Indian Ocean for items, such as pottery, silks, and glassware.

Collectively, the city-states are often referred to as “stone towns,” because many buildings were constructed using stone—coral blocks held together with mortar. One of the larger structures, whose ruins remain today, is a stone mosque in the city of Kilwa.

Kilwa and Songo Mnara

Among the southern-most of the major city-states—and a major archaeological site today—is Kilwa, located on an island off the southern coast of Tanzania. During the medieval period, it maintained an outpost at Sofala for trading with the gold-rich Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, which was to the south.

In medieval times, Kilwa was one of the most important trading centers on the east African coast. Its ruins today include a large stone mosque and the Great Palace, which was at the time the largest stone building in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The grounds of the Great Palace (Husuni Kubwa) occupied a large area and included a swimming pool and around a hundred rooms. Today, the ruins of Kilwa include more recent structures, including a Portuguese prison-fort.

On another island just to the south is another site, called Songo Mnara, founded by the sultanate of Kilwa. No one knows why the people of Kilwa built Songo Mnara, but it appears to have been built following an urban plan, with clean lines and ornamentation made from coral stone. 

Chinese Contacts

Perhaps one of the most spectacular sights along the Swahili Coast during the Medieval Period would have been the arrival of the ships of Chinese admiral Zheng He. During the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle (reigned circa 1403–1424 C.E.) sent Zheng on seven diplomatic expeditions. The expeditions included great fleets of hundreds of warships and cargo ships for carrying trade and tribute, crewed by thousands of men.

On his later voyages, Zheng He visited the Swahili Coast, stopping at Mombasa and Malindi (both in modern-day Kenya), and Mogadishu (in modern-day Somalia). In response to one of the expeditions, the Sultan of Malindi sent the Chinese emperor a giraffe and other creatures, which the Chinese considered exotic, as gifts.

However, the Chinese did not maintain a permanent presence in East Africa. The voyages of Zheng He ended with his death and the death of the emperor.

Still, archaeological evidence of the Chinese-Swahili connection is being unearthed even today. In 2010, archaeologists from China and Kenya found a Chinese coin in a village not far from the medieval city-state of Malindi; the coin dated to the Ming Dynasty. In 2013, another group of archaeologists found a similar coin on the island of Manda, also in Kenya. According to one Chinese archaeologist, such coins were carried only by envoys of the emperor.

Portuguese

From 1497 to 1498, Portuguese voyager Vasco da Gama led an expedition of four ships and 170 men past the Cape of Good Hope (in modern-day South Africa), up the east coast of Africa, and into the Indian Ocean.

There, the Portuguese brutally attempted to control all trade and commerce in the Indian Ocean. They established bases at several sites along the Swahili Coast, including Sofala and Mozambique Island. They also built Fort Jesus in Mombasa and set up a customs house on Pate Island.

Interactions with the Portuguese and a consequent decrease in trade led to the decline of the Swahili Coast city-states, although some did carry on for another few centuries, some under the rule of the Omani Empire.

Swahili Today

Today, Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa. The Swahili language is part of the Bantu language family (the group of languages spoken in much of central and southern Africa) but has had considerable Arabic influences. Indeed, the term “Swahili” is derived from Arabic and means “[people] of the coast.” The language also contains loaner words from Persian, Portuguese, and German, among other languages. It is estimated to be spoken by more than 100-million people worldwide.

The People of the Swahili Coast

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.

archaeologist
Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

Noun

study of human history, based on material remains.

Bantu
Noun

people and culture native to central and southern Africa.

Bantu Migration
Noun

(3000 BCE-1000 BCE) series of massive migrations of speakers of the Bantu language, originally from West Africa and migrating throughout Central and Southern Africa.

city-state
Noun

independent political state consisting of a single city and sometimes surrounding territory.

commerce
Noun

trade, or the exchange of goods and services.

Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

fleet
Noun

group of ships, usually organized for military purposes.

hegemony
Noun

dominance or leading influence.

lingua franca
Noun

common language among people whose native languages are different.

merchant
Noun

person who sells goods and services.

Noun

movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.

multicultural
Adjective

representing many different traditions or cultures.

periplus
Noun

logbook or traveler’s guide.

polyglot
Noun

mixture of languages.

sultan
Noun

soverign of an Islamic country, often referring to the Ottoman Empire.

Swahili
noun, adjective

a language of eastern Africa.

trade
Noun

buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.