BHM Day 11: The Swahili City-States

swahili city states


The first time I ever heard of the Swahili language was when Lieutenant Uhura claimed it as her mother tongue. And I knew nothing else about it. Actually, the Swahili language, or Kiswahili, is a Bantu language that is spoken in various communities of Southeast Africa including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While only 5 million people speak it as a mother tongue, Swahili is the business language of much of Southeast Africa. Four countries, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo use it as their national language, and it is spoken by over 140 million people.


Swahili  was first spoken by natives of the coastal mainland and spread as a Bantu fisherman’s language to the various islands surrounding the Swahili Coast such as  the Bajun Islands, the Comoro Islands, Lamu Archipelago, Mozambique Island and Zanzibar Archipelago. Traders from these islands had extensive contact with the coastal peoples from at least the 2nd century A.D. and Swahili began to spread along the Swahili Coast from at least the 6th century.

Clove farmers from the Middle East farmed the Zanzibar Islands; they slowly spread Islam and added a few words to Swahili language while building forts and castles in major trading and cultural centers. The culture that formed from the interaction between Arabic, Persian and Bantu traditions and habits was further enriched with influences from the Far East as a consequence of long-distance trading routes crossing the Indian Ocean. Beginning in Kenya and Tanzania, the Swahili culture eventually spread to Mozambique.

Between the 10th – 15th centuries,  there were over 170 trading centers which flourished along the Swahili Coast and adjacent islands, some as small towns and villages, and others developed into cities, the most well known being Kilwa, Mogadishu, Malindi, Mombasa, Pate, Sofala and Zanzibar. These early Swahili city-states were Muslim – every trading center had a mosque, cosmopolitan and politically independent of each other. They all competed against one another for the best of the Great Lakes region’s trade business. Kilwa, Pate, and Mogadishu also developed a local textile industry while Kilwa and Mogadishu extracted copper from nearby mines.  The city-states were easy to reach from Asia by ship because of the favorable wind and ocean currents. Ships had no trouble docking at the excellent ports and harbors located on the coasts of the city-states, making it easy to unload and load cargo. And ,merchants, tired after their long overseas journey, enjoyed the fine restaurants, lodging, and entertainment offered by the port cities. The chief exports of these cultures were slaves, ebony, gold, ivory and sandalwood. As trading centers, the Swahili interacted with traders from as far away as Cambodia, China, Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Indian subcontinent. At the same time, the East African city-states were buying items from Asia. Many residents of the city-states were willing to pay high prices for cotton, silk, and porcelain objects.

By 1200, Kilwa became the most important Swahili city by tapping into the gold trade of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Limpopo Valley. Its importance is illustrated by the fact that the Chinese Admiral Zhen He visited the Sultan of Kilwa in 1415. In exchange,  a giraffe was taken from Malindi to Beijing as a diplomatic gift for the Chinese emperor, where it caused great excitement. Ibn Battuta, a medieval world traveler, recorded that the bustling trading city of Kilwa is, “one of the most beautiful and best-constructed towns, all elegantly built.” At this point, the Swahili city-states were a major world economic power.

Evidence of Swahili as a written language can be found on coins from Kilwa and tombstones dating back to the 11th century when Swahili was written in Arabic script. Many of the wealthy in the city-states had libraries, and Swahili was used to document trade agreements, geneology and chronicles of the city-states, as well as poetry and other literature.


One of the earliest examples of monumental Swahili Architecture is the trade emporium, palace of Husuni Kubwa, lying west of Kilwa, built about 1245. As with many other early Swahili buildings, coral was the main construction material, and the roof was constructed by attaching coral to timbers. It contained fluted conical vaults and domes, one hundred rooms with courtyards, terraces, and a sunken swimming pool. Contrastingly, the palace at Kilwa was a two-story tower, in a walled enclosure. Other notable structures include the Pillar Tombs at Malindi and Mnarani in Kenya, originally built from coral but later from stone. Other examples include Zanzibar’s stone towns, with its famous carved doors, and the Great Mosque of Kilwa. Intricately carved doors were a unique element in Swahili townhouses, found in Zanzibar and other homes along the East African coast.

The Portuguese arrived along the Swahili Coast in 1498. V.V. Matveiev, a historian of East African history, wrote, “The Portuguese were impressed by the towns, the appearance and architecture of which did not fall short of anything they had at home, and by the wealth of the inhabitants who came to meet them and were elegantly dressed in rich, gold-adorned clothes and in silk and cotton cloth. The woman wore chains and bangles of gold and silver of their arms and legs, and earrings set with precious stones.” The Portuguese government took immediate interest in the Swahili city-states. They sent more ships to the eastern coast of Africa with three goals: to take anything of value they could find, to force the kings of the cities to pay taxes to Portuguese tax collectors, and to gain control over the entire Indian Ocean trade. The city-states had never needed forts or huge armies, and they were unprepared for the Portuguese attacks. One-by-one, the Portuguese captured the port cities starting with Zanzibar and continuing to Kilwa, Mombasa and Barawa in 1503. They then wrecked, looted, and burned the cities to the ground. The residents of the cities who were unable to escape were killed. Shiploads of priceless goods were sent back to Portugal. Even with all of this destruction, the Portuguese were never able to gain control of the Swahili City States, and its trading networks. In 1698, the Swahili States received assistance from the Imam of Oman. By 1729, the Portuguese threat was removed. The Swahilis never recovered their glorious trading past.


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