Civilizations in Africa

The Swahili Kingdoms

   The eastern coast of Africa changed profoundly around the close of the first millenium AD. First, Bantu-speaking from the interior migrated and settled along the coast from Kenya to South Africa. Second, merchants and traders from the Muslim world and India realized the strategic importance of the east coast of Africa for commercial trafiic and began to settle there. From 900 AD onwards, the east coast of Africa saw an influx of Shirazi Arabs from the Persian Gulf and even small settlements of Indians. The Arabs called this region al-Zanj, "The Blacks," and the coastal areas slowly came under the control of Muslim merchants from Arabia and Persia. By the 1300's, the major east African ports from Mombaza in the north to Sofala in the south had become thoroughly Islamic cities and cultural centers.

   The language that grew out of the mix of Arabs and Bantu is one of the most common and widespread of the lingua franca (a lingua franca is a secondary language that is a combination of two or more languages): Swahili or Kiswahili (from the Arabic word sawahil which means "coast"). Swahili is primarily a Bantu language with some Arabic elements; it is written in the Arabic alphabet. Like the language, the Swahili culture was a mixture of the two cultures, Bantu and Arabic, and we call the civilizations of the African east coast "Swahili" to reflect the hybrid nature of those civilizations.

   The Swahili civilizations slowly expanded southwards until they reached Kilwa in Zanzibar (from the Arabic word al-Zanj ). Later, Swahili civilization carved out a small territory even further south around Sofala in Zimbabwe. While the northern cities remained localized and had little influence on African culture inland from the coast, the Sofalans actively went inland and spread Islam and Islamic culture deep in African territory.

   The major Swahili city-states were Mogadishu, Barawa, Mombasa (Kenya), Gedi, Pate, Malindi, Zanzibar, Kilwa, and Sofala in the far south. These city-states were Muslim and cosmopolitan and they were all politically independent of one another; nothing like a Swahili empire or hegemony was formed around any of these city-states. In fact, they were more like competitive companies or corporations each vying for the lion's share of African trade. The chief export was ivory, sandalwood, ebony, and gold. These cities were also culturally cosmopolitan: they were formed from a cultural mix of Bantu, Islamic, and Indian influences, but commerce brought Chinese artifacts and culture as well as Indian culture.

   While the Arabs and Persians were significant players in the growth of Swahili civilization, the cities were run by a nobility that was African in origin (with possible admixture of Persian or Arab blood). Below the nobility were the commoners and the resident foreigners who made up a large part of the citizenry. Like other Islamic African states, slavery was actively practiced.

   These city-states began to decline in the sixteenth century; the advent of Portugese trade disrupted the old trade routes and made the Swahili commercial centers obsolete. The Portugese wanted native Africans to have no share in African trade and busily set about conquering the Islamic city-states along the eastern coast. In the late seventeenth century, Oman (in the south of Arabia) then conquered all the Portugese cities along the coast and the eastern African coast was controlled by the Omani sultanate for another two hundred years.
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Civilizations in Africa

Egypt: A Learning Module

Kush

Axum

The Iron Age South of the Sahara

Ghana

The Islamic Invasions

The Almoravids

Mali

Songhay

The Hausa Kingdoms

Kanem-Bornu

The Forest Kingdoms

The Swahili Kingdoms

Great Zimbabwe / The Mwenemutapa Empire

Internet Resources on Africa

About "Civilizations in Africa"

Copyright NoticesMali

Songhay

The Hausa Kingdoms

Kanem-Bornu

The Forest Kingdoms

The Swahili Kingdoms

Great Zimbabwe / The Mwenemutapa Empire

Internet Resources on Africa

About "Civilizations in Africa"

































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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 11-15-96