World History 2 39 - 3.3.1 The Rise of the Swahili City-States

Starting in the seventh century, settlements on the coast of East Africa began to participate in Indian Ocean trade. Geographically, the area was well suited for oceanic trade. In the summer, the prevailing winds blew sailing ships northeast toward the coast of India, and winter winds blew them in the opposite direction. A seasonal trade thus developed, and trading ports grew. The standard ship of the region, called a dhow, was a vessel made of coconut-wood planks sewn together with coconut fiber. It bore a triangular-shaped lateen sail, which was perfectly designed to enable ships to sail both with and into the wind (Figure 3.14). However, dhows were unable to ride the rougher waves near the southern tip of the African continent, and this limitation, together with the fact that the monsoon winds grew weaker the farther south they went, kept trading ports from extending the full length of the African coast.

The postage stamp is white and green with a black border. The middle of the stamp shows a sailing ship with two masts in water with trees in the background. An ornate knife is drawn on both sides of the stamp, with vines above each. Across the top is the word “Aden” and “1/2A” is in each of the bottom corners.
Figure 3.14 An early twentieth-century postage stamp from Aden, a city of the Arabian Peninsula, shows a dhow with lateen sails. Ships of this type carried the trade of the Swahili coast. (credit: “Aden half-anna stamp of 1937” by Unknown/Stan Shebs/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the eighth century, Arab Muslim merchants began to settle permanently in the region and often intermarried with the African Bantu peoples who lived in the area. Marrying Bantu women enabled Arab merchants to sink roots in African coastal communities, and their wives’ families helped them both establish commercial contacts and transact trade while they were away. In the twelfth century, large numbers of Persians settled on the East African coast as well. Their city-states, inhabited primarily by merchants and artisans, grew in size until a number of large port cities extended southward along the coast from what is now Somalia: Mogadishu, Barawa, Mombasa, Malindi, Pemba, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Sofala, and others (Figure 3.15). Some of the cities were built on islands, which made it easier for them to engage in maritime trade. The people of the coast came to speak Swahili, which combined the grammar of African Bantu languages with a Bantu and Arabic vocabulary. This common language enabled people from a wide variety of ethnic groups to trade with one another.

A map of the continent of Africa is shown. A portion of eastern Africa labeled the ‘Horn of Africa’ borders the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean. It extends into Africa to include Lake Tana and part of Lake Vitoria. A thin green area is highlighted on the east coast of Africa from south of the city of Sofala up to a portion north of the city of Mogadishu. The northernmost portion of Madagascar is also highlighted green. Dashed lines from the south of Africa starting in the city of Sofala go up along the coast heading north, stopping in the cities of Pemba, Kilwa, Zanzibar, Mombasa, Malindi, Barawa, and Mogadishu. From there the dashed lines go up around the Horn of Africa, splitting into two – one going into the Gulf of Aden, up through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and the other going around the southern portion of the Arabian Peninsula and then north through the Arabian Gulf and back out to the Indian Ocean.
Figure 3.15 The coastal region immediately south of the Horn of Africa was home to a number of city-states that prospered in the Indian Ocean trade before the arrival of the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Link to Learning

This webpage contains interesting facts about the Swahili language along with the Swahili alphabet, Swahili numbers and phrases, recordings of people reading texts in Swahili, and videos of Swahili being used in everyday life.

The Bantu people who lived along the coast of East Africa converted to Islam over the course of a few centuries. Sharing a religion made it easier for them to interact with the Arab and Persian merchants and sailors who inhabited cities on the coast of East Africa, as well as with Muslim merchants in North Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula, and in India. Mosques and religious schools were built. The first mosques were built in the ninth century. The version of Islam practiced by the people of the Swahili coast, however, made concessions to the pre-Islamic practices of several of the area’s African societies. In this syncretic version of Islam, ancestor veneration continued, for example, as did the use of magical rituals to drive away spirits believed to cause illness. Women also retained a higher status than they did in other Muslim societies, such as Persia.

A large variety of products were traded in the cities of the Swahili coast: gold, iron, copper, salt, valuable hardwoods such as ebony and sandalwood, ivory, tortoise shells for making decorative objects like combs, and animal hides. These goods were brought overland across trade routes from the African interior and then were either purchased by the cities’ inhabitants for their own use or resold elsewhere in Africa or in Arabia, Persia, and India. From these places, the goods might travel even farther to Southeast Asia or China. Artisans in the cities crafted pottery and wove cloth that became part of the trade too and were sold in Africa or overseas. The goods of Asia also flowed into these cities, and the elites of the Swahili coast adorned themselves with glass beads from India, dressed in Chinese silks, and ate from Chinese porcelain. Some merchants embedded pieces of porcelain in the walls of their homes for decoration.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax