Swahili City States

Swahili City States were trading states along the east coast of Africa, from Kenya to Mozambique. The Swahili City States provided and connected african raw material to the rest of the Indian Ocean world--Arabia, India, Persia, China and vice-versa.


The earliest Swahili culture developed in the Tana Valley and the Lamu Islands, from indigenous Bantu speaking population, around the sixth century. By the 10th century, Islam was beginning to take root as it was reported that Kanbalu was run by muslims. Trading opportunities saw the arrival of Arab, Persian, and Indian merchants. In 916, Al-Masudi visited the Swahili coast or "Land of the Zanj." Between 1050-1200, a wave of immigration from Persia seems to have occurred, causing a southern migration from Shungwaya and Lamu to Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia, and Kilwa. Swahili's often claim descent from Persian Shirazi, but evidence of such claims remain scarce, instead it is believe the claims were made for prestige. By 1200, Kilwa became the most important Swahili town 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.  Sofala was later found to exploit the gold trade, further south.

The Portuguese arrived along the Swahili Coast in 1498. By 1503, they were bent on conquest in the name of Christianity and attacked Zanzibar. By 1503, they attacked Kilwa, Mombasa, and Barawa. 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.

Cities, Towns, and Architecture

Forty Swahili towns existed, between Mogadishu and Sofala. The most important were Mogadishu, Pate, Mombasa, Malindi, Zanzibar, and Kilwa. Each town had a mosque. Very few stone structures existed. The population consisted of muslim and slave population. The well to do and old families lived in the northern part of the town, while migrants and the less well to do lived in the southen part. Some towns were run by royalty, others were run by an oligarchy called waungwana.

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 Swahili used the dhow for ocean going trade in distant lands. The Swahili provided the Asian and Mediterranean world gold, ivory, furs, slaves, tortoise shell, and rhinoceros horns for Persian rugs, Chinese Porcelin, and other luxurious items. They manufactured cotton cloth, glass and shell beads, for trade with the east african interior. Although the Fatimid dinar was the currency of international trade, the Swahili minted their own coins in silver and copper. The Swahili had an extensive trade network; this included the Red Sea to Egypt, Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, Shiraz in Persia, Goa and Cambay in India, and China.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.(1999). Africana: the Encyclopedia of African and African American Experience. Basic Civitas Books, pp. 1810-1811. ISBN 0-465-00071-1. 

Shillington, Kevin (2005). History of Africa. Revised 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 126-134. ISBN 0-333-59957-8

Collins, Robert O. and Burns, James M. (2007). A History of Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press,pp. 97-112 ISBN 978-0-521-68708-9.