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Swahili Cities Rise

The Swahili cities of East Africa rose between the 9th and 10th centuries. Some of the most important Swahili cities included Kilwa, Pemba, Zanzibar, and Mafia. The most prominent of these was the city of Kilwa, the capital of the kingdom of Zanj. The Shirazi Dynasty from Persia ruled the city of Kilwa during its height. The Swahili people traded with Arab, Persian, Indian, and Chinese merchants which made the kingdom very rich. At its peak, the Swahili kings’ influence even reached as far as the island of Madagascar.  These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History during that time.

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The People and Cities of the Eastern Coast

Swahili refers to the language spoken by the people who live mainly in modern Kenya and Tanzania. Swahili and variants of it are also spoken in Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda, and other Central East African countries. The Swahilis are Bantu-speaking people, but the language borrowed some words from Arabic after centuries of trade with Gulf caliphates and sultanates. The language and variants of it are also spoken by people in the Barawa (Brava) town of Somalia to the Zambezi region in modern Mozambique.

The northern Swahili coast is an arid area, but the landscape becomes progressively lush in the southern coast. The first humans who settled on the Swahili coast were hunters and gatherers. They later engaged in fishing and agriculture. Their main crops were taro, sorghum, and banana. Meat, coconuts, and honey were also consumed regularly by the first Swahili peoples.

Arab and Persian merchants visited and traded with the Swahili peoples during the reign of the Abbasid caliphate (AD 750-1258). Coins minted during the reign of the great Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid were later found on the Swahili coast. Trading ships from Siraf in Persia sailed the Indian Ocean and docked at the port of Zanj.

The Swahilis sold ivory, ambergris, tortoiseshells, timber, leopard skins, iron, and gold not only to the Gulf region but also to India and China. In turn, they bought fine porcelain from China and Islamic glass and pottery from the Gulf. Enslaved peoples were also brought from the Swahili coast into the Gulf and even to China.

A part of the Swahili coast was known to Muslim merchants and geographers as the land of Zanj. The Arab geographer al-Masudi himself sailed from Suhar in Oman to Zanj and the nearby islands. The 12th-century Muslim geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi mentioned the Swahili cities of Pemba, Merca, Barawa (Brava), and Mafia in his records. The 13th-century al-Andalus geographer Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi, meanwhile, visited the Swahili Coast, particularly Mombasa. He also visited the coastal cities of Mogadishu and Merca. The famed Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta also visited the city of Kilwa (in present-day Tanzania) around 1332.

The history of the medieval Swahili city-states has long been intertwined with Islam. The Yemenite Banu Majid tribe settled in Mogadishu in Somalia after they were driven out from their homeland. Yemenites from the regions of Abyan and Haram also sailed across the Gulf of Aden and started to live in the coastal cities of Somalia.

The Shirazi Dynasty Dominates the Swahili Cities

The Great Mosque of Kilwa was likely built in the 10th century.

The most prominent of the Swahili cities was Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania. Back in the 9th-century AD, a Persian-Abyssinian prince fled Shiraz with his family after he was driven out by his brothers. They first sailed from the port of Hormuz to Mogadishu. They lived there for some time until they were driven out of Mogadishu as well. The Shirazi prince and his family sailed down to the island of Kilwa which they later bought from the local Bantu chieftain. The prince and his family ruled Kilwa Kisiwani from then on. The succeeding kings of Kilwa were then known as the rulers of the Shirazi dynasty.

One of Persian prince’s descendants, Sultan Daud b. Suleiman became “Master of Trade” during the mid-1100s. Sultan Daud and his son Hasan ruled Kilwa, Pemba, Mafia, and Zanzibar. The Swahili cities became major trading ports for Arab and Persian merchants during their reign. Kilwa itself became wealthy not only because of trade but also because of the Shirazis’ monopoly on the gold trade in Great Zimbabwe. The gold they mined in the Great Zimbabwe first went through the Shirazi-held city of Sofala. Shipments of gold were then transported to the island of Kilwa. The Shirazi sultan then imposed taxes on the gold that went through his city. The revenues collected from the gold trade were sent to the king’s treasury.

Most of the people of the Swahili coast became Muslims during the domination of the Shirazi dynasty. They practiced Sunni Islam and followed the Shafi school of thought. Mosques and Islamic-style tombs in Kilwa Kisiwani were built during the time of Sultan Daud b. Suleiman. Traces of Islamic architectural elements could be seen in the remains of the great palace and emporium of Kilwa. The Swahili cities boasted single and multi-level houses that were made of coral stones and lime mortar.

The Swahilis extended their domination into Madagascar. The cities of Barawa and Mogadishu were the Swahilis’ main rivals during the 14th-century. The Swahili cities continued to flourish and reached their peak during this time.


Picture by: en:user:Claude McNabfrom with source-description: Original Uploader was Claude McNab (talk) at 19:32, 15 May 2006., Public Domain, Link

Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The New Islamic Dynasties: A Chronological and Genealogical Manual. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

Oliver, Roland, ed. The Cambridge History of Africa:. The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521209816.

Perkins, John. “The Indian Ocean and Swahili Coast coins, international networks and local developments.” Perkins, John. Accessed February 01, 2017.

Roberts, J. M., and Odd Arne. Westad. The History of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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