The Bantu civilization of the Swahili

Manda, Kilwa, Songo Mnara, Mombasa, Pate, Malindi etc … so many names, so many cities with an absolutely prestigious history, whose remains still bear witness to the brilliance of past years. 1,100 years ago, the Bantu peoples of the coasts and islands of Kenya and Tanzania laid the foundation for the Swahili civilization, which would illuminate East Africa for centuries. The highly renowned Arab traveler Ibn Battuta said that Kilwa – at that time – was one of the most beautiful cities in the world!

Remains of Kilwa, Tanzania


The starting point of the East African Coast civilizations is a trading town named Rhapta, which would be located off Tanzania. The 2,000 years old Greek documents mention its existence. In 2016, researcher Diver Alan Sutton discovers off the coast of Tanzania the ruins of a large, partially engulfed city, which is likely to be Rhapta. The huge blocks of coral carved and assembled by ancient Africans – to construct buildings on the discovered site – would prefigure the construction methods of the Swahili civilization.

In addition, the presence of Roman currency coins found in Kenya certifies the very early existence of international trade. It is therefore in the continuity of these legacies that the prestigious cities of the coast will emerge in the 10th century.

This shows that the East African civilizations were, contrary to what is thought, essentially Black and African. Researcher RP Matthews thus says “(all those cities on the east coast) were essentially African … It is increasingly clear that they cannot be considered as Arab or Persian colonies … according to the descriptions given by the geographers of the Middle Age, those inhabitants were doubtless blacks and they even had a more negroid type than that of the present population …”[1].

If the people contemporary to the Swahili civilization were perfectly black, then it means that the apparent mixing of the present populations of the islands of Kenya and Tanzania, must be attributed to the Arab slavers’ colonization between the 17th and the 20th centuries, therefore after the end of this civilization.

Image of the site discovered by Alan Sutton, possibly Rhapta

The appearance of the Swahili language and culture

In Kenya, an intense interaction began between the Pokomo people and 9 tribes forming the Mijikenda (Duruma, Kambe, Jibana, Giriama, Dogi, Chonyi, Kaume, Rabai and Ribe). From there, a common culture and language was born and extended to Tanzania and the Comoros. While they arrived in the area, the Arabs named the places Sahil, that is to say Coast. It is from Sahil that Swahili comes.

The local language, a Bantu language, was a mix of Pokomo and Mijikenda and called kiSwahili, that is to say the language of the Coast; ki being a Bantu prefix designating the language as in kiKongo, kiMbundu or kiRundi. Many Arabic and Persian words were added to kiSwahili, even if its structure remains African to date and its vocabulary is mainly African.

This is the kind of dynamics whereby the Bantu people brought out the Swahili culture and civilization, later enriched by the contributions of the Arabs and the Persians (Iranians), who had come – a first time – to establish trading posts and sometimes ransacked the inhabitants in order to enslave them. This explains why this civilization is described as Bantu Islamic.

Mijikenda men from Kenya
This people is partly at the origin of the Swahili civilization

The organization of the Swahili States-Cities

The Swahili cities have never been under the central authority of a supreme power. These were States-Cities under the sovereignty of a local power. The cities – although aware of their cultural community – competed for the mastery of successful international trade.

The king bears the title Mfalme, which is linguistically African. He comes from the royal family and takes over to the throne by marriage to one of the royal women. These women, in accordance with the African matriarchal tradition, hold the power legitimacy.

The royal caste was divided into Ndugu, that is to say in generation. The king, born of a generation, does not reign for life. He reigns until a prince of the next generation, chosen from among the suitors, gets married to a woman of royal blood. The crown prince was crowned on his wedding day. To our knowledge, this extremely interesting generation system was unique in Africa.

Remains of Songo Mnara, Tanzania

Even with the arrival of Islam, the matriarchal transmission of power continued. It must be said that it was an Islam strongly tinted with vitalist (animist) rites. The inhabitants of the coast say that those Muslim dynasties were founded by Arabs. Yet, the Arab world is incompatible with matriarchy. They were probably Islamized Africans, who invented their origins from the Eastern world through mental alienation, like the Fulani or Hausa people did.

Concerning defense, a king had thousands of cavalrymen with 300,000 oxen, which they could ride.

The Swahili economy

The Swahili coastal cities were earning most of their wealth from continental trade with the rest of Africa and international trade with the East, East Asia, and even with the Blacks from Australia as we know today. The abundant riches extracted from southern African mines (gold, tin) were partly exported from the Swahili coasts. A testimony tells us that a king used to kill 700 elephants each year to get ivory, which was also partially exported. Animal skins, iron tools and agricultural products were also sold through the ports.

Cabotage and deep-sea fishing were practiced. Leopard and jackal hunt was done and hypnosis techniques to make cats harmless have been reported. Although pottery was locally made, earthenware from Iran and China were imported and precious Asian fabrics were also appreciated.

Originally, the currency, like everywhere in Africa, was made from shellfish. From the thirteenth century, kings – especially in Kilwa – began to issue their currency in bronze and silver. The abundance of gold was in such a way that it was considered less valuable than the other two. All this intense activity generated considerable wealth and a class of rich traders who influenced the royal power, each one of them inventing or exaggerating for themselves Arab origins to maintain or gain influence.

Kilwa coins discovered in Australia by the team of Ian McIntosh in 2013

The Swahili navigation

The coastal Bantu people had boats of various sizes and functions; from the Mtumbi, which was a canoe carved with an ax in a tree trunk, to the Mtepe, a large ship that sailed in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese, who arrived in the region in the 16th century, described the ports as congested by sometimes huge ships.

The residents traveled to China, a country they had diplomatic relations with. So in China, there is an illustration of a Mtepe transporting an elephant to offer to the Chinese. But, it must be said that most of the sailing on the Indian Ocean was carried out by Arabs, then by Chinese from the 15th century.

The Mtepe

The wealth of the people on the east coast

The Portuguese were absolutely struck by the cities whose architecture and organization were by no means inferior to those of Europe. It is worth mentioning that Portuguese medieval cities were developed by the Black Berbers of the Maghreb known as the Moors or Saracens and the Arabs. The Portuguese have therefore essentially compared African architecture in Africa to African-Arab architecture in Portugal.

In Kilwa, inhabitants were very elegant, dressed in silk or cotton richly embroidered with gold. With a very black skin, they were scarred according to the rituals of ancient Africa. Women were wearing gold and silver chains and bracelets on their wrists and ankles, gemstone earrings to their ears.

The Swahili architecture

Studies have shown that the Swahili architecture is indeed African and not Arabic or Persian as stated in the past.

Peter Garlake said in UNESCO’s Histoire Générale de l’Afrique : “By its structure and style of religious and civil construction, by its construction techniques, by its stone carved casts and decorative patterns, the Swahili architecture has preserved for centuries the original traditions that distinguish it from those of Arabia, Persia and other Muslim countries “[2].

The Bantu collected coral on the coast or inland granite, which they cut into slabs and assembled with lime or clay. They also poured mortar with pebbles into the formwork. The Kings’ palaces sometimes had two floors. The cities comprised concrete and wooden houses. The streets were narrow, lined with palm trees and stone benches along the walls. The houses of the rich had bedrooms, courtyards, charming flower gardens according to visitors and even swimming pools. Those houses were covered with slabs or palm branches.

The furniture consisted of ivory beds, which was reached – according to the saying – by silver stairs. With Islamization, the construction of mosques would increase the number of buildings and improve the techniques. At night, Africans dedicated themselves to reading and philosophy thanks to the presence of terracotta lamps and candles in houses.

Malindi, Kenya
Manda, Kenya
Kilwa; It is absolutely prodigious
Pate, Tanzania

The fall of the Swahili civilization

The Swahili civilization was destroyed by the attacks of the Portuguese during the European slave trade in the 16th century as explained here. The region was subsequently bled by the Arab slave trade.


By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)


  • General History of Africa, Unesco, Volume 3, Chapter by Fidel T. Masao and Henry W. Mutoro
  • General History of Africa, Unesco, Volume 4, Chapter by Victor Matveiev
  • Histoire de l’Afrique noire, Joseph Ki-Zerbo
  • Daily Mail
  • [1] Afrique noire, sol, démographie et histoire; Louise Marie Diop Maes, page 100
  • [2] Histoire générale de l’Afrique, Unesco, volume 4, pages 511 et 512.
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