The Swahili civilization

Between the 8th and the 15th century, was developed on the African East coast a set of cities founded by Swahili speaking populations – Tanzania-Kenya -, who have known a rise both in the economic and architectural side barely thinkable today. The former city of Kilwa, in current Tanzania, represents alone the prosperity, the wealth and the power of a civilization that used to trade already during the 12th century with China and Australia. The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta said about Kilwa that ‘it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world’ [1]. The Swahili civilization has left us architectural vestiges that testify of its former magnificence.

City of Kilwa
City of Kilwa

The Eastern Coast Populations

Before we cut to the case, it is necessary to say that there is a popular belief which consists in thinking that it was the Arabs or the Persians who built the east African civilizations. However, the description made by the explorers proves the contrary. The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta [2] tells us that the citizens of Kilwa were ‘as Blacks as jet’ and women had ‘cars’ on their faces.

Even though during the 13th century – as written in the General History of Africa -, the Arab geographer Yakut recounts the words of a sultan (ruler) of Kilwa who claimed to be of Arabian background; this testimony does not have much validity when we know the alienation that strikes very often great number of Islamized Blacks. The sultan recounted by Yakut was certainly a Black person, who became Muslim, and found himself an Arab background like a lot do now a days. Yakut himself didn’t say he was an Arab, he simply recounts his words.

RP Mathews concluded that all the cities of the eastern coast ‘were essentially African… it is more and more obvious that they cannot be considered as Arab or Persian colonies… these populations were without a doubt Black and even were Blacker than today’s populations’. [2]

The east coast populations were Black but highly Islamized, reason why there were kings at that time with Arab names and titles.

Kilwa
Kilwa

The Swahili Navigation

As for the construction of ships – except the mtumwi (barks hollowed with an axe) and the mitepe (sewed pirogues) -, there was a lot of big ships docked alongside the Swahili harbors, which dimensions were pretty much the same as these of 50 barrel caravels. The existence of different categories of ships can be directly deduced from the existence in Swahili language of a whole variety of terms used for boats, what shows in all probability a specific distinction and the existence of a rather great number of sorts of ships until the 20th century. These endogenous words indicate that Swahili people used to sail in the high-sea but Louise Marie Diop-Maes tells us that the wealth of East Africa did not make these adventures something necessary for the local populations.

Songo Mnara Source image : Unesco
Songo Mnara

Source image : Unesco

The Swahili People Wealth

As we know today, Swahili people had very strong trading relationships with China, the Middle East and with Australia. They had their own currency. The Portuguese where stricken by the appearance of the cities which constructions had nothing to envy Portuguese ones. They were also stricken by the wealth of the inhabitants, the elegance of their silk and cotton made clothes richly embroidered with gold. Women used to wear around their wrists and their ankles small gold and silver chains and bracelets and gemstones earrings. The discovery of terra cotta lamps during the excavations suggests a high degree of civilization. These lamps were probably used to enlighten dark parts of houses, what allows thinking that people used to devote themselves to things like reading, writing, accountancy, etc.

Gedi
Gedi

At that time candles were also used. Furniture were composed of carpets and mats, sometimes of sumptuous beds ivory inlaid, mother-of-pearl, silver or gold. In rich people’s houses there were imported dishes such as earthenware and china from Iran, from Iraq, from China, from Egypt and from Syria. Louise Marie Diop Maes tells us that the wealth, the variety, the subtlety of the Black-African craft reveals itself in the Swahili saying according to which in their country, back then, there was such a luxury inside their houses that ‘one could climb on ivory beds by silver ladders’.

The Argument About The Origin Of The Swahili Architecture

If the presence of domes reminds of an Arab influence in that architecture, Louise Marie Diop Maes tells us that still in the 14th-15th centuries, Kilwa had all over stone houses and became a great city. Dwellings had several rooms, an inner courtyard, an aft right corner, restrooms and on the side facilities destined for ablutions. They had one or two floors.

As for the archeologists J.S Kirkman and G.N Chittick, they think Arabs and Persians were at the origin of this evolution. They therefore point out that different details that appear on these constructions are incompatible with the rules Islam commands in these area and that are put in practice in the Arab countries. Thus, J.S Kirkman noticed in the Gedi’s Mosque the existence of decorative patterns in the shape of spare peak that would not be allowed in Arabia or in Iran. As for G.N Chittick, he wrote the following: ‘As in material things and more specifically in architecture, the populations from the coast developed an original civilization in so many aspects, a civilization that we could define as proto-Swahili’. This point of view can be put near P.S Garlakes’ which is: ‘By its structure and its style of religious and civil construction, by its techniques of construction, with its carved stone moulding and its decorative patterns, the Swahili architecture conserved during centuries original traditions that distinguish from the Arab one, the Persian one and from the other Muslim countries’.

Kilwa
Kilwa

Houses keep essentially their inner type, but can include one or two floors. A characteristic detail from that ancient time consists in using – in order to decorate the vaults and cupolas – glazed vases of China or Persia’s porcelain or included within the construction.

As a conclusion, we can say that there is clear evidence that the Swahili architecture is African.

The following pictures are vestiges of the Swahili architecture in Tanzania and Kenya.

Kilwa
Kilwa
Takwa
Takwa
Kilwa
Kilwa
Kilwa
Kilwa
Gedi
Gedi
Kilwa
Kilwa

kilwa

Siyu
Siyu
Gedi
Gedi

The Swahili civilization was destroyed by the Portuguese during the European slave trade. The region was also bleed 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)

Notes :

  • General History of Africa, volume 4, chap.18: the rise of the Swahili civilization, V Matveiev, pages 491 to 518
  • Black Africa, soil, demography and history, pages 99, 310, 184; Louise Marie Diop-Maes.
  • [2] Idem, page 100
  • [1] Unesco
  • The African presence in ancient Australia, by African History-Histoire Africaine
Spread the love