Coins Are Minted on the Swahili Coast

The minting of coins on the Swahili coast for purposes of trade began in the twelfth century. International trade on the East African coast, specifically by the Swahili, augmented and diversified the region’s economic system.

Summary of Event

Based on both archaeological evidence and the historical record, it seems that the peoples of both Kilwa Kisiwani Kilwa Kisiwani (located in southeastern Tanzania) and Mogadishu Mogadishu (a seaport at the northern end of the Swahili coast in modern Somalia) minted their own coins and did not simply use coins from foreign mints. The towns of Kilwa, Mafia, and Mogadishu were economic centers for the Swahili because of their resources and locations. Archaeologists have found coins in all of these trade centers as well as on Juani Island and the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Coins from Kilwa have also been unearthed in Great Zimbabwe sites. [kw]Coins Are Minted on the Swahili Coast (12th century)
[kw]Swahili Coast, Coins Are Minted on the (12th century)
Swahili cultures
Coinage;Swahili coast
Africa;12th cent.: Coins Are Minted on the Swahili Coast[1780]
Economics;12th cent.: Coins Are Minted on the Swahili Coast[1780]
Trade and commerce;12th cent.: Coins Are Minted on the Swahili Coast[1780]
ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan

The Islamic scholar Ibn Baṭṭūṭah Ibn Baṭṭūṭah declared after his visit to East Africa in the mid-fourteenth century that Mogadishu and Kilwa had elements of Islamic law and were thriving portals of trade. The fact that there were many coins in circulation over a wide territory serves as testament that trade was increasing and spreading geographically.

Kilwa, which began as a small, locally focused economy, serves as an example of how many of the Swahili towns or urban centers emerged over the centuries, starting as small backwaters and then coming of age as distinguished trade Trade;Africa
Africa;trade centers. According to conclusions drawn by Neville Chittick based on his archaeological excavations, coins in Kilwa came into use during the twelfth century, supplanting or supplementing other media of exchange such as cowrie shells and iron bars. By the late twelfth century, Kilwa had become a central minting center for the Shirazi Dynasty Shirazi Dynasty .

Coin minting in Kilwa began under the auspices of ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan and continued during his successors’s reigns. The coins of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries became defining characteristics of the Shirazi Dynasty. The coins of Kilwa were undated but typically were inscribed with the name of ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan, an indication that they were minted during his reign or soon thereafter. The coins minted by al-Ḥasan’s ventures were of both copper and silver. Silver was imported from North Africa and was relatively low in exchange value. Gold and copper, on the other hand, were imported from southern areas such as Great Zimbabwe and the Zambian copper belt.

Because of gold’s high value, it was generally not worth making it into coins; it was typically used for trade rather than a currency minted for exchange. Until the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, Mogadishu had been the main center of the gold Gold;trade in trade, but with the ascent of Abū al-Mawāhib Abū al-Mawāhib (r. 1310-1333) of the Mahdali Dynasty Mahdali Dynasty (fourteenth century), who conducted the coin casting for the Shirazi Dynasty on the Swahili coast, the center of the gold trade moved to Kilwa, and prosperity followed. In addition to locating coins from Kilwa, scholars have identified luxury goods most likely obtained through trade. Imported objects, notably Sāsānian glazed pots from the ninth century and Chinese porcelain, accumulated in growing numbers. Such artifacts are consistent with the increasing use of coins for luxury exchanges.

From Mogadishu, the earliest coin bearing a date is stamped 1322. The hundred-year difference between the ages of the earlier coins from Kilwa and those minted in north at Mogadishu may be attributed to the fact that in the north there was greater access to foreign coins minted in nearby regions. Kilwa, however, was far enough south—at the periphery of the Red Sea and Mediterranean trade—that minting may have become necessary earlier, as trade intensified and competition with foreign markets increased.


As trade grew with Persians, Arabs, and Indians, the need for a common currency increased. The minting of coins demonstrates a qualitative and quantitative intensification of trade. Kilwa, Mafia, and Mogadishu grew from small settlements to major economic centers, as trade flooded into the towns. By the fourteenth century, Mogadishu had become a center of Islamic learning, with three mosques for foreign Muslim merchants as well as locals. Additionally, mosques had been built in Kilwa, Gedi, Kaole, Sanje, and Magoma.

The use of coins in Swahili trade also signals a new era in commerce. As trade volume expanded, new methods of exchange were adopted to increase trade efficiency. With coins, prices could be standardized and commercial exchanges made more expedient across territories separated by oceans.

Further Reading

  • Allen, James de Vere. Swahili Origins. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994. Discusses the Swahili coast and the origins and culture of its peoples.
  • Chittick, Neville. Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast. 2 vols. Nairobi, Kenya: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1974. This two-volume work gives a detailed account of archaeological finds from Kilwa up to 1974. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Chittick, Neville. “Unguja Ukuu: The Earliest Imported Pottery and an ՙAbbāsid Dinar.” Azania 1 (1966): 161-163. A short but informative article on pottery and coins in Zanzibar.
  • Coupland, R. East Africa and Its Invaders. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1956. An early and now contested study that sees the Swahili peoples as primarily consisting of the progeny of Arab and Persian settlers.
  • Fage, J. D., and William Tordoff. A History of Africa. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2001. A classic general history, now updated through the 1990’.
  • Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. The East African Coast: Select Documents from the First to the Early Nineteenth Century. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962. Consists primarily of source documents about the region.
  • Howgego, Christopher. Ancient History from Coins. New York: Routledge, 1995. Although focused on medieval Europe, especially Greece, a good introduction to coinage and its place in the history of trade, commerce, and society. Also discusses the technology of coining, the metals used, the meaning of “mint,” and the purpose of “striking” coins. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Niane, D. T., ed. General History of Africa: Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Contains a chapter on the Swahili that details their economic history.
  • Nurse, Derek, and Thomas Spear. The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984. A detailed history of Swahili communities and civilization from the ninth through the sixteenth century. Examines economic history and contains a genealogy of the male heads of the Shirazi Dynasty. Bibliography, index.
  • Sutton, John Edward Giles. “East African Coinage: New Finds and New Work Necessary.” Newsletter of the Regional Centre for Study of Urban Origins in Eastern and Southern Africa, No. 2 (November, 1991): 18-21. This article looks at the indigenous and foreign coinage of East Africa.
  • Sutton, John Edward Giles. A Thousand Years of East Africa. London: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1990. Presents and discusses East African archaeological findings and gives relative chronologies and calendar dates for events. Also examines material culture, including that of coins. Bibliography, index.