East African Trading Port of Rhapta Flourishes

Rhapta, an important trade town on the east African coast, flourished as an entrepôt for the commerce of the Indian Ocean through the construction of woven-plank boats for seagoing commerce.

Summary of Event

Rhapta is the name given to an important trade town that had become established by the closing century of the last millennium b.c.e. on the western Indian Ocean coast. The exact location of Rhapta is still unknown but it is believed to have emerged somewhere along the stretch of coast between the Tana River in Kenya and north-central Tanzania’s shore, perhaps in the vicinity of modern-day Dar es Salaam. Scholars have argued for Rhapta being located in the now-swampy coastal lands off the Tana River because of information contained in travel logs and the amount of time needed to sail between known points on the Somali Peninsula, such as Ras Hafun, down the coast to the unknown point of Rhapta. Scholars have also argued for Dar es Salaam as the site because it is an ideal natural harbor, protected by bays and allowing more readily for the Malgasy-Indonesian-Rhapta trade connection.

Rhapta fell off the map some time after the fourth century c.e. as it was outranked as an entrepôt of trade by other coastal towns, or shungwaya. Rhapta’s total decline and as-yet-undiscovered location lend credence to arguments for its existence in both the Tana swamplands and the more southern location in the Dar es Salaam vicinity. Swamplands are not well suited to the preservation of material culture. Although Dar may have served as a natural harbor, its immediate hinterland historically had few resources, according to archaeological data. In early Indian Ocean trade, a natural harbor may have been more important for landing a boat than immediately available resources were. Over time, as competition for resources increased and as the seaborne long-distance trade became increasingly lucrative, it is presumed that traders would have sought more direct access to products by seeking out the source of supply and establishing ports more directly adjacent to those points. Thus, the Dar landscape serves as a good example of a gentle landing site without resources in its own environs but with resources in adjacent lands, which would have led to Rhapta’s decline. Until further archaeological work in coastal East Africa uncovers material culture indicative of urban life of the proper era, the location of Rhapta will remain vague.

Rhapta is the only known trading port of East Africa between 100 b.c.e. and 100 c.e. Rhapta exported ivory, spices, gums, rhino horn, tortoise shell, and other locally and regionally attainable products that served as important consumer goods and raw materials for production of aphrodisiacs, medicines, luxury foods, and trinkets, as well as artistic creations throughout the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean worlds. Through this network, East Africa’s coastal populations were able to import grains, wine, glass, and metal products produced in Europe, India, and the Arabian peninsula. In particular, glass beads were popular and have been uncovered in abundance in the archaeological record. Additionally, South Arabian and Mediterranean metal products such as spears, axes, knives, and other imported products have been uncovered in excavations. This importation of foreign-produced metals at the coast coincided with the spread of iron production out of the Great Lakes region into the coastal areas. Thus, there was a competition between foreign and domestic iron products in coastal and hinterland East Africa from the early first centuries of the first millennium c.e.
Periplus Maris Erythraei (also known as Periplus, first century c.e.; Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 1912), an Egyptian sailor’s log written in Greek in the first century c.e. for traders on the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, reveals that Rhapta was, at the time the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea was written, under the authority of the governor of Ma’afir (Mapharitis province) in the Himyar state of Yemen. It is uncertain whether this authority was actual political control, or if it signifies an economic monopoly that the governor of Ma’afir may have enjoyed the benefit of for certain products. Himyaritic script demonstrates a worship of the South Arabian moon-god in Adulis and Aksum farther north, but this same relationship is not represented in coastal East Africa’s archaeological record, which may be valuable evidence in understanding the economic versus political connections between ancient Rhapta and any South Arabian kingdoms. Ironically, the history of most regions of Africa is known only through archaeological excavation, linguistic reconstruction, and comparative ethnography, yet Rhapta is known almost exclusively through written accounts, and its exact geographic location remains ambiguous in the writings.


Rhapta was the first urban settlement in East Africa, emerging as a trade post on East Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline, and becoming a leading site of long-distance trade on the Indian Ocean seaboard. Rhapta served as a trade emporium, exporting products to South Arabia’s Aden, Alexandria, and other Indian Ocean ports. Rhapta, as the southernmost terminus of trade between 100 b.c.e. and 100 c.e., connected East Africa to a great and extensive network that linked the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea trades in a system of commercial exchange.

Rhapta’s importance as a city was recorded in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which details the commercial interchange that existed between Yemen, Alexandria, Rhapta, and other sites. Additionally, Ptolemy (c. 100-c. 178 b.c.e.), in his Geōgraphikē hyphēgēsis (second century c.e.; The Geography of Ptolemy, 1732), discussed Rhapta as a “metropolis,” a term that gives a clear indication of its commercial importance and distinctiveness as a community stratified by wealth. The word “metropolis” may have even referred to the cosmopolitan nature of a place like Rhapta, where cultural intermixing and intermarriage were not uncommon. Linguistic exchange and intermarriage among coastal Africans and South Arabian sailors are referred to in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which states that the foreigners were able to speak the language of Rhapta.

Rhapta was most likely settled not later than the early first century b.c.e. by the early northeast coastal Bantu and perhaps some Cushitic-speaking peoples. Africans who settled the coastal strip of eastern Africa in various stages employed sewn wooden boats for fishing, tortoise hunting, and nautilus catching. While many of the marine products harvested by coastal Bantu were probably locally consumed or dried and exported, the luxury goods that could be produced from tortoise shell and pearly nautilus were of particular interest for luxury trade in the international market that developed. The trading and fishing vessels that were produced by the coastal Bantu were distinctive enough that the foreign sailors gave the site its name, Rhapta, which is the Greek term for “sewn boats.” The exact size of these early boats remains unknown, but they probably were not particularly small, as they had to be large enough to carry cargo and to sail successfully in the Indian Ocean channel rather than simply hugging the coast.

The intercontinental trade that emerged on the Indian Ocean littoral was part of one of the earliest global trade networks in human history. The commercial exchange that emerged had connections in the west to Aksum and Adulis on the Red Sea, and this trade linked the farther Mediterranean world to eastern Africa. In the east, perhaps slightly later, Rhapta was linked through commodity exchange with Omani traders, the Indian subcontinent’s merchants, China’s maritime expeditioners, and Indonesian traders. Rhapta certainly must have served as a transshipment point for Indonesian goods such as highly coveted spices, which most likely passed via Madagascar and the Comoros through Rhapta and then onward to other, more lucrative markets. In the 1920’s, scholars calculated the value of spices in Mediterranean European markets for the early first millennium and estimated that the exchange cost of one pound of cinnamon would have been equivalent to $325 at that time, roughly $3,000 in 2002. Some legends record the maritime traders of Rhapta as being practitioners of piracy; the legends may have been a device to protect the lucrative trade by discouraging large numbers of maritime traders from getting involved. The early Indian Ocean-Mediterranean exchange network, at the end of the last millennium b.c.e., was the beginning of long-distance seaborne commerce, an entirely new economic concept and endeavor at the time; this system was part of the first global trade network.

Early settlements and commercial entrepôts such as Rhapta transformed parts of East Africa. Coastal Bantu communities that became incorporated into the trade network came to be influenced by Shirazi, South Asian, and Islamic cultural elements, which was the beginning of what has come to be referred to as the Swahili identity; Rhapta and subsequent towns that emerged for trade on the coast contributed to the spread of Swahili culture. Although Rhapta may not have been the first and certainly was not the only coastal settlement of Africans, it is a symbol of the history of the Swahili culture that emerged along the coast. Sewn boats, maritime culture, and a seafaring life prevalent in Rhapta and other coastal towns and settlements like it has been an important part of the identity of later generations of coastal Swahili.

Further Reading

  • Allen, James de Vere. Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture and the Shungwaya Phenomenon. London: James Currey Press, 1993. Focuses primarily on issues of Swahili ethnicity and culture, which is, according to Allen, heavily grounded in a history of Indian Ocean trade.
  • Casson, Lionel. The Periplus of the Erythraei. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. A translation and discussion of a primary document from first century c.e. Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea trade.
  • Hourani, George Fadlo, and John Carswell. Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. A history of commercial sea routes in the Indian Ocean. The primary focus is on the Arab traders who, between 500 and 1500 c.e., traded with people of the East African coast in towns like Rhapta.
  • Kirwan, L. P. “Rhapta, Metropolis of Azania.” Azania 21 (1986): 99-104. Kirwan analyzes the geographical and historical evidence about Rhapta, concluding that Rhapta must have been in the vicinity of Dar es Salaam.
  • Reade, Julian, ed. The Indian Ocean in Antiquity. New York: Paul Keagan, 1996. A survey of the ancient Indian Ocean with particular attention to commercial history.