Rise of Swahili Cultures Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The rise of Swahili cultures demonstrates an important historical development on the African continent, which also had implications for global maritime trade and commerce. It demonstrated the remarkable capacity of indigenous African cultures to incorporate elements from Islam while maintaining the dynamism of traditional practices.

Summary of Event

The term “Swahili” derives from the Arabic word sawāḥil (the plural of sāḥil, which means coast). Though it is of Arabic etymological moorings, Swahili does not imply Arabic in its roots. Sayyid Hurreiz, a Swahili scholar, contends that Swahili cultures are dynamic and that Swahili culture in Zanzibar and Kilwa Kisiwani may be different from that in Mwanza and the Comoros Islands, but is African at its roots. Just as with all cultures that have evolved through mutual exchange and interaction with other cultures, Swahili culture is no exception. [kw]Rise of Swahili Cultures (c. 500-1000) [kw]Swahili Cultures, Rise of (c. 500-1000) Swahili cultures Africa;c. 500-1000: Rise of Swahili Cultures[0040] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 500-1000: Rise of Swahili Cultures[0040] Expansion and land acquisition;c. 500-1000: Rise of Swahili Cultures[0040] Trade and commerce;c. 500-1000: Rise of Swahili Cultures[0040] ՙAbd al-Malik

The Swahili coast traverses the East African coast and the surrounding islands and extends from Mogadishu in Somalia in the north to Cape Delgado in Mozambique in the south, covering many archipelagos and islands in the Indian Ocean, including the Comoros and Lamu archipelagos, and the islands of Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Mafia, and Kirimba.

From some of the earliest records of human civilization, the Swahili coast has featured importantly in history. Solomon from the ancient Hebrew tradition was said to have dispatched vessels to the Swahili coast. Trade Trade;Africa Africa;trade in pottery, cloth, and iron implements and commercial exchanges with the nations of Arabia and India made the Swahili coast one of the most prominent geographical coastlines in the world. In the seventh century, Swahilis traded with China.

Following research conducted by coastal archaeologists in the 1980’, the towns of Shanga and Manda were unearthed and revealed a community that thrived from 700 to 1400. Shanga, divided into numerous neighborhoods called mitaa, was originally founded as a fishing and agricultural village and eventually was transformed into a maritime metropolis with trading ties with the Arab and Asian world. Africans on the East African coast traded ivory and tortoise shell for iron goods, perhaps as early as the second or third centuries. The heart-shaped iron hoe and the drum-type bellows are just two examples of such iron implements. The mythological work, Periphus Maris Erythraei (The Periphus of the Erythraean Sea, 1912), a work of mythology by an unknown Greek writer of the first century, described trade between the Greeks and Romans and Arabs in the north, and Africans on the East African coast. Though such accounts are not historically reliable, they do point to a flourishing exchange of cultures between East Africans and other peoples.

In direct challenge to the erstwhile Eurocentric view that portrayed Swahili civilization as an essential product of its merging with Persian and Arab cultures, archaeologists have now conceded that the presence of sun-dried clay and timber homes along the Swahili coast denotes continuity with such residential styles in other parts of Africa, which, therefore, substantiates an unequivocal African origin. Some archaeologists have insisted that the coral or clay structures do not point to an African origin because the Africans were nomadic. However, Swahili scholar Richard Wilding has demonstrated that the coastal cultures and those of the hinterland were not radically disparate in character, but rather had much in common. Findings that include ceramic motifs and similar cooking vessels, for example, establish this connection.

Wilding argues that the original Swahili coastal residents were Cushitic pastoralists and foragers and that Bantu-speaking groups merged with these pastoralists at a later period. Similarly, Sayyid Hurreiz maintains that these pastoralists migrated southward from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and the Nile Valley and mixed with the Bantu people on the lower East African coast whose language was Kingozi. Migrations;Swahili cultures to Bantu area It was the Kingozi culture Kingozi culture and language that provided the basis of Swahili language and culture. Another theory suggests that the inhabitants of Pate Island off the East African coast are the early Swahili or proto-Swahili, who may have been speakers of proto-Sam, an African language considered to be the parent tongue of the Boni, Somali, and Rendille in East Africa.

Shungwaya was the original home of the Swahili. Two other known towns were established before 800, namely Rhapta and Kanbalu, the former located in or near the Rufiji Delta below Somalia. Around 800, the language known today as Swahili began to be spoken and people moved into Swahili settlements called mji.

The Swahili coast was inhabited by a diverse population, with pastoralists and agriculturists living on the northern coast in what is now Tana Delta and the Lamu archipelago and sedentary farmers and ironworkers living on the southern coast. These communities lived in interdependent economic and social relations with each other and subsequently developed the Swahili culture.

The period 300 to 1000 was a time of intense international trade along the Swahili coast. Around the seventh century, Arab communities settled in East Africa during the reign of the Islamic caliph ՙAbd al-Malik ՙAbd al-Malik . The Khabar al-Lamu (A Chronicle of Lamu, appearing in Bantu Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 1938) and other sources, not factually reliable in every manner because they are based on the fluidity of oral tradition, describe these Arab Islamic settlements. Stories abound about Arabs Arabs;Swahili and fleeing political and religious persecution in the Arabian peninsula, but the veracity of these accounts is difficult to confirm.

Felix Chami, a Tanzanian archaeologist, divides this period into the Azanian phase—from 300 to 600—and the Zanjian phase—from 600 to 1000. The term zanj, used by Arab marine traders, referred to “the land of black people.” Entrepreneurial activity boomed during this period, with expanding settlements and increased imports of pottery, including ceramics from Iran, China, India, and Egypt. The sea was key in the development of Swahili society. Settlements were built on beaches or small inlets adjacent to the sea.

International cultural influences were inevitable, and the design and look of Swahili pottery changed, evidenced by findings at Tana. During the Zanjian phase, the influx of Middle Eastern and Indian styles prominently modified existing Swahili pottery design. During the Azanian phase, houses were relatively small in size and were constructed of sun-dried clay and palm fronds. People hunted game, fished, kept livestock, cultivated cereals, traded, and engaged in local and regional commerce and exchange.

Canoes and sewn planked boats were used for fishing, and anglers used hooks and lines, harpoons, nets, and basket traps. Mostly shellfish and turtles were caught. The Swahili farmed extensively, cultivating indigenous crops such as sorghum, millet, elewusine, rice, peas, beans, sugarcane, coconuts, bananas, and taro from Southeast Asia. They cultivated fields, planted seeds with sticks, weeded with hoes, and harvested crops, threshing and winnowing grain. They raised chickens and some livestock such as cattle, goats, and sheep. Agriculture;Africa Africa;agriculture

Iron-smelting Iron-smelting in Africa[iron smelting in Africa] Africa;iron-smelting[iron smelting] was another distinctive feature of this time period. Iron slags have been found at Kilwa Kisiwani, Manda, Shanga, Galu, and Ungwana. The Swahili produced their own fishhooks, spearheads, and arrowheads and probably their own agricultural implements. They may have manufactured cotton cloth and carved pots in a unifying cultural style along the coast, trading these along with numerous other goods with other mariners from Arabia and Persia in the north and India and China in the east.


Swahili peoples developed into a prosperous commercial society over the centuries as traders, farmers, and foragers all forged a common Swahili identity. The religious and cultural evolution evidenced in the Swahili culture of the Zanjian phase has come to define the very complex character of African Islam today.

The development and expansion of Swahili cultures and language furnish models of indigenous African technical and economic ingenuity from which other cultures of the period benefited and from which coastal cultures of Africa can learn today.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Jim. “Swahili History Revisited.” Seminar Paper No. 76, Institute of African Studies, University of Nairobi, 1977. A paper that explores the debates surrounding Swahili origins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horton, Mark, and John Middleton. The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Presents a survey of Swahili society and its tradition of mercantilism and trade. Chapters on Swahili origins, Islam, the East African coast and the Indian Ocean, urbanism, governance, and more. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hurreiz, Sayyid. “Origins, Foundations, and Evolution of Swahili Culture.” In Distinctive Characteristics and Common Features of African Cultural Areas South of the Sahara. Paris: UNESCO, 1985. This article provides a balanced account of the origins and development of Swahili culture from the perspective of a Swahili scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khalid, Abdallah. The Liberation of Swahili from European Appropriation. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Literature Bureau, 1977. This work offers an important critique of the Eurocentric standardization of Swahili language and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kusimba, Chapurukha M. The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1999. A foundational and informative text for understanding the various arguments regarding the origins of Swahili states and the development of Swahili cultures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middleton, John. The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. This book describes the development of Swahili culture into a formidable maritime civilization, with many of the cultural complexities emergent from such a development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nurse, Derek, and Thomas Spear. The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. An important text that furnishes a comprehensive account of the origins, early development, and evolution of Swahili civilization to the sixteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, Michael N. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998. A discussion of the major economic, social, and religious interchange that took place on the Swahili coast and how Portugal’s intrusion in the fifteenth century affected that interchange. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosander, Eva Evers, and David Westerlund, eds. African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters Between Sufis and Islamists. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997. Examines the effects of Islam in Africa. Includes the chapter, “Translations of the Qu՚rān into Swahili, and Contemporary Islamic Revival in East Africa,” by Justo Lacunza-Balda. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Were, Gideon S., and Derek Wilson. East Africa Through a Thousand Years: A History of the Years A.D. 1000 to the Present Day. New York: Africana, 1987. The introductory chapters of this book are informative for comprehending the foundations of Swahili civilization and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilding, Richard. The Shorefolk: Aspects of the Early Development of Swahili Communities. Mobasa, Kenya, 1987. A concise overview by one of the major historians and archaeologists of Swahili and East African cultures.

Categories: History