The People of the Swahili Coast

The People of the Swahili Coast

The Swahili Coast—a narrow strip of land that stretches along the eastern edge of Africa from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south—is an area with a long and unique cultural history.


3 - 12


Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, World History


Traditional Sailing in Kilwa

City-states along the east African coast have a longstanding tradition of trade and mingling between various peoples. Many of these former city-states still exist in modern nations.

Photograph by John Kanyingi
City-states along the east African coast have a longstanding tradition of trade and mingling between various peoples. Many of these former city-states still exist in modern nations.
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On the eastern edge of Africa lies the Swahili Coast. This narrow strip of land has a storied history and culture.

The coast stretches from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south, along the Indian Ocean.

What Is the Swahili Coast?

The Swahili Coast has hosted travelers for thousands of years. Special wind patterns in the Indian Ocean made sailing trips easy along the coast.

A Greek merchant's guide was discovered from the first century. It describes the wealth of ivory, rhino horn, and tortoiseshell available for trade in East African city-states.

This coastal region is home to a unique culture and language. There is a multicultural mix of African, Arab, and Indian Ocean peoples.

The Swahili Coast's original residents were Africans speaking Bantu languages. This group had migrated east from inland Africa. They eventually spread up and down the coast, trading with other groups. Later they traded with people from other continents.

Not much is known about the Swahili Coast in the early years after the first century.

Around the eighth century, history became more detailed. Muslim traders, mostly Arabs, came to settle in the region then. Later, in the 12th century, Persian settlers—known as the Shirazi—arrived. Persia is today the country of Iran. Today, most Swahili people are Sunni Muslims. It is the largest denomination of the Islamic religion.

The Medieval Heyday

The Swahili Coast appears to have peaked during the medieval period. This happened from around the 11th to the 15th centuries. During that time, the Swahili Coast was made up of numerous city-states that traded across the Indian Ocean. The city-states were independent lands run by leaders called sultans. However, they shared a common language, Swahili, and religion, Islam. They traded across the Indian Ocean for items, such as pottery, silks, and glassware.

Altogether, the city-states are often referred to as "stone towns." That is because many buildings were constructed using stone—coral blocks held together with mortar.

Kilwa and Songo Mnara

Among the southern-most of the major city-states—and a major archaeological site today — is Kilwa. It is located on an island off the southern coast of Tanzania. During the medieval period, it kept a trading outpost at Sofala. Kilwa traded with the gold-rich Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, located to the south.

In medieval times, Kilwa was an important trading center. Its ruins today include the Great Palace. At the time the palace was the largest stone building in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The grounds of the Great Palace covered a large area. It included a swimming pool and around 100 rooms.

On another island just to the south is another site, called Songo Mnara. This was founded by the Kilwa rulers. No one knows why Kilwa built Songo Mnara. It appears to have been built following a city plan. It has clean lines and decorations made from coral stone.

Chinese Contacts

Emperor Yongle ruled China's Ming Dynasty from 1403–1424. At one point, he sent Admiral Zheng He on seven sea expeditions. The expeditions included great fleets of hundreds of ships for carrying goods and money. Thousands of men were aboard.

On his later voyages, Zheng He visited the Swahili Coast. He stopped at Mombasa, Malindi, and Mogadishu. It would have been a fascinating sight. The Sultan of Malindi sent the Chinese emperor a giraffe and other creatures. The Chinese considered these to be rare, exotic gifts.

However, the Chinese did not stick around in East Africa. The voyages of Zheng He ended with his death and the emperor's death.

Archaeologists are still finding evidence of the Chinese-Swahili connection even today. In 2010, researchers from China and Kenya found a Chinese coin in a village not far from the medieval city-state of Malindi. The coin dated to the Ming Dynasty. A similar coin was found nearby a few years later. One Chinese archaeologist says such coins were carried only by messengers of the emperor.

Portuguese Arrive

From 1497 to 1498, Portuguese voyager Vasco da Gama led an expedition of four ships up the east coast of Africa.

There, the Portuguese attempted to brutally control all trade and business in the Indian Ocean. They established bases and trade offices at several sites along the Swahili Coast.

Soon, the Swahili Coast city-states began to decline. Interactions with the Portuguese and a later decrease in trade were to blame. However, some city-states did carry on for another few centuries, a few under the rule of the Omani Empire.

Swahili Today

Today, Swahili is the main language of East Africa. The Swahili language is part of the Bantu language family, the group of languages spoken in much of central and southern Africa. However, it has been influenced considerably by Arabic.

Indeed, the term "Swahili" comes from Arabic and means "[people] of the coast." The language also contains words from Persian, Portuguese, and German. More than 100 million people worldwide speak Swahili.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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