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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A long and unique cultural history marks the Swahili Coast. It is a narrow strip of land on the Indian Ocean that stretches along the eastern edge of Africa from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south.

What Is the Swahili Coast?

This narrow strip of land has hosted travelers for thousands of years. The seasonally shifting Indian Ocean monsoon winds allowed for efficient sailing voyages along the coast.

A Greek merchant's guide from the first century describes sailing voyages on the East African coast. It describes the wealth of ivory, rhino horn, tortoiseshell, and palm oil available for trade in East African city-states.

This coastal region today is known as the Swahili Coast and is home to a unique culture and language. It contains a multicultural mix of African, Arab, and Indian Ocean peoples.

The original inhabitants of the Swahili Coast were Bantu-speaking Africans. This group had migrated east from the continent's interior. They eventually spread up and down the coast, trading with each other, with the people inland, and eventually people from other continents.

Not much is known about the history of the Swahili Coast in the immediate centuries after the first century.

Starting with the eighth century, historical records became more detailed. Muslim traders, mostly Arabs, came to settle permanently in the region around that time. Later, in the 12th century, Persian settlers—known as the Shirazi—arrived from the land we know today as the Middle Eastern country Iran. Today, most Swahili people are Sunni Muslims, which is the largest denomination of the Islamic religion.

The Medieval Heyday

The Swahili Coast appears to have reached its peak during the medieval period, 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 governed by sultans, although 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," because many buildings were constructed using stone—coral blocks held together with mortar. One of the larger structures, whose ruins remain today, is a stone mosque in the city of Kilwa. Mosques are places of worship for Muslims.

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 maintained an outpost at Sofala for trading with the gold-rich Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, which was to the south.

In medieval times, Kilwa was one of the most important trading centers on the East African coast. Its ruins today include a large stone mosque and 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 occupied a large area and included a swimming pool and about 100 rooms. Today, the ruins of Kilwa include more recent structures, including a Portuguese prison-fort.

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

Chinese Contacts

During China's Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle, who ruled from 1403 to 1424, sent Admiral Zheng He on seven diplomatic expeditions. The expeditions included hundreds of warships and cargo ships for carrying goods and wealth. Thousands of men were aboard.

On his later voyages, Zheng He visited the Swahili Coast, stopping at Mombasa, Malindi, and Mogadishu in what would have been a spectacular sight for the Swahili people. In response to one of the expeditions, the sultan of Malindi sent the Chinese emperor a giraffe and other unique creatures. The Chinese considered these to be rare gifts.

However, the Chinese did not maintain a permanent presence in East Africa. The voyages of Zheng He ended with his death and the death of the emperor.

Still, archaeological evidence of the Chinese-Swahili connection is being unearthed even today. In 2010, archaeologists from China and Kenya found a Chinese coin in a village not far from the medieval city-state of Malindi, and the coin dated to the Ming Dynasty. A few years later in 2013, another group of archaeologists found a similar coin on the island of Manda, also in Kenya. According to one Chinese archaeologist, such coins were carried only by envoys of the emperor.

Portuguese Influence

From 1497 to 1498, Portuguese voyager Vasco da Gama led an expedition of four ships and 170 men past the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of southern Africa. They went up the east coast of Africa, and into the Indian Ocean.

There, the Portuguese brutally attempted to control all trade and commerce in the Indian Ocean. They established bases at several sites along the Swahili Coast. They also built Fort Jesus in Mombasa and set up a trade office on Pate Island.

Interactions with the Portuguese and a later decrease in trade led to the decline of the Swahili Coast city-states. However some did carry on for another few centuries, some 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" is derived from Arabic and means "[people] of the coast." The language also contains words from Persian, Portuguese, and German, among other languages. It is estimated to be spoken by more than 100 million people worldwide.

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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