Swahili Culture - The Rise and Fall of Swahili States

Medieval Swahili Coast Traders Connected Arabia, India and China

Great Mosque at Gedi
Great Mosque at Gedi. Mgiganteus

Swahili culture refers to the distinctive communities where traders and sultans thrived on the Swahili coast between the 11th–16th centuries CE. Swahili trading communities had their foundations in the sixth century, within a 2,500-kilometer (1,500-mile) stretch of the eastern African coastline and adjacent island archipelagos from the modern countries of Somalia to Mozambique.

Fast Facts: Swahili Culture

  • Known For: Medieval African traders between India, Arabia, and China on the Swahili coast of Africa.
  • Religion: Islam.
  • Alternate Names: Shirazi Dynasty.
  • Active: 11th–16th centuries CE. 
  • Permanent Structures: Residences and mosques made of stone and coral.
  • Surviving Documentation: Kilwa Chronicle. 
  • Significant Sites: Kilwa Kisiwani, Songo Mnara.

The Swahili traders acted as the middlemen between the riches of the African continent and the luxuries of Arabia, India, and China. Trade goods passing through the ports of the coast known as "stonetowns" included gold, ivory, ambergris, iron, timber, and enslaved people from interior Africa; and fine silks and fabrics and glazed and decorated ceramics from outside the continent.

Swahili Identity

At first, archaeologists were of the opinion that Swahili traders were Persian in origin, a notion that was reinforced by the Swahili themselves who claimed links to the Persian Gulf and wrote histories such as the Kilwa Chronicle describing a Persian founding dynasty called Shirazi. However, more recent studies have shown that the Swahili culture is a fully African florescence, who adopted a cosmopolitan background to emphasize their links with the Gulf region and enhance their local and international standing.

Primary evidence of the African nature of Swahili culture is the archaeological remains of settlements along the coast which contain artifacts and structures that are clear predecessors of the Swahili culture buildings. Also of importance is that the language spoken by the Swahili traders (and their descendants today) is Bantu in structure and form. Today archaeologists agree that the "Persian" aspects of the Swahili coast were a reflection of the connection to trade networks in the region of Siraf, rather than in-migration of Persian people.


Thanks to Stephanie Wynne-Jones for her support, suggestions, and images of the Swahili Coast for this project.

Swahili Towns

Great Mosque at Kilwa
Great Mosque at Kilwa. Claude McNab

One way to get to know the medieval Swahili coastal trading networks is to take a closer look at the Swahili communities themselves: their layout, homes, mosques, and courtyards provide a glimpse of the way people lived.

This photo is of the interior of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani.

Swahili Economy

Vaulted Ceiling with Inset Persian Glazed Bowls, Songo Mnara
Vaulted Ceiling with Inset Persian Glazed Bowls, Songo Mnara. Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

The major wealth of the Swahili coast culture of the 11th-16th century was based on international trade; but the non-elite people of the villages along the coastline were farmers and fishers, who participated in the trade in a much less straightforward way.

The photograph accompanying this listing is of a vaulted ceiling of an elite residence at Songo Mnara, with inset niches containing Persian glazed bowls.

Swahili Chronology

Mihrab of the Great Mosque at Songo Mnara
Mihrab of the Great Mosque at Songo Mnara. Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

Although information gathered from the Kilwa Chronicles is of incredible interest to scholars and others interested in the Swahili Coast cultures, archaeological excavation has shown that much of what is in the chronicles is based on oral tradition, and has a bit of a spin. This Swahili Chronology compiles the current understanding of the timing of events in Swahili history.

The photo is of a mihrab, a niche placed into the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, in the Great Mosque at Songo Mnara.

Kilwa Chronicles

Map of Swahili Coast Sites
Map of Swahili Coast Sites. Kris Hirst

The Kilwa Chronicles are two texts which describe the history and genealogy of the Shirazi dynasty of Kilwa, and the semi-mythical roots of the Swahili culture.

Songo Mnara (Tanzania)

Courtyard of the Palace at Songo Mnara
Courtyard of the Palace at Songo Mnara. Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

Songo Mnara is located on an island of the same name, within the Kilwa archipelago on the southern Swahili Coast of Tanzania. The island is separated from the famous site of Kilwa by a sea channel three kilometers (about two miles) wide. Songo Mnara was built and occupied between the late 14th and early 16th centuries.

The site features the well-preserved remains of at least 40 large domestic room-blocks, five mosques and hundreds of graves, surrounded by a town wall. At the center of the town is a plaza, where tombs, a walled cemetery and one of the mosques are located. A second plaza is located within the northern part of the site, and residential room blocks are wrapped around both.

Living at Songo Mnara

Ordinary houses at Songo Mnara are made up of multiple interconnected rectangular rooms, each room measuring between 13–27 feet (4 and 8.5 meters) long and about 20 ft (2–2.5 m) wide. A representative house excavated in 2009 was House 44. The walls of this house were built of mortared rubble and coral, placed at ground level with a shallow foundation trench, and some of the floors and ceilings were plastered. Decorative elements at the doors and doorsteps were made of carved porites coral. The room at the back of the house contained a latrine and relatively clean, dense midden deposits.

Large quantities of beads and locally produced ceramic wares were found within House 44, as were numerous Kilwa-type coins. Concentrations of spindle whorls indicate thread spinning took place within the homes.

Elite Housing

House 23, a grander and more ornamental house than ordinary residences was also excavated in 2009. This structure had a stepped internal courtyard, with many ornamental wall niches: interestingly, no plaster walls were observed within this house. One large, barrel-vaulted room contained small glazed imported bowls; other artifacts found here include glass vessel fragments and objects of iron and copper. Coins were in common use, found throughout the site, and dated to at least six different sultans at Kilwa. The mosque near the necropolis, according to British explorer and adventurer Richard F. Burton who visited it in the mid-19th century, once contained Persian tiles, with a well-cut gateway.

A cemetery at Songo Mnara is located in the central open space; the most monumental houses are located near the space and built atop coral outcrops raised above the level of the remainder of the houses. Four staircases lead from the houses to the open area.


Over 500 Kilwa copper coins have been recovered from ongoing Songo Mnara excavations, dated between the 11th and 15th centuries, and from at least six different Kilwa sultans. Many of them are cut into quarters or halves; some are pierced. The weight and size of the coins, traits typically identified by numismatists as a key to value, varies considerably.

Most of the coins date between the early fourteenth to late fifteenth centuries, associated with the sultan Ali ibn al-Hasan, dated to the 11th century; al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman of the 14th century; and a type known as "Nasir al-Dunya" dated to the 15th century but not identified with a specific sultan. The coins were found throughout the site, but about 30 were found within different layers of a midden deposit from the back room of House 44.

Based on the location of the coins throughout the site, their lack of standardized weight and their cut state, scholars Wynne-Jones and Fleisher (2012) believe they represent currency for local transactions. However, the piercing of some of the coins suggests that they were also used as symbols and decorative commemoration of the rulers.


Songo Mnara was visited by the British wanderer Richard F. Burton in the mid-19th century. Some investigations were conducted by M.H. Dorman in the 1930s and again by Peter Garlake in 1966. Extensive ongoing excavations are being conducted by Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Jeffrey Fleisher since 2009; a survey of the islands in the vicinity was performed in 2011. The work is supported by antiquities officials at the Tanzanian Department of Antiquities, who are participating in conservation decisions, and with the collaboration of World Monuments Fund, for the support of undergraduate students.


  • Fleisher J, and Wynne-Jones S. 2012. Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices. African Archaeological Review 29(2):171-207.
  • Pollard E, Fleisher J, and Wynne-Jones S. 2012. Beyond the Stone Town: Maritime Architecture at Fourteenth–Fifteenth Century Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Journal of Maritime Archaeology 7(1):43-62.
  • Wynne-Jones S, and Fleisher J. 2010. Archaeological Investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania, 2009. Nyame Akuma 73:2-9.
  • Fleisher J, and Wynne-Jones S. 2010. Archaeological Investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania: Urban Space, Social Memory and Materiality on the 15th- and 16th-century Southern Swahili Coast. Department of Antiquities, Republic of Tanzania.
  • Wynne-Jones S, and Fleisher J. 2012. Coins in Context: Local Economy, Value and Practice on the East African Swahili Coast. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22(1):19-36.

Kilwa Kisiwani (Tanzania)

Sunken Courtyard of Husuni Kubwa, Kilwa Kisiwani
Sunken Courtyard of Husuni Kubwa, Kilwa Kisiwani. Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

The largest town on the Swahili coast was Kilwa Kisiwani, and although it did not blossom and continue as did Mombasa and Mogadishu, for some 500 years it was a powerful source of international trade in the region.

The image is of a sunken courtyard at the palace complex of Husni Kubwa in Kilwa Kisiwani.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Swahili Culture - The Rise and Fall of Swahili States." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/swahili-culture-guide-171638. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Swahili Culture - The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/swahili-culture-guide-171638 Hirst, K. Kris. "Swahili Culture - The Rise and Fall of Swahili States." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/swahili-culture-guide-171638 (accessed March 26, 2023).