Swahili Towns: Medieval Trading Communities of East Africa

How the International Swahili Traders Lived

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

Swahili trading communities were Medieval African towns occupied between the 11th and 16th centuries CE, and a pivotal part of an extensive trade network connecting the eastern African coast to Arabia, India, and China. 

Key Takeaways: Swahili Towns

  • During the Medieval period, the East African coast was dotted with Islamic Swahili towns. 
  • The earliest towns were mostly of earth and thatch residences, but their important structures—mosques, stonehouses, and ports—were built of coral and stone.
  • Trade connected interior Africa with India, Arabia, and the Mediterranean from the 11th-16th centuries. 

Swahili Trading Communities

The largest Swahili culture "stonehouse" communities, so named for their distinctive stone and coral structures, are all within 12 mi (20 km) of the eastern coast of Africa. The majority of the population involved in the Swahili culture, however, lived in communities that were made up of houses of earth and thatch. The entire population continued an indigenous Bantu fishing and agricultural lifestyle but were undeniably altered by outside influences brought about the international trade networks.

Islamic culture and religion provided the underlying basis for the construction of many of the later towns and buildings in the Swahili culture. The focal point of Swahili culture communities were the mosques. Mosques were typically among the most elaborate and permanent structures within a community. One feature common to Swahili mosques is an architectural niche holding imported bowls, a concrete display of the power and authority of local leaders.

Swahili towns were surrounded by walls of stone and/or wooden palisades, most of which date to the 15th century. Town walls may have held a defensive function, although many also served to deter coastal zone erosion, or simply to keep cattle from roaming. Causeways and coral jetties were built at Kilwa and Songo Mnara, used between the 13th and 16th centuries to facilitate the access to ships.

By the 13th century, the towns of the Swahili culture were complex social entities with literate Muslim populations and a defined leadership, linked to a wide-reaching network of international trade. Archaeologist Stephanie Wynne-Jones has argued that the Swahili people defined themselves as a network of nested identities, combining indigenous Bantu, Persian, and Arabic cultures into a unique, cosmopolitan cultural form.

House Types

The earliest (and later non-elite) houses at Swahili sites, perhaps as early as the 6th century CE, were earth-and-thatch (or wattle-and-daub) structures; the earliest settlements were built entirely of earth and thatch. Because they are not easily visible archaeologically, and because there were large stone-built structures to investigate, these communities were not fully recognized by archaeologists until the 21st century. Recent investigations have shown that settlements were quite dense across the region and that earth and thatch houses would have been a part of even the grandest stone towns.

Later houses and other structures were built of coral or stone and sometimes had a second story. Archaeologists working along the Swahili coast call these "stonehouses" whether they were residential in function or not. Communities that had stonehouses are referred to as stonehouse towns or stonetowns. A house built of stone was a structure that was both a symbol of stability and a representation of the seat of trade. All-important trade negotiations took place in the front rooms of these stonehouses, and traveling international merchants could find a place to stay.

Building in Coral and Stone

The Swahili traders began building in stone and coral shortly after 1000 CE, expanding existing settlements like Shanga and Kilwa with new stone mosques and tombs. New settlements along the length of the coast were founded with stone architecture, particularly used for religious structures. Domestic stonehouses were slightly later, but became an important part of Swahili urban spaces along the coast.

Stonehouses often are nearby open spaces formed by walled courtyards or compounds with other buildings. Courtyards could be simple and open plazas, or stepped and sunken, like at Gede in Kenya, Tumbatu on Zanzibar or at Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Some of the courtyards were used as meeting places, but others may have been used to keep cattle or grow high-value crops in gardens.

Coral Architecture

After about 1300 CE, many residential structures in the larger Swahili towns were built of coral stones and lime mortar and roofed with mangrove poles and palm leaves. Stonemasons cut porites coral from living reefs and dressed, decorated, and inscribed them while still fresh. This dressed stone was used as a decorative feature, and sometimes ornately carved, on door and window frames and for architectural niches. This technology is seen elsewhere in the Western Ocean, such as Gujarat, but was an early indigenous development on the African Coast.

Some coral buildings had as many as four stories. Some larger houses and mosques were made with molded roofs and had decorative arches, domes, and vaults.

Swahili Towns

  • Primary centers: Mombasa (Kenya), Kilwa Kisiwani (Tanzania), Mogadishu (Somalia)
    Stone towns: Shanga, Manda, and Gedi (Kenya); Chwaka, Ras Mkumbuu, Songo Mnara, Sanje ya Kati Tumbatu, Kilwa (Tanzania); Mahilaka (Madagascar); Kizimkazi Dimbani (Zanzibar island)
    Towns: Takwa, Vumba Kuu, (Kenya); Ras Kisimani, Ras Mkumbuu (Tanzania); Mkia wa Ng'ombe (Zanzibar island)

Selected Sources

  • Chami, Felix A. "Kilwa and the Swahili Towns: Reflections from an Archaeological Perspective." Knowledge, Renewal and Religion: Repositioning and Changing Ideological and Material Circumstances among the Swahili on the East African Coast. Ed. Larsen, Kjersti. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitututet, 2009. Print.
  • Fleisher, Jeffrey, et al. "When Did the Swahili Become Maritime?" American Anthropologist 117.1 (2015): 100–15. Print.
  • Fleisher, Jeffrey, and Stephanie Wynne-Jones. "Ceramics and the Early Swahili: Deconstructing the Early Tana Tradition." African Archaeological Review 28.4 (2011): 245–78. Print.
  • Wynne-Jones, Stephanie. "The Public Life of the Swahili Stonehouse, 14th–15th Centuries AD." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32.4 (2013): 759–73. Print.
  • Wynne-Jones, Stephanie, and Adria LaViolette, eds. "The Swahili World." Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2018. Print.