Swahili civilization from 700 to 1500 was made up of a string of city-states along the coast of East Africa, from what is now Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south. Arabs called its people the Zanj. Among their cities and islands were Mogadishu, Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa and Sofala.
- Language: Swahili, written in a form of the Arabic alphabet. It is a Bantu language with many Arabic words (just as English is a Germanic language with many Latin words).
- Religion: Islam, but with elements of ancestor worship, witchcraft, spirit possession and so on from older religions. Islam spread slowly from merchants to notables to commoners. By the 1300s, Mogadishu was thoroughly Muslim.
- Economy: farming, fishing and trade:
- Exports: ivory, gold, slaves, iron, fish, cloth, cotton, pearls, myrrh, balsam, incense, ambergris, perfume, spices, dragon’s blood (resins of Dracanea schizantha and D. cinnabari), ebony, tortoiseshell, leopard skins and rhinoceros horns. Also: necklaces, spoons and plates made of shell. Slaves and gold were not big till after 1200. Exports reached as far as China.
- Imports: silk and porcelain from China, Arab and Persian pottery, cloth, spices, jewels, beads, bottles, glass, soapstone vessels, weapons.
- Money: cowrie shells, glass beads, coins of copper and silver – but not gold (not rare enough).
- Food: sorghum millet, rice, fish, yams, bananas, coconuts, tamarind. In some places, grapes and sugar cane. By the late 1400s, oranges, lemons, peas and maybe beef.
- Buildings: made of coral blocks by the 1100s, of stone by the 1300s, built in a Swahili style. Houses of commoners were built with mud walls and palm roofs.
- Clothing: made of silk or cotton embroidered with gold. Women wore earrings, bracelets and anklets made of gold, silver and precious stones.
- Furniture: mats, carpets, stools. Beds inlaid with ivory, mother of pearl, silver and gold.
- Written records: The chronicles of Lamu, Pate and Kilwa, the geography of al-Idrisi and the writings of visitors like:
- Notable visitors:
- 916: al-Masudi (Iraq)
- 1331: Ibn Battuta (Morocco)
- 1417: Zheng He (China)
- 1498: Vasco da Gama (Portugal)
Swahili civilization was created when three things came together on the east coast:
1. By 400: Indian Ocean trade, carried from the north-east by the monsoon winds from November to March (blowing back the other way from May to September).
2. By 500: The Bantu Expansion from the west.
3. After 700: The spread of Islam from the north.
Swahili civilization started in the north in what is now Somalia and northern Kenya and spread south. It was affected by Persian and Arab culture through trade, marriage and religion. It reached its height between 1300 and 1500, when Kilwa was its most powerful city, having taken over Sofala and its gold trade with Zimbabwe. By the late 1400s, Kilwa was starting to weaken from political infighting just when:
In 1498, the Portuguese arrived from the south. They came not as peaceful traders or curious travellers, but as pirates who sunk ships, robbed and burned cities, tortured helpless fishermen and killed men, women and children without mercy. The sea trade that had grown for over a thousand years was destroyed.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Ibn Battuta
- The Portuguese Empire
- Meanwhile in West Africa:
- Africa: the last 13,000 years