By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Discuss the trade in goods, technology, and ideas that occurred along the Silk Roads
- Describe how Islam spread in South and Southeast Asia
- Discuss the role of East Africa in Indian Ocean trade
The Silk Roads made up one of the greatest trade routes in world history, linking east and west in a vast interlocking network that reached its heyday between the fifth and eighth centuries. It had begun to form a few hundred years before, when the Chinese Han dynasty sought to placate and control the great Xiongnu nomadic peoples to the north by trading with them, and with other nomadic peoples such as the Yuezhi in Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan). The Silk Roads eventually connected China, central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and even the Mediterranean basin, facilitating the exchange of goods such as silk and spices, technologies such as papermaking, and cultural traditions and religions such as Buddhism and Islam.
These road networks were critical to the spread of Islam, as seen in the wake of Muslim raiders entering the Sindh area of northwest India in the early eighth century. Maritime networks centered on the Indian Ocean also played a large role in this expansion. From India and through both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, Muslim sailors began to dominate much of the Malabar Coast of western India and the Swahili coast of eastern Africa, becoming fixtures in the lucrative Indian Ocean trade all the way to China and beyond. The influence of Muslim traders throughout the region went far beyond commercial exchange, however. One of the most significant results of this trade-based diffusion of Islamic culture in South and East Asia was the emergence of powerful states such as Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population today.
Travel and Exchange along the Silk Roads
By the first century BCE, China had become firmly established as the eastern end of the Silk Roads, with Rome as the western end. The Romans also traveled by sea to secure the goods that came through the ports of western India, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, as well as trading through key centers in Syria such as the great caravan cities of Petra and Palmyra, the Nabatean city famed as the main entry point for Chinese silk and eastern incense. In exchange for such goods, the Roman provinces of North Africa traded Roman glassware, wool, gold, and silver through intermediaries in the Middle East and central Asia and even into India (Figure 12.14).
Before they reached the Romans, trade goods from the east were largely in the hands of the Kushan Empire. The Yuezhi confederacy in Bactria had unified to form this empire, trading with both China and the Indian subcontinent and providing a conduit between the two, particularly from the city of Taxila. The Kushan Empire managed to stabilize the trading routes connecting the Parthian western leg of the road with that of the central Asian steppes, spreading its control halfway down the Indian subcontinent in the process and ideally positioning itself to handle trade between India, China, and the Mediterranean.
By the third century CE, many empires using the Silk Roads had begun to decline, including the Romans, the Kushans, the Parthians, and the Han. The Kushans and Parthians were replaced by the Sasanids in Persia, who also annexed the northern portion of the Kushan Empire. The Gupta soon controlled the southern portion of India. The Mediterranean world was changing too; the Silk Roads’ new trade destination was the surviving Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire from the late fifth century onward, following the fall of Roman dominance in western Europe. These new players continued and extended the trade network.
Long-distance trade during the early and later Middle Ages was fraught. The Silk Roads were not a four-thousand-mile-long superhighway outfitted to bridge eastern and western markets from Rome to China but rather a series of interconnected roads, many ill maintained, that were built up over time and eventually linked dozens of oasis towns and market cities such as Palmyra in the west and Bactria in the east. It is most useful to imagine it as a network of “legs” on a journey, along which merchants and traders traveled via caravan with their wares, pausing to rest at caravansaries along the way. Goods changed hands many times over these long distances, being exchanged between merchants who each traveled only part of the “road,” and their price increased the farther they went from their origin.
Buddhism arrived in China sometime during the period known as the Six Dynasties (220–589 CE). Monks traveling the Silk Roads between northern India and Afghanistan brought its universalizing message of a lifestyle open to all and offering salvation to any willing to listen, and they found a receptive audience among countless merchants traveling between China and central Asia. Over time, Buddhist monks established themselves in small communities and set up monasteries at a string of oases the length of the Taklamakan Desert—a chain that ran all the way to the Great Wall in northern China. At one of these, Yungang, weary travelers were greeted by five huge Buddhas carved from the cliffs and surrounded by tens of thousands of statues representing Buddhist deities and patrons (Figure 12.15). This great religious complex offered not only an opportunity to rest and recover but also an entry point to the Chinese market.
Many legs of the Silk Roads were perilous in the extreme. For example, upon departing Chang’an, the Tang capital and eastern terminus of the network, travelers almost immediately confronted the Gobi, the largest desert in Asia. Its terrain is compacted and rocky and thus ideal for long-distance travel by camel, but the lack of water necessitated the establishment of caravansaries, usually about a day apart along the road connecting China to the central Asian interior. To geographic and environmental hazards, travelers could add warring tribes and roving bandits and thieves. A menace since the beginning of the Silk Roads, robbers targeted the convoys of precious cargoes as they headed across open and unprotected terrain. While small armies and groups of archers accompanied some larger and better-funded caravans, and caravans sometimes merged into “super-caravans” for safety, these were the exceptions, not the rule. Most travelers undertook a caravan journey at great risk to themselves and the goods they carried.
Despite its dangers, however, the overland route was more appealing for many than the alternative, a hazardous and costly voyage across the sea. Pirates lurking in coastal waters harassed ships on the Maritime Silk Roads, and shifting weather and poorly charted waters posed enormous challenges to even the sturdiest vessels and hardiest merchants. The loss of a ship to a sudden storm or shallow reef (as happened repeatedly at the Gelasa Strait in Indonesia) could mean not only the deaths of crew and passengers but also the ruin of the merchants whose goods were sunk. To most merchants and traders, the risks posed by seaborne trade, not to mention the cost of hiring a ship and its crew, made it the less appealing of the two Silk Road routes open to them. As land empires such as the Sasanian Persians’ realm in central Asia grew more stable, the overland route became even more attractive.
Read the short article “Unearthing the Islamic Relics of China’s Medieval Port City” for more information about the importance of trade to the spread of religious ideas.
The Sasanian Persians were able to provide a great deal of security, allowing for more peaceful and effective trading. Much of their power in fact relied on and was derived from this trade. The Sasanian Empire was soon displaced by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate, however, which came to control trade and produce textiles and other goods of its own to sell along the route, although demand for Chinese silks continued. In 750, the Umayyads in turn were overthrown by the Abbasids (749–1258), a new Islamic dynasty that sought to expand eastward from the Middle East even as the Tang dynasty drove westward from China. The Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad, along the Tigris River in what is modern-day Iraq. This change streamlined their dominance of the Silk Roads, letting them use the Persian Gulf to effectively bypass the Red Sea, which was the seaborne trade route closest to the former Umayyad capital in Syria.
Despite their ambitions, the Abbasids’ eastward expansion was halted in 751 when a combined Arab-Tibetan army met Tang forces in the Battle of Talas River near the town of Atlakh (Figure 12.16). Initially a stalemate, the battle turned in favor of the Abbasids when Turkic forces that were allied with the Tang switched allegiances and joined the Abbasids. Although the Abbasids were victorious, the engagement marked the end of expansion for both empires.
Throughout the rise and fall of these empires and others, control of trade routes, particularly the Silk Roads, was paramount. For example, people from the central Asian steppes exchanged hides, wool, and livestock for Chinese manufactured goods such as lacquerware, silk, floss, paper, porcelain, and iron tools. These goods and commodities were then traded for similar items along the way, eventually reaching buyers as far away as the Sanhaja tribes of West Africa and the Egyptians and Ethiopians in East Africa. The Silk Roads were never as vital to the Chinese economy, however, as they were to the others. The domestic Chinese economy was large enough to meet all the needs of the state and its people without imports, frustrating European powers intent on breaking into the Chinese economy well into the modern period. At the same time, there was great desire for Chinese goods by western peoples, meaning that the balance of power in trade was almost always skewed in favor of East Asia.
The silk that gave the Silk Roads their name may have originally come from China, but it was not long before many other states began raising silkworms and processing the silk thread from their cocoons into luxurious cloth. The Byzantines, legend has it, acquired silkworms clandestinely in the sixth century when Christian monks visiting China spirited some cocoons away in hollowed-out walking sticks. Much of the labor of producing silk fell to women, who grew the mulberry trees needed to feed the silkworms, unraveled the cocoons, and wove the threads into textiles. They were vital to the trade that led to Chinese dominance of the luxury goods market that the Silk Roads were so famous for. The men were responsible for the upkeep of the tree farms and the sale and exchange of the finished products. Many rural and even urban areas survived by producing silk cloth in this way, like the cottage industries that thrived later in Europe.
The Art of Papermaking
Before the invention of paper, the key writing material in China was bamboo strips, which were very bulky and took up a great deal of room (Figure 12.17). For centuries, however, the Chinese had been perfecting the art of papermaking. During the second century CE, craftspeople took the bark from the mulberry tree (whose leaves were fed to silkworms) and pounded the fibers into a pulp. By spreading the mixture as sheets to dry, they created paper. Later they discovered they could add hemp rags or fishing nets or any number of similar items to the pulp to strengthen the paper, which was then sometimes called parchment. Unlike bamboo, paper and parchment could be rolled up and were much easier to carry.
Before the Battle of Talas River in 751, some of this paper had already made its way to Mecca in Arabia. Some Chinese prisoners of war from the battle were said to be papermakers who were taken to Samarkand and Khurasan, where they began to build paper mills. Evidence suggests this may be merely a legend, however, and that papermills were probably already in existence in Samarkand by this time. Nonetheless, the first paper mill in the Abbasid Caliphate was built in 794–795, and Spain began producing paper as early as the tenth century.
- What does the story of Chinese papermaking suggest about the ways in which ideas and technologies can be diffused to other cultures?
- How was this diffusion of ideas and technologies connected to, but not a product of, trade via the Silk Roads?
Watch this video to view a specialized technique of papermaking that differs from the one discussed in the preceding “Beyond the Book” feature.
Religion and Trade in South and Southeast Asia
The growth of Islam gave Muslims a considerable role in world trade, particularly along the Silk Roads and in the Indian Ocean. By the middle of the eighth century, Islam had moved into northern India, and when the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyad dynasty and then moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad, they established what became one the most important cities along the Silk Roads and a location that allowed them to dominate the growing Indian Ocean trade.
This new capital was situated along the Tigris River, a vital trade conduit to the Persian Gulf and to the Indian Ocean beyond. In the ninth century, the city of Siraf on the Persian Gulf coast was regularly sending ships to China and back and became one of the most important trading ports of this period. However, Siraf’s hold on trade weakened when an earthquake struck and damaged it in 997. Other regions stepped in, including Hormuz, Omar, and particularly Qeys, an island city in the Persian Gulf. Arab expansion into the Indian Ocean trade initially filtered through these ports, but it eventually expanded along the African coast as well (Figure 12.18).
The Muslim presence in northwest India was also an important link in the chain of Indian Ocean trade. Muslim raiders invaded India in the eighth century and came through Khurasan and Ghazni in the late tenth and eleventh centuries and many of the local inhabitants converted to Islam. In Gujarat, just south of the Sindh region, the Hindu Chalukya dynasty still controlled much of the Indian Ocean trade through their key city of Khambhat. However, by the end of the twelfth century, their power was waning. When the Turkic peoples from present-day Afghanistan began to rule the area of Delhi independently as the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, this region slowly came under their influence.
Generations of incursions from Persian dynasties into South Asia meant that Persian influence deeply affected the region. That Persian influence can still be seen today in the language of Urdu in modern-day Pakistan, which combines Hindu and Farsi elements. One portion of the Delhi Sultanate was Gujarat, which the sultan Ala al-Din annexed in 1304 after years of ransacking Gujarati cities. When the central Asian warlord Timur (also called Tamerlane in the West) sacked and captured Delhi at the end of the century, Gujarat split off from the weakened state to become an independent Muslim sultanate under the Tughluq dynasty. The Tughluqs set about subduing the region’s Hindu Rajput chieftains and building a navy at Diu, strategically located along important trade routes between the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Thus, much of the Indian Ocean trade in northwest India fell into the hands of this Islamic state.
From the decline of the Guptas to the rise of powerful northern Muslim sultanates such as Gujarat, peninsular India was home to the Hindu Chola kingdom, a maritime trade empire. With its vassal states including parts of the modern-day Maldives and Sri Lanka in the south, Chola dominated trade in the nearby portion of the Indian Ocean from about 970 to 1300. Crucially important to its dominance was control of the Palk Strait between Sri Lanka and southern India. The strait acted as a choke point where vessels had to stop to pay taxes, usually a portion of their cargo. Many of these vessels were known as dhows and carried twelve to twenty-four sailors (Figure 12.19).
Secondary trading also occurred, in which authorized middle merchants conducted exchanges between these larger ships and smaller port cities, a system known as cabotage. In the eleventh century, the Chola were trying to extend and consolidate their control over regional trade. To this end, Rajendra I, the “Victor of the Ganges” (1019–1021), sailed up east India’s Coromandel coast and seized ports with the goal of deepening commercial ties with China, where trade in items such as ivory and glassware were common.
The Chola enjoyed an artistic, architectural, and literary flowering during the tenth and eleventh centuries. This “Imperial Golden Age” saw an explosion in the construction of monumental temples, like the one at Thanjavur on the southeastern coast, in the so-called Chola style—identifiable by such elements as high surrounding walls and stepped, pyramidal towers (Figure 12.20). Many of these sites housed intricately ornamented bronze statues of deities commissioned by the rulers, signifying their prominence, wealth, and devoutness. The golden age of the Chola is also known as the greatest epoch in South Indian literary tradition. One notable work of this tradition is the Ramavataram, a twelfth century Tamil epic written by the poet Kambar that was based on the Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic that told of the exploits of Prince Rama. All of this is a clear reminder that throughout world history, art and architecture tend to flourish when there is economic and political stability to support and sustain those efforts.
Their golden age would not have been possible had the Chola not controlled trade through the Palk Strait, which generated enormous revenues. The monopolization of choke points was essential to anyone wishing to profit from maritime trade, as the founders of the Srivijaya Empire discovered with their command of the Malacca Strait. Traders sailing from the eastern Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia had to travel through this strait, between today’s Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago and Malaysia (Figure 12.21). From around 650, Srivijaya profited by managing and taxing the lucrative trade that passed through the strait.
During its early history, Srivijaya was highly influenced by both Buddhist and Hindu traders coming from India. For example, in the Srivijaya capital of Palembang in southern Sumatra stands a magnificent Buddha statue dating from the seventh or eighth century. Sculpted in the highly ornate and detailed Amaravati style still popular in contemporary India and named after the southeastern region where it originally developed, this work attests to the role of trade in spreading art, culture, and ideology. Hindu shrines and temples that still stand also show the depth to which Hinduism penetrated Srivijayan culture and society during this formative period.
By the tenth century, Srivijaya controlled all trade between the Indian Ocean and China. Alarmed by the exorbitant taxes on trade and the threat of piracy the Srivijaya posed, however, the Cholas sent a maritime expedition against them in 1025, crushing their major ports including Palembang and reducing Srivijaya’s power and influence for a time. Although Srivijaya managed to recover somewhat, its grip on maritime trade soon weakened permanently. By the thirteenth century, it had largely been displaced by the port of Malacca, which came to dominate a region that included modern-day Singapore.
The thirteenth century marks a time of considerable Islamic expansion into Southeast Asia; the Acehnese peoples on the northern tip of Sumatra were the first to embrace the religion. Many merchants in particular converted to Islam, which ensured the safe movement of their goods and protections against loss, especially in the states on the northeast coast of Sumatra such as Perlak and Aru, followed by Pasai in the north, and Malacca, the new maritime center. A further stream of Islamization came with Sufi missionaries. Sufism, a branch of Sunni Islam, blended Islam with local religious traditions, encouraging non-merchants to convert. Over time, Islam came to dominate much of the Malay Peninsula as well as Sumatra and, particularly in the fifteenth century, northern Java.
Hinduism, like Islam, grew in Southeast Asia during the later Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, for example, construction began on the great temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat was meant to serve as the state temple, funerary complex, and capital city of the reigning monarch Suryavarman II. Hindu motifs decorated the exterior of the structure in bas relief form, featuring images of the gods and scenes from the epic Indian poem Mahabharata, while the temple’s five towers were meant to represent Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the gods in Hindu religion. By the end of the twelfth century, however, the complex had been transformed into a Buddhist center of worship.
This illustrated magazine article discusses how Indonesia became one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.
East Africa and the Indian Ocean Trade
East Africa played a large role in the Indian Ocean trade network that connected it with the Middle East, China, and East and Southeast Asia. Trade in East Africa first centered on the Red Sea. After all, Egypt had been a Hellenistic and then a Roman-controlled territory, making exchange with Greece and Rome especially important and lucrative. Luxury goods such as ivory, furs, and spices like frankincense and myrrh were traded with the Roman Empire. However, following the Roman Empire’s collapse, other groups from areas such as Arabia began to take over this trade. As trading ports sprang up farther down the east coast of Africa and as Bantu-speaking Africans moved into the region, a new and sophisticated culture arose on the Swahili coast, expanding its role in the Indian Ocean trade network, establishing powerful city-states, and connecting with the African interior via trade.
Aksum and Ethiopia in the Middle Ages
During the period of the Roman Empire, trade between Rome and China crossed central Asia on the Silk Roads. However, there was also a demand for goods from the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and Africa. The route for this trade centered on the Red Sea for a time and was controlled by the Kingdom of Aksum (Figure 12.22).
The Red Sea connects the Gulf of Suez and the Sinai Peninsula with the Indian Ocean. In the third century CE, traders from Saba, the Yemeni area of the Arabian Peninsula, crossed the Red Sea to the coast of Eritrea. They began focusing much of their trade in the city of Adulis, which became the most important port of the Kingdom of Aksum. The city of Aksum, the capital of the kingdom, was eight days’ journey south from Adulis, over a mountain range to the Ethiopian plateau.
The Kingdom of Aksum owed its power to this Red Sea trade, particularly in the fourth century CE. Traded goods included gold, silver, iron tools, cotton cloth, tortoise shells, and, above all, ivory and spices such as frankincense and myrrh. The fourth-century king Ezna expanded the kingdom to its farthest extent through conquering peoples south of Egypt and north of Ethiopia. In 350, toward the end of his reign, Ezna was converted to Christianity by the Syrian missionary Frumentius. Frumentius was later appointed bishop of Aksum by the patriarch in Alexandria, which meant the kingdom followed an Egyptian Coptic form of Christianity that held that Jesus had only a divine and not a mortal body.
During the reign of Ezna, caravans traveled from the interior to take part in the trade at Adulis, creating a constant stream into and out of the port city. The Kingdom of Aksum became increasingly wealthy and powerful. However, in the sixth and seventh centuries, all began to change. In 528, the Aksumites expanded their control as far as Yemen and were said to have reached the gates of Mecca in 571. However, they had evidently overextended themselves. With the help of the Sasanids from Persia, the king in the region of Yemen, Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan, rose up and pushed the Aksumites out of the peninsula.
In the seventh century, the Sasanids were in turn conquered by the Arab Muslim population, particularly the Umayyads. Arabs quickly expanded their control over the peninsula and into North Africa, especially Egypt, and thus access to the Red Sea naturally came into their hands. Particularly as Islam expanded to the Sindh region of northern India, the Persian Gulf became increasingly important for oceangoing vessels, which began bypassing the Aksumite port of Adulis.
Simultaneously, internal problems, some of them environmental, racked the Aksumite Kingdom. For centuries, if not longer, trees had been chopped down and agricultural fields planted, and the land was becoming increasingly barren due to soil erosion. Given this threat to the food supply and the decline in Red Sea trade, which is evidenced in the archaeological record by the reduced number of Aksumite coins used in this period, groups in the interior such as the Beja peoples began to rebel. The Aksumite Kingdom quickly collapsed into a smaller entity centered on the capital city of Aksum. Slowly the Kingdom of Ethiopia incorporated this area, and Aksum became an agricultural community ruled by a landed aristocracy.
Culturally, Ethiopia combined traditional pre-Islamic Jewish traditions with polytheistic ones and, as of the fourth century CE, with Christianity. Owing to its important location and support of long-distance trade, East Africa would prove to be a thriving cultural hub with proud heritage and history that linked them to the many peoples who traveled to and through the region. The legendary Christian kingdom led by Prester John was said to be hidden there, for example. And, until the 1970s, tradition held that Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of both the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Jerusalem and had even brought the treasured Ark of the Covenant to Aksum. Thus, while the economic power of the region may have declined, its cultural significance continued well into the modern era.
The Swahili Coast and Indian Ocean Trade
Following the decline of the Kingdom of Aksum, the Indian Ocean trade shifted in part to the East African states. Factors that helped elevate the role of maritime trade in this region included improved shipbuilding, the rise of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, the decline of the Tang dynasty—which disrupted overland trade—and even environmental changes such as desertification that made some areas of Africa uninhabitable.
While the Kingdom of Aksum was in decline, the internal migration of Bantu peoples was making its way from Africa’s northwest to its east and southeast. The Bantu brought their language, their cultural traditions, and especially the technology of ironmongering. Many began settling in coastal communities in East Africa, where they displaced or mixed with the Khoisan and other indigenous African peoples, particularly on the coasts of modern Tanzania and Kenya. They also traveled south, establishing many fishing and trading villages. These exported ivory, hides, quartz, and gems in return for cotton, glass, jewelry, and other items the Bantu people were unable to make themselves. Port towns such as Shang and Manda began growing into major port centers. Soon Arab merchants began living among the Bantu peoples to participate in the newly developing trade (Figure 12.23).
Yemeni traders began arriving along the coast in East Africa in the eighth century and settled in such important areas as Mogadishu (in modern-day Somalia) and the island of Zanzibar. Some of the earliest of these traders were the Kharijites, dissidents from Arabia who held very different opinions from the mainstream on the role of the caliph and the centralization of Muslim society. Many settled in Oman; there and in eastern Africa they developed complex networks of exchange with merchant families and villages and towns along the coast. Over time, the Muslim traders married into these families, mixing cultures and languages, particularly those of Arabs, Persians, and the Bantu-speakers of East Africa, and produced the Swahili (from the Arabic for “of the coast”) civilization.
Thanks to expanding trade with the Muslim world, coastal African traders and port cities from Mogadishu in the north to Sofala in the south adapted to long-distance trade and to Islamic civilization. This adaptation shaped what is known as the Swahili coast, a region of the East African coast dotted by dozens of city-states such as Zanzibar that date from the Middle Ages and served as centers of exchange, particularly of luxury goods.
After 1050, a new wave of Muslim immigrants arrived from the Iranian capital city of Shiraz and pushed many of the previous settlers farther south along the coast. They retained their Islamic cultural heritage and adopted much of the Bantu language, adding Arabic words and creating the language of Kiswahili, which is today a main language of modern Tanzania. The newcomers were eager to trace their Persian heritage as a means of legitimating themselves in the eyes of the peoples of the area, to which end some even claimed descent from the prophet Muhammad himself. In time, these Shirazi Muslims came to dominate trade along the coast, such as at Mombasa, Malinda, Lamu, and Sofala. Many chose to move onto the islands of the coast, particularly Pemba, Mafia, and Zanzibar. Those who dominated trade and claimed descent from the Middle East were known as patricians.
About forty new Muslim towns formed, many of them city-states independently ruled by their own sultans. A council of other patricians often served as advisors or sometimes simply ran the town without a sultan. In either case they formed an elite, hereditary merchant class, speaking Arabic or Kiswahili and trading with Africans in the interior for such items as ivory, furs, and gold. Gold came from Sofala, the southernmost settled point at that time, and was shipped to the northern part of the Swahili coast, where it was traded to the city-states and from there to the Indian Ocean trade network. The merchants of the city-state of Kilwa sought to bypass intermediaries and purchase gold directly. They therefore established the trading colony of Sofala in the region of the same name. Mostly due to its domination of the gold trade, Kilwa became the most important of the Swahili towns, although Zanzibar proved nearly as powerful. For periods in the fourteenth century, in fact, Kilwa ruled over many other towns.
The development of the Swahili city-states also had the effect of connecting the interior of central southern Africa with the wider trade of the Indian Ocean basin. Merchants from city-states such as Sofala, for example, traveled up the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers to the great fairs that took place on the Zimbabwean plateau, a region dominated by the Bantu peoples of Great Zimbabwe (Figure 12.24). There they exchanged shells, ceramics, and coins from the East African coast for such high-value luxury goods as gold and ivory. Archaeologists have found everything from ancient Indian coins to fourteenth-century Longquan Chinese ceramics in the region of the Zimbabwean plateau, testifying to the reach of Swahili-borne oceanic trade in the African interior.
The Bantu societies of eastern and south-central Africa tended to be more matrilineal than Arabic or Persian societies were. Many Middle Eastern immigrants cemented their power by marrying the daughters of local ruling elites. But eventually a culture began to form in which women in the city-states veiled themselves and lived in separate quarters. Even the smallest city-state had a mosque, and many of these can still be seen today. Many of the more powerful city-states, such as Kilwa, began to mint their own money in the form of copper and silver coins. Generally not used internationally, these coins were nonetheless useful among the coastal people themselves.
If the merchant ruling class were the elite and upper class, the second class comprised the townspeople, the artisans, clerks, and other non-elite workers. They were generally non-elite because they could not trace their genealogy in a line of descent from Shirazi Muslims. Many non-Muslims also resided in the towns and were even lower in social status, such as servants or other manual laborers.
The lowest class of all were the enslaved, people purchased from the mainland who performed much, if not all, the necessary agricultural labor. Slavery played as much of a role in East Africa at this time as it did in the Atlantic world later, following European colonization of the Americas. Enslaved people also became a key trade item in the Indian Ocean trade route and remained long after the arrival of Portuguese sailors and other Europeans in the sixteenth century. Merchants purchased enslaved Bantu peoples from the interior through African intermediaries; they then shipped them to southern Iraq. During the ninth century, these enslaved people, whom the Muslims called Zanj, labored to drain the swamps near the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and to grow sugarcane and rice. But one of the greatest uprisings of enslaved people in history began in 868 when the Zanj rebelled against their enslavers. Although it was eventually crushed in 883, this unrest effectively ended much of the large-scale slave trade between the Swahili coast and the Persian Gulf in this period. The trade in enslaved people continued throughout the Indian Ocean networks, but this form of slavery never again took hold in the Persian Gulf.
By the twelfth century, East Africa had become a key center of Indian Ocean trade. The combination of monsoon winds that allowed ships to sail toward India in the summer and toward Africa in the winter facilitated the spread of Islam and the unifying culture it created among the merchant classes. Trade-based societies developed along the great arc of land that encircled the Indian Ocean basin. The ivory, animals, skins, rhinoceros’ horns, and gold that played such a large role in this trade came from East Africa to be exchanged for luxuries such as silks, glassware, and tools.