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12.15: The Swahili Culture

  • Page ID
    72292
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    Learning Objective

    • Explain how the Bantu migration impacted the Swahili culture

    Key Points

    • Swahili culture is the culture of the Swahili people inhabiting the Swahili Coast. They speak Swahili as their native language, which belongs to the Niger-Congo family. Swahili culture is the product of the history of the coastal part of the African Great Lakes region.
    • As with the Swahili language, Swahili culture has a Bantu core and has also borrowed from foreign influences. Around 3,000 years ago, speakers of the proto-Bantu language group began a millennia-long series of migrations; the Swahili people originate from Bantu inhabitants of the coast of Southeast Africa, in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. They are mainly united under the mother tongue of Kiswahili, a Bantu language.
    • Around the 8th century, the Swahili people engaged in the Indian Ocean trade. As a consequence, they were influenced by Arabic, Persian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. During the 10th century, several city-states flourished along the Swahili Coast and adjacent island. They were Muslim, cosmopolitan, and politically independent of one another.
    • The Kilwa Sultanate was a medieval sultanate, centered at Kilwa, whose authority, at its height, stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast. It was founded in the 10th century, and the last native dynasty was overthrown by a Portuguese invasion in 1505. By 1513, the sultanate was already fragmented into smaller states.
    • Despite its origin as a Persian colony, extensive inter-marriage and conversion of local Bantu inhabitants and later Arab immigration turned the Kilwa Sultanate into a very diverse state. It is the mixture of Perso-Arab and Bantu cultures in Kilwa that is credited for creating Swahili as a distinctive East African culture and language.
    • The diverse history of the Swahili Coast has also resulted in multicultural influences on Swahili arts, including furniture and architecture.

    Terms

    Bantu expansion

    A postulated millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group. Attempts to trace the exact route of the migrations, to correlate it with archaeological evidence and genetic evidence, have not been conclusive. The Bantu traveled in two waves, and it is likely that the migration of the Bantu-speaking people from their core region in West Africa began around 1000 BCE.

    Kilwa Sultanate

    A Medieval sultanate, centered at Kilwa (an island off modern-day Tanzania), whose authority, at its height, stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast. It was founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian prince of Shiraz. His family ruled the Sultanate until 1277, when it was replaced by the Arab family of Abu Moaheb. The latter was overthrown by a Portuguese invasion in 1505.

    Bantu and Swahili Culture

    Swahili culture is the culture of the Swahili people inhabiting the Swahili Coast, encompassing today’s Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Mozambique, as well as the adjacent islands of Zanzibar and Comoros and some parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi. They speak Swahili as their native language, which belongs to the Niger-Congo family. Swahili culture is the product of the history of the coastal part of the African Great Lakes region.

    As with the Swahili language, Swahili culture has a Bantu core and has also borrowed from foreign influences. Around 3,000 years ago, speakers of the proto-Bantu language group began a millennia-long series of migrations eastward from their homeland between West Africa and Central Africa, at the border of eastern Nigeria and Cameroon. This Bantu expansion first introduced Bantu peoples to central, southern, and southeastern Africa, regions they had previously been absent from. The Swahili people are mainly united under the mother tongue of Kiswahili, a Bantu language. This also extends to Arab, Persian, and other migrants who reached the coast around the 7th and 8th centuries, providing considerable cultural infusion and numerous loan words from Arabic and Persian. However, archaeologist Felix Chami notes the presence of Bantu settlements straddling the Southeast African coast as early as the beginning of the 1st millennium. They evolved gradually from the 6th century onward to accommodate for an increase in trade (mainly with Arab merchants), population growth, and further centralized urbanization, developing into what would later become known as the Swahili city-states.

    image
    Swahili Arabic script on a carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya. British archaeologists assumed during the colonial period that Arab or Persian colonizers brought stone architecture and urban civilization to the Swahili Coast. Today we know that it was local populations that developed the Swahili coast. Swahili architecture exhibits a range of influences and innovations, and diverse forms and histories interlock and overlap to create densely layered structures that cannot be broken down into distinct stylistic parts.

    Swahili City-States

    Around the 8th century, the Swahili people began trading with the Arab, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian peoples—a process known as the Indian Ocean trade.
    As a consequence of long-distance trading routes crossing the Indian Ocean, the Swahili were influenced by Arabic, Persian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. During the 10th century, several city-states flourished along the Swahili Coast and adjacent islands, including Kilwa, Malindi, Gedi, Pate, Comoros, and Zanzibar. These early Swahili city-states were Muslim, cosmopolitan, and politically independent of one another.
    They grew in wealth as the Bantu Swahili people served as intermediaries and facilitators to local, Arab, Persian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese merchants. They all competed against one another for the best of the Great Lakes region’s trade business, and their chief exports were salt, ebony, gold, ivory, and sandalwood. They were also involved in the slave trade. These city-states began to decline towards the 16th century, mainly as a consequence of the Portuguese advent. Eventually, Swahili trading centers went out of business, and commerce between Africa and Asia on the Indian Ocean collapsed.

    Kilwa Sultanate

    The Kilwa Sultanate was a medieval sultanate, centered at Kilwa (an island off modern-day Tanzania), whose authority, at its height, stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast. It was founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian prince of Shiraz. His family ruled the Sultanate until 1277, when it was replaced by the Arab family of Abu Moaheb. The latter was overthrown by a Portuguese invasion in 1505. By 1513, the sultanate was already fragmented into smaller states, many of which became protectorates of the Sultanate of Oman.

    Despite its origin as a Persian colony, extensive inter-marriage and conversion of local Bantu inhabitants and later Arab immigration turned the Kilwa Sultanate into a diverse state not ethnically differentiable from the mainland. It is the mixture of Perso-Arab and Bantu cultures in Kilwa that is credited for creating Swahili as a distinctive East African culture and language. Nonetheless, the Muslims of Kilwa (whatever their ethnicity) would often refer to themselves generally as Shirazi or Arabs, and to the unconverted Bantu peoples of the mainland as Zanj or Khaffirs (infidels).

    The Kilwa Sultanate was almost wholly dependent on external commerce. Effectively, it was a confederation of urban settlements, and there was little or no agriculture carried on in within the boundaries of the sultanate. Grains (principally millet and rice), meats (cattle and poultry), and other supplies necessary to feed the large city populations had to be purchased from the Bantu peoples of the interior. Kilwan traders from the coast encouraged the development of market towns in the Bantu-dominated highlands of what are now Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The Kilwan mode of living was as middlemen traders, importing manufactured goods (cloth, etc.) from Arabia and India, which were then swapped in the highland market towns for Bantu-produced agricultural commodities (grain, meats, etc.) for their own subsistence, and precious raw materials (gold, ivory, etc.) that they would export back to Asia. The exception was the coconut palm tree.

    Arts

    The diverse history of the Swahili Coast has also resulted in multicultural influences on Swahili arts, including furniture and architecture. The Swahili do not often use designs with images of living beings due to their Muslim heritage. Instead, Swahili designs are primarily geometric. The most typical musical genre of Swahili culture is taarab (or tarabu), sung in the Swahili language. Its melodies and orchestration have Arab and Indian influences, although Western instruments, such as guitars, are sometimes used.
    Swahili architecture, a term used to designate a whole range of diverse building traditions practiced or once practiced along the eastern and southeastern coasts of Africa, is in many ways an extension of mainland African traditions, although structural elements, such as domes and barrel vaulting, clearly connect to Persian Gulf area and South Asian building traditions as well. Exotic ornament and design elements also connected the architecture of the Swahili coast to other Islamic port cities. In fact, many of the classic mansions and palaces of the Swahili Coast belonged to wealthy merchants and landowners, who played a key role in the mercantile economy of the region.

     

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