The Lost Swahili African Mercantile Towns of the Medieval Period


The Swahili Coast and its culture in the medieval period is relatively little studied, compared with other cultures of its size and influence, though it represents a key node in the development of global trade before the European Age of Discovery.

The island seems a remote backwater today, but the sprawling ruins, though overgrown and studded with coconut palms and the stout, distended trunks of baobabs, tell another story—of a significant, wealthy, well-connected town.


From the tenth to fifteenth centuries, the riches of Africa’s interior, such as ivory, gold, resins, food, timber, and even slaves, were in high demand around the world.

Because of the monsoon trade winds, which could reliably bring traders from around the Indian Ocean to and from the East African coast, many of these goods passed through Swahili towns and into a hemisphere-spanning trade network—through the Red and Mediterranean Seas to Europe, across the ocean to India and Persia, and to China via sea and land. Some of the Swahili stone towns—a collective description of some settlements with stone ruins across miles of coast—grew spectacularly wealthy on this trade.


[I]n its heyday, Songo Mnara would have been gleaming white, perched on a sandy beach, surrounded by turquoise waters. The coral blocks were once mortared and plastered with bright white coral lime, and doorways, decorative niches, mihrabs (prayer niches in mosques that indicate the Qibla, or direction of Mecca), and other architectural elements.

The place of women in Swahili society is of particular interest to Wynne-Jones. According to ethnographic research, Swahili society is traditionally matrilocal (meaning that a man, after marriage, moves in with his wife’s family), which doesn’t seem to jibe with the more socially conservative form of Islam practiced on the Swahili Coast today.

The main article goes into greater depth about some fascinating possibilities, such as a structure that may have been a mosque specifically for women, something that would be fairly unique in the Islamic world, and may represent a transition point between the original matrilocal culture and the patrilocality of Islam.

By Samir Patel via Archaeology for the full article and more photos.

This entry was posted in Culture, History, Misplaced Places by Heretic. Bookmark the permalink.

About Heretic

I design video games for a living, write fiction, political theory and poetry for personal amusement, and train regularly in Western European 16th century swordwork. On frequent occasion I have been known to hunt for and explore abandoned graveyards, train tunnels and other interesting places wherever I may find them, but there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that I am preparing to set off a zombie apocalypse. Nothing that will stand up in court, at least. I use paranthesis with distressing frequency, have a deep passion for history, anthropology and sociological theory, and really, really, really hate mayonnaise. But I wash my hands after the writing. Promise.

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