of old this country has not been subject to any foreign power.
In fighting they use elephant's tusks, ribs and wild cattle's
horns as spears, and they have corselets and bows and arrows.
They have twenty myriads of foot-soldiers. The Arabs are continually
making raids on them."
-From Compendium of Knowledge by the Chinese scholar,
Tuan Ch'eng-shih, 8th century.
The most common cause of why it is difficult to identify the Swahili,
may lie in the historical influences that affected change in Swahili
society. The most obvious influences that shaped Swahili society
were religion and politics. Applied regionally, with varying results
and tainted with the bias in the recording of history, these influences
have had lasting effects on Swahili culture, to the extent that
some Governments actually refuse to acknowledge the existence
of Swahili people altogether.
Listen to some information on the linguistic origins of the Swahili language
The Myth of Arab Domination
Until quite recently, the history of the East Coast of Africa
has been portrayed - by Europeans and Arabs alike - as one of
Muslim-Arab domination, with the African people and rulers playing
a passive role in the process. Some 19th century and early 20th
century British writers were contemptuous of a culture they regarded
as 'half-caste' or 'mongrel.
But oral and archaeological evidence suggests that Swahili society
was both dynamic and coherent. The relationship between people
on the African main land on the one hand, and those from Arabia
and Persia on the other, was in fact, one of mutual dependence
and benefit. Therefore it does not make sense to talk of the Arabs
'appearing' on the East African coast and 'taking over' African
EARLY SEAFARERS' ACCOUNTS: From
The earliest description of the East Coast of Africa was written
in the 2nd century AD. It comes from a sailor's guide, probably
compiled in Alexandria (modern Egypt) in 100 AD by a Greek trader.
It's called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea , and it vividly
shows that routes along the coast of East Africa were, at the
time of writing, well-sailed and yielding considerable trade.
The tone of this document conveys respect for the people of the
"Two days' sail beyond the island lies the last mainland
market town of Azania, which is called Rhapta, a name derived
from the small sewn boats the people use. Here there is much ivory
and tortoiseshell. Men of the greatest stature, who are pirates,
inhabit the whole coast and at each place have set up chiefs."
Periplus of the Erithraean Sea.
The principal town mentioned in the Periplus is Rhapta, believed
by some to have been near Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam, while recent
scholarship has pointed to it being closer to the island of Lamu.
Coins from Northern Africa and Persia, dating back to the 3rd
century AD. have been found in Zanzibar and Northern Tanzania,
suggesting a strong tradition of trade between the Mediterranean
world and African world.
Oral histories of the Swahili tend to start with the arrival
of Muslims from either Arabia or the Persian Gulf. Archaeological
evidence, in what is now southern Somalia, suggests that
a mosque was built in the 8th century near Lamu. The absorption
of Arabs into African coastal society seems to have been
largely achieved without friction, with the odd exception
of settlements like Kua.
There is also another tradition, a very strong one, that
the first Muslims came from Shiraz in Persia - they were
known as Shirazis.
"Then came Sultan Ali bin Selimani the Shirazi,
that is, the Persian. He came with his ships, and brought
his goods and his children. One child was called Fatima
the daughter of Sultan Ali. We do not know the names of
the other children. They came with Musa bin Amrani the Beduin.
They disembarked at Kilwa, that is to say, they
went to the headman of the country, the Elder Mrimba, and
asked for a place in which to settle at Kisiwani. This they
obtained. And they gave Mrimba presents of trade goods and
beads. Sultan Ali married Mrimba's daughter. He lived on
good terms with the people."
-Excerpt from The Ancient History of Kilwa Kisiwani. Taken from
East African Coast, Select Documents.