In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Swahili City-States of the East African Coast

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Early Peoples of the East African Coast, 1st–8th Centuries
  • East Africans in the Indian Ocean World
  • Swahili and the Indian Ocean World to 1500
  • Indians, Portuguese, Omani, and Swahili in the Indian Ocean World: 1500–2000
  • Slavery in the Indian Ocean World
  • The Coast and the Portuguese, 16th–17th Centuries
  • The Omani Sultanate of Zanzibar, 18th–19th Century
  • The Colonial Period to Independence, 20th Century
  • Society and Ethnography
  • Religion
  • Architecture, Material Culture, and Space
  • Arts and Music

African Studies Swahili City-States of the East African Coast
Thomas Spear
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0001


Hundreds of Swahili towns and villages lie scattered along almost two thousand miles of the East African coast from Somali to Mozambique. While many Swahili are rural farmers and fishermen, others are cosmopolitan traders and craftspeople who reside in urban stone houses. Yet all are bound by a common language, culture, and Muslim religion that both Swahili and others have long seen as the product of Persian and Arab immigrants who came to trade and settled to create distinctive maritime communities. From the mid-1980s, however, the consensus of both local and scholarly opinion has shifted to stress their local origins, the fact that Swahili is an African language, and the ways coastal religious beliefs and cultural patterns came to embrace both local practices and foreign influences, as Swahili came to be seen as an African people who, on moving to the coast and engaging in overseas trade, developed into distinctive, mercantile, cosmopolitan communities that served as economic and cultural intermediaries between their mainland neighbors and overseas visitors. The earliest Swahili towns emerged in the 8th century and, with increasing trade and wealth, developed into prosperous and complex city-states in the 15th century before they were displaced by the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th centuries, Omani in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Europeans in the 20th century. Yet Swahili towns have endured throughout as bearers of a distinctive coastal culture.

General Overviews

Swahili culture and society were formed via complex historical interactions between Africans and immigrants in a dynamic Indian Ocean world. Horton and Middleton 2000 provides a synthesis of Swahili history, society, and culture, while Pouwels 1987 gives a broad overview focused on the role of Islam in Swahili history. Nurse and Spear 1985 provides a detailed reconstruction of Swahili historical development that has been updated in Spear 2000. Kusimba 1999 offers a review of the archaeological data regarding coastal state formation, Middleton 1992 provides a dynamic ethnographic analysis of mercantile Swahili society. Yet an outpouring of recent research, detailed in Wynne-Jones and Fleisher 2015 and Wynne-Jones and laViolette 2018, is providing a host of new scientific methods, analytical approaches, and findings that are causing us to rethink earlier interpretations.

  • Horton, Mark, and John Middleton. The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    Coauthored by an archaeologist and an anthropologist, this synthesis traces the development of the Swahili as a mercantile society and culture within the wider Indian Ocean world from its origins to the 21st century.

  • Kusimba, Chapurukha M. The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 1999.

    A review of coastal archaeology to trace the development of Swahili states in the broader archaeological context of the adjacent mainland from the 9th to the 16th century.

  • Middleton, John. The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    A dynamic ethnography showing how a middleman culture developed along the length of the East African coast as Swahili towns became polyglot, multiethnic frontiers mediating between African and immigrant peoples, economies, and cultures.

  • Nurse, Derek, and Thomas Spear. The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800–1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.9783/9781512821666

    Written by a linguist and a historian, analyzes an array of archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic, and documentary evidence to argue that Swahili are an African people, who on moving to the coast and engaging in maritime trade became a distinctive, urbanized, Muslim society. See also Spear 2000.

  • Pouwels, Randall L. Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800–1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511523885

    A cultural history of Swahili focused on the spread of Islam and the development of Swahili culture over more than a millennium.

  • Spear, Thomas. “Early Swahili History Reconsidered.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 33.2 (2000): 257–290.

    DOI: 10.2307/220649

    An updated revision of Nurse and Spear 1985 that takes account of subsequent work to refine and summarize the authors’ argument regarding the local origins of the Swahili. Available online by subscription.

  • Wynne-Jones, Stephanie, and Jeffrey Fleisher. “Fifty Years in the Archaeology of the Eastern African Coast: A Methodological History.” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 50.4 (2015): 519–541.

    DOI: 10.1080/0067270X.2015.1102943

    Traces methodological and interpretative changes in the study of Swahiili archaeological sites, including a number of new methodological innovations that are currently influencing our understandings of them.

  • Wynne-Jones, Stephanie, and Adria laViolette, eds. The Swahili World. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2018.

    An encyclopedic survey of recent developments in Swahili studies, including genetics, ethnobotany, ethnozoology, coinage and trade goods, and exchanges across the Indian Ocean world, that are forcing us to rethink earlier interpretations of Swahili history.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.