In This Article 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
  • The Coast and the Portuguese, 16th–17th Centuries
  • The Omani Sultanate of Zanzibar, 19th Century
  • The Colonial Period to Independence, 20th Century
  • Society and Ethnography
  • Religion
  • Arts and Music

African Studies Swahili City States of the East African Coast
Thomas Spear
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0001


Hundreds of Swahili towns and villages lie scattered along almost 2,000 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. Since 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 have come to embrace both local practices and foreign influences. In short, Swahili are now 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 gives an up-to-date synthesis of Swahili history, society, and culture, while Pouwels 1987 provides 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, and Middleton 1992 provides a dynamic ethnographic analysis of mercantile Swahili society.

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

    E-mail Citation »

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

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

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    A thorough 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.

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    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by a linguist and a historian, analyzes a wide 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/CBO9780511523885E-mail Citation »

    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: 10.2307/220649E-mail Citation »

    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.

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