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Stone Towns of the Swahili Coast

Along 2,000 miles of the East African coast, the sophisticated trading centers of the medieval Swahili reveal their origins and influences

January/February 2014

Swahili Towns1


The boat from the dusty town of Kilwa Masoko to the island of Songo Mnara is a slow one—30 odd feet of bleached driftwood pounded together with pig iron and powered by a puttering outboard. To starboard is mainland Tanzania, and to port a series of coastal islands with the choppy expanse of the Indian Ocean beyond. The long ride provides a chance for Jeffrey Fleisher, an archaeologist from Rice University, balanced on a log lashed to the gunwales, to talk about the site where he has been codirecting excavations since 2009. “There’s everything to be learned about Songo Mnara,” he says, sea spray building on his glasses. Songo Mnara is a Swahili town that was occupied in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during the last decades of a golden age of wealthy, independent Islamic trading ports located along the East African coast, from Somalia to Mozambique.


The Swahili Coast and its culture in the medieval period (roughly the tenth to fifteenth centuries) 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. Its history is known in broad strokes, but less is known about how the medieval Swahili lived and how they incorporated influences—from religion to architecture—from across the Indian Ocean world. Fleisher and his codirector, Stephanie Wynne-Jones of the University of York, looked for a site that would allow them to examine such questions in detail. “We had an inkling Songo Mnara would be that site,” he says, “but it has completely exceeded our expectations.”


The boat pulls up to a small sandy beach occupied by a fishing outpost, one of the island’s two small communities, consisting of small thatched huts, among them a woven-palm mosque. A few Swahili men mend nets and clean fish that will be cooked after sundown, once the day’s Ramadan fast ends. A path leads through the huts and down into an opening in a dense wall of mangroves. From there, one wades into mangrove swamp (ankle- or chest-deep, depending on the tides), and when the path rises again, it emerges on a small tent city for the archaeologists, students, and specialists working on the dig, with the ruins of Songo Mnara beyond.


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. Among the dozens of ancient structures built of jagged blocks of coral, several excavation teams are at work. There are two large trenches in the town’s central clearing, and another inside one of the houses on the far side of the site. Wynne-Jones, who is overseeing the house dig, tromps through the overgrowth to greet Fleisher and review the day’s work. The archaeologists walk past graveyards and tombs in the center of town, through a series of interconnected two-story homes known as “the palace,” into two of the town’s six mosques, and around any number of other structures and enclosures, some of which have been partially stabilized and reconstructed.


The site represents an unusual opportunity for the archaeologists—a mature, intact, little-excavated Swahili town where they can examine what we think we know about Swahili commerce, the role of women in Swahili life, Indian Ocean trade, and the diversity and complexity of the coast’s medieval culture. “Everything has the ability to change the story in significant ways,” Fleisher says.



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