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
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
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.
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. They were independently ruled sultanates that shared intracoastal trade, culture, language (Kiswahili), religion (Islam), and receptiveness to the influence of the outside world. Like the independent city-states of the same period in Italian history, some were major powers, and their fortunes rose and fell with shifting trade relationships and political maneuvering.
Songo Mnara, certainly among the more prosperous towns, was founded as an offshoot of an even larger and wealthier sultanate, Kilwa Kisiwani, on an adjacent island. “Everyone on the coast knew about Kilwa,” says Adria LaViolette of the University of Virginia, who has excavated Swahili sites on Pemba Island, 300 miles to the north. “It’s definitely a place that had influence and significance for people.” Kilwa and Songo Mnara represent the southernmost extent of reliable trade winds, and therefore were primary gateways to the goods of southern Africa, especially gold, which was in high demand in Europe, where it was often used to pay for spices from the East.
Kilwa is the subject of a sixteenth-century Portuguese account, a collected genealogy of its sultans, called the Kilwa Chronicle. According to this document, the city was founded by immigrants from Persia. The site was excavated in the 1960s by Neville Chittick, first director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, who believed that the stone towns’ prominent, lavish mosques and Islamic-style architecture confirmed that all Swahili culture was Persian in origin. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Archaeological work, linguistic research, and historical study since the 1980s have revealed—unequivocally—that Swahili culture and language are actually African, and that its people adopted Islam and were influenced by Indian Ocean–style architecture over several hundred years (see “Matters of Context”).
At the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese arrived and Indian Ocean trade changed. Many stone towns were abandoned around this time, often hastily. Through the ensuing 500 years of colonial occupation—Portuguese, Omani, British—the Swahili culture that coalesced in the medieval period has persisted. Today, more than a million people in East Africa still identify as Swahili (from Sawahil, an Arabic word meaning “people of the coast”).
Kilwa was a sprawling city that grew from a collection of earthen structures in the eighth century to a proper stone city by the fifteenth century. Today, ruins of some of its original buildings spread across the island’s northern end, beside more recent structures, including a Portuguese fort and Chittick’s house (and the rail car he used to clear rubble). Among the standing ruins are a grand mosque with a columned prayer hall and domes inset with imported celadon bowls, and a massive cliff-top palace called Husuni Kubwa (see “The Sultan’s Palace”). Between all these structures are vast fields of tall grass that likely conceal the trappings of a true African metropolis.
Because Chittick focused on the foreign elements of Swahili culture at Kilwa, the understanding of that town, and the Swahili in general, is startlingly incomplete. “Chittick was particularly incompetent as an archaeologist,” says Mark Horton of the University of Bristol, whose excavations at the Swahili site of Shanga in the 1980s helped establish the African roots of Swahili culture. Fleisher, perhaps more diplomatically, says, “He was an archaeologist of his time.” In his time, Chittick’s work was thought to be a definitive statement on Swahili archaeology. But new excavations (at Songo Mnara, Pemba Island, and Kenya’s Lamu Archipelago, among other sites), combined with ethnographic study of more recent Swahili culture, have shown that there is remarkable diversity among Swahili towns, and demonstrated that one, even one as large and influential as Kilwa, can’t tell the whole story.
It is a vast area for just a handful of archaeologists, but each new dig brings more surprises about the ways the Swahili lived and traded, the differences between towns, and the culture’s assimilation of international influences. “Part of the job of Swahili archaeology is to document a flourishing of imagination and civic planning,” says LaViolette. “There are wonderful things going on.”
It is not known why people from Kilwa Kisiwani established Songo Mnara in the fourteenth century. But it is known that the town was built quickly, with an urban plan, something that Kilwa, an older town that grew organically, lacked. Though today it is a collection of dark-gray ruins surrounded by muddy mangroves, in 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 were carved from massive heads of live Porites coral, which is easily worked while fresh. The arrangement of Songo Mnara’s houses, tombs, mosques, and open spaces reflects what the Swahili valued at the height of their prosperity—just before the end. Its short occupation of just 150 years or so means that Songo Mnara lacks the long history of older towns, but it also means that its archaeology is accessible, clear, and open to complex questions about Swahili life. Rather than having to parse centuries, Fleisher and Wynne-Jones can examine a moment, with clarity and breadth. “For us, it means we can go wide,” says Fleisher, “and really try to populate the city.”
Wynne-Jones and an excavation team are working in one of the stone residences to learn more about Swahili home life and how it connected with the Indian Ocean world. The most prominent feature of houses here is a stepped court near the entrance, a semipublic space used to greet guests, particularly traveling merchants. It is known from historical sources that merchants arrived on the monsoon winds and stayed in Swahili homes for months while waiting for the winds to change and take them home. This arrangement strengthened economic ties and nurtured the exchange of cultural and religious influences. “This is how ideas move,” says Fleisher. Around the courts are small rooms with en suite bathrooms, often interpreted as guest rooms.
Wynne-Jones is approaching the lowest level of the stepped court while other groups of students, archaeologists, and workers from the village dig in the entryway and side rooms. The team works carefully and deliberately. In some cases the three feet or more of rubble filling the house—here, much of it comes from a collapsed second floor—helps support the walls. Some of these houses have revealed foundation deposits, such as coin caches and strings of carnelian beads. This one also has a complex and interesting history and design. It is clear that the house was built in two stages, with the second floor added later and portions of the court walled off to provide drainage for bathrooms on the second floor. This increase in the habitable space in the house could have been done to accommodate more merchants or a growing family. “It’s nice to see that happening in the occupation of a single house,” Wynne-Jones says.
The prevailing theory on how Swahili homes were structured, based on both excavations and eighteenth-century ethnographies, and articulated by historian James de Vere Allen, is called the “intimacy gradient,” which posits that the homes grow more private the deeper one moves into them. Semipublic spaces, such as the stepped court, are near the entrance, and the rooms toward the back are reserved for women and activities considered unclean in Islamic practice, such as childbirth or the washing of the dead. 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. It is thought that the later Omani occupation of the region imposed a stricter version of Islam with regard to women, overwriting what could have been a brand of Swahili Islam with greater gender equality.
This Swahili house is shallow, with the back rooms very close to the court, and beads (associated with women) found in the court itself, suggesting that the intimacy gradient may not apply, and that women may have played a prominent role in entertaining visitors and managing the household. Horton, who worked closely with Allen, appears to welcome the challenge to the theory. “There’s stuff that’s absolutely spectacular,” he says to Wynne-Jones. “You need to be here years of your life.”
Horton is excavating one of the town’s mosques nearby, which may reflect the place of women in Swahili society and how it changed over time. Two of the six mosques have already been excavated and partially reconstructed: a central mosque and the primary, or Friday, mosque. Each has interesting features, such as the intact carved Porites mihrab at the Friday mosque, or the washbasins for cleaning one’s feet before entering the central mosque. Of the unexcavated mosques, one appears to be associated with an elite cemetery. Another is the mnara, or “tower,” that gives the town its name. It sits just offshore among the mangroves, perhaps a beacon to passing ships of the town’s prosperity and dedication to Islam—a spiritual and cultural lighthouse. It has a mihrab, and the building was clearly realigned on its foundation by five to 10 degrees—evidence that it was changed to point more accurately toward Mecca, and a sign that religious discussion, perhaps even contemplation, took place at Songo Mnara. Horton suspects that the number of mosques and graveyards could indicate that it even became a pilgrimage site.
Before excavation, the mosque that Horton is examining appeared unremarkable, perhaps a travelers’ mosque, based on its small size and location on the beach. But once the site was excavated, it presented an architectural conundrum. Directly in front of the mihrab is a small prayer hall, just large enough for an imam, which is then separated by a wall from a much longer room. Horton, an expert on Swahili mosques, theorizes it was a purpose-built women’s mosque, unique in the Islamic world. “I interpret this as a reflection of the importance of women in Swahili society,” says Horton. Perhaps Swahili women were allowed to pray alongside men in the other mosques until practice changed, or perhaps they were given their own mosque but it fell out of use as stricter religious codes pushed women’s prayer into the home. The interpretation of the mosque is preliminary: The unusual layout may also represent a madrassa, or Koranic school, which would be the first of its type identified in a Swahili stone town.
The possible women’s mosque sits on the edge of town, separated from most of the other buildings, including the house Wynne-Jones is excavating, by an open area studded with tombs and cemeteries. To fill in some of these “blank” areas on the town plan, Fleisher has turned to geophysical tests. Magnetometry works particularly well with the simple, clear archaeology of Songo Mnara, and because the site has few tourists, there’s little modern trash to confuse things. The tests guided Fleisher to open two trenches directly on the remains of earthen homes made from mangrove poles and mud that date to the same brief window of occupation as the stone buildings. Several of Songo Mnara’s open spaces were, in fact, occupied by earthen houses. Every stone town had houses like these, but very few have ever been excavated. “What we’ve been able to do here, because Songo Mnara has such a short occupation,” says Fleisher, “is actually show where the houses were and how they relate to each other.”
Surprisingly, in these homes, Fleisher and his team have found coins from Kilwa and expensive imported pottery in roughly the same proportions as in the stone houses. One might expect the residents of modest earthen homes to have been poorer than those of the grand stone ones, but people living in both types of home appear to have had access to the same goods. Perhaps wealth and prosperity in Songo Mnara were measured more by architecture and view than by worldly possessions. In one of the earthen houses, Fleisher also found evidence for the production of beads made from aragonite, or the shell of giant clams. People were clearly living, working, crafting, and trading in their homes. Swahili stone towns traditionally have no central marketplace. Whether built of mud or coral, the home was the social and commercial center of Swahili town life. This use of the residence, and the comparison between the material culture of stone and earthen homes, has never been documented before.
Building archaeological knowledge about a culture such as the Swahili, at first known only from a few historical sources and cultural memory, follows a certain path. Sites are identified, surveyed, and excavated to determine that they do indeed come from a single cultural complex. Further excavation and more detailed study then help determine the society’s norms, values, and general attributes—sometimes from just a few sites considered to be representative, such as Kilwa. The next step comes in acknowledging these norms and interrogating them—looking at more sites and oddball sites to begin to flesh out the great social complexity of any culture. “[Songo Mnara] has been richer than we had hoped and that has led us in a lot of profitable directions we didn’t necessarily anticipate,” says Wynne-Jones.
For the Swahili, hundreds of stone towns, linked but distinct, having different trade relationships with different regions overseas and with different local conditions, traditions, and organization, tell a story that archaeologists are still piecing together. Each has its own arc, story, and puzzles, both specific and general. “Figuring out all this diversity is still very much a work in progress,” says LaViolette. “It’s a real mosaic, but it’s a mosaic that has some kind of logic that ties it all together.”
Samir S. Patel is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
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