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Arab-Swahili cities

1,200 to 100 years ago

Arabian traders from as far away as Yemen had been calling on trading posts from the 1st century AD. They however did not make significant contributions to the way of life of the Bantu coastal peoples who were already farmers, iron and craft workers. However it is from these early interactions that the Swahili culture emerged. (For the article about the Swahili people, click here).

The Arabs can be classified in four groups in the East African coastal area.
1.  Those Arabs who have not yet fully integrated with the Swahili peoples and includes descendants of those who have established themselves on the coast since the rise of the Omani dominion over Zanzibar in the 18th century. It also includes those who may not have emigrated from Arabia in remote times but who nevertheless have come not very long time a go, claim Arab descent and consider themselves Arabs.

2. Those Arabs that are of remnants of once powerful families and “tribes” that arrived before the advent of the Portuguese. Where such remnants were weak in numbers, they coalesced to form new tribes such as the Mvita of Mombasa or the “Three tribes” of Kilindini. When they lost `tribal’ identity, they remained Wa-ungwana, “the noble people”, and as such they are still clearly distinguished in places like Lamu.

3. The Shihiri group from Shehr on the Hadhrami  coast.  This group consists of, among others,  petty traders from Hadhramout known under the name Shihiri (from Shehr). They are generally not regarded as equals by the second category of the `true’ Arabs who, although they speak Swahili, and hardly speak any Arabic, still consider themselves primarily as Arabs. However, they possess genealogies showing their lines of descent from forebears in Arabia and many can still name the first ancestors who set foot in Africa.

4.  Arabs consisting of Africans who may have quite an amount of Arab blood and who refer to themselves as Wa-Arabu (not Wa-Manga, a name reserved for the second group). The Bajuni are a case in point; they have gone as far as to identify their original “clans” which bear the unique names mostly of historical sites on the coast of Jubaland, being connected with the authentic names of tribes in the interior of present-day Arabia.

Arabian migrations and the emerging Swahili cultures established the first cities that established lifestyles and structures similar to those in medieval Persia and Arabia.



According to the Pate Chronicle, the town of Pate was founded by refugees from Oman in the 8th century and re-founded by members of the Nabahani family, also from Oman, in 1204.

The Pate Chronicle also claims that in the 14th century Pate was so powerful that it had conquered most of the coastal towns of East Africa. However, recent archeological findings suggest that the early references in the Chronicle to Pate are wrong and that the town is in fact younger.

The 18th century was known as the “Golden Age of Pate”, when the town was at its height of powers and also prospered in fine arts. Builders constructed some of the finest houses on the East Africa coast, with extensive elaborate plaster works. Goldsmiths made intricate jewelry, fine cloths (including silks) were made by Pate’s weavers and carpenters produced fine wooden furniture. The use and production of the musical instrument known as Siwa were most famous. Two examples of Siwas still remains in the museum in Lamu.

Both men and women wrote poetry in the Kiamu dialect of Swahili. The Utendi wa Tambuka, one of the earliest known documents in Swahili, was written in the royal Yunga palace in Pate Town. The poetess Mwana Kupona (d. 1860) also lived at Pate Town.

The downfall of Pate town came as a consequence of continuous quarreling/warring with its neighbours from the end of the 18th century. In 1813 the famous “Battle of Shela” took place at Shela. This was an attempt by Pate, allied with the Mazrui clan from Mombasa/Oman, to subject Lamu. The attempt failed totally, and many were killed. Only a handful of people managed to return to Pate, and their losses were felt for years. By 1892 the number of inhabitants had fallen to only 300, down from 7000. T

Other old settlements on Pate Island include:

Siyu town: situated on the North coast of Pate island which might date from the 13th century and today mostly settled by Katwa Swahili (who seldom intermarry with Bajuni!). Gaspar de Santo Bernadino visited the town in 1606, and stated that it was the largest town on the island.

In 1845 Siyu gave Seyyid Said one of his greatest military defeats. When Siyu finally succumbed to Zanzibars dominance, under Sultan Majid in 1863, it was one of the last towns on the whole of East Africas coast to do so.

Kizingitini: situated on the North coast (east of Faza) and is the largest fishing port on the island.

Shanga:  The earliest settlement was dated to the eight century, and the conclusion drawn from archeological evidence (locally minted coins, burials) indicate that a small number of local inhabitants were Muslim, probably from the late eight century onwards, and at least from the early ninth. Excavations have revealed a major break in the development of Shanga in the mid or late eleventh century, with the destruction and the rebuilding of the Friday Mosque. Historian João de Barros wrote about members of an Arab tribe, generally believed to be Qarmatians, who arrived at the Swahili coast. De Barros connects these new arrivals with a republican style of government. Chinese had traded with the locals around the 10th or 11th century, and had even loaded giraffes onto their ship to take back to China. However, the Chinese ran aground on a nearby reef. Some of their descendants are still on Pate Island today.

Faza: Today, mostly inhabited by Bajuni Swahilis who are an ancient coalition of Cushitic-speaking pastoralists with Bantu speakers and later with Arabs.


Located on Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago. Founded around 1500, and probably abandoned around 1700. When Takwa was abandoned largely because of the lack of water, its inhabitants settled just across the bay at Shela on Lamu Island. Today, the ruins lie across the channel and up a narrow mangrove creek only approachable by boat, a ride that takes about 30 minutes from Lamu.

These relatively well preserved ruins were first excavated by James Kirkman in 1951, then in 1972 more clearing of the site was done under the supervision of James de Vere Allen. There are remains of coral built houses, mosque, pillar tomb and a city wall rising to a height of 3metres . The town had two dug-out wells, one right outside the town wall and the other on the east side of the mosque.

On August 1, 1977, Takwa Ruins were officially opened to the public and five years later, in 1982, the ruins were gazetted as a national monument. This settlement is believed to have been founded around the 15th century and abandoned two centuries later, in the 17th century.

Notable features include one of the best preserved buildings at Takwa – the unique Friday mosque named Jamaa mosque with a large pillar atop the north wall, believed to have been the burial place of a revered person. Also in the north wall or qibla, pointing to the direction of Mecca is the Mihrab, a semi-cirular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla i.e. the direction that Muslims should face when praying. It is the largest surviving structure at Takwa whose doors all face north, Mecca, giving the feeling that this was a holy city. The mosque is located near the geographical centre of the site.

The ruins nest amidst giant baobab trees. Some of the ruins are a bit indecipherable with some almost completely reduced to dust.


Malindi (once known as Melinde) is a town on Malindi Bay at the mouth of the Galana River.

Malindi has been an Arab-Swahili settlement since the 14th century. Once rivaled only by Mombasa for dominance in this part of East Africa, Malindi has traditionally been a port city for foreign powers. In 1414, the town was visited by the fleet of the Chinese explorer Zheng He. Malindi’s ruler sent a personal envoy with a giraffe as a present to China on that fleet.

The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama met Malindi authorities in 1498 to sign a trade agreement and hire a guide for the voyage to India, when he erected a coral pillar. The pillar stands to this day. In 1499 the Portuguese established a trading post in Malindi that served as a resting stop on the way to and from India.


Gedi was a prosperous city located between Mombasa and Malindi in Kenya’s Coast province.

Gedi was founded in the late 13th or early 14th century, reached its climax in the middle of the 15th century, and was finally abandoned in the early 17th century.

Today, Gedi is a ‘lost’ city lying in the depths of Arabuko Sokoke forest. The pillars and stone walls, ruined mosques and tombs now lie among stands of trees which has overgrown and consumed the town.

The city is a place of great mystery, an archaeological puzzle. Despite extensive research and exploration, nobody is really sure what happened to the town of Gedi and its people. Part of the reason why the site has remained a mystery is because there are no written records on it.

It is unclear whether the actual name of the town was Gedi, Gede, or Kilimani. The name Gedi, or more properly Gede, is a Galla word meaning “precious” and is also used as a personal name. It is either the Galla name for the town which they destroyed or the name of the last Galla leader to camp at the site.

Evidence of life and people in the town has been derived from the excavations carried out between 1948 and 1958. The excavations revealed that the Muslim inhabitants traded with people from all over the world. Some of the findings included beads from Venice, coins and a Ming vase from China, an iron lamp from India, and scissors from Spain.

The ruins of Gedi include many houses, mansions, mosques and elaborate tombs and cemeteries. The excavated ruins of the town include:

  • Gedi’s Dated Tomb
  • Gedi’s Tomb of the Fluted Pillar
  • Several mosques including Gedi’s Great Mosque, Mosque of the Long Conduit, Mosque of the Three Aisles, and Mosque on the Wall.
  • Gedi’s Palace
  • Gedi’s Annexe
  • Several Houses namely: House of the Cowries, House of the Cistern, House of the Scissors, House of the Porcelain Bowl, House of the Paneled Walls, House of the Ivory Box, House of the Iron Lamp, House of the Venetian Bead, House of the Sunken Court, House of the Iron Lamp, House of the Long Court, House on the Wall, House of the Dhow, House of the Double Court, and the House on the West Wall.

Research on the site has shown that when Gedi was abandoned in the early 16th century, a temporary reoccupation likely occurred by the nomadic Oromo tribe from Somalia in the late 16th century but they too later abandoned the town.


Mnarani was an Arab settlement in the 14th century. Archaeological evidence shows that the site was eventually destroyed by the Galla in the early 17th century.

More details here

Jumba la Mtwana

This was a 14th century Swahili settlement which  occupied for about one century before abandonment. While the name literally means  “large house of the slave”, there is neither historical nor archaeological evidence that suggests that this may have been the case. There are no historical records on the settlement, as a result what is known has been deduced from the ruins which were excavated by James Kirkman in 1972. The settlement was likely built around 1350, inhabited and then abandoned a century later. It is not certain whether ‘Jumba la Mtwana’ was the settlement’s name at the time of occupation.

More details here.


Also known as Mvita (island of war), Mombasa founding is attributed to Shehe Mvita and Mwana Mkisi (female) in the 10th Century. The Arab geographer Al Idrisi mentions it in 1151 and Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar and adventurer visited in 1331 describing the Swahili residents as “religious, trustworthy and righteous.”

Mombasa was an important centre for the trade in spices, gold and ivory with trade links reaching India and China.

Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer was the first known European to visit in 1498. the Portuguese were to later sack the town in 1500. Over the decades between 1500 and the mid 19th Century, Mombasa bloodily changed hands between several Portuguese, Omani and Swahili regimes, ultimately being annexed by the sultan of Zanzibar in 1837 and subsequently coming under the protection of Great Britain as a protectorate in 1895 (it had been a British Protectorate briefly from Februay 1824 to July 1826).

Once the British were firmly committed to large scale trade and the construction of the Uganda Railway in 1895, Mombasa then served as the administrative capital of the East Africa Protectorate between 1900 and 1907 when the capital was transferred to Nairobi.

Today Mombasa is a bustling metropolitan. The old Portuguese Fort built in 1593 is now a museum and nearby, the old town with its narrow streets and old Arab-Swahili architecture steel teems with trading and religious activity.


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