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Ancient Trade Cities on Africa's East Coast

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  • 0:01 Trading Cities
  • 0:58 The Kingdom of Axum
  • 2:20 Trading Cities After Axum
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the rich history of the trading cities that dominated the East Coast of Africa and controlled vast international markets. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Trading Cities

International trade is important. We like international trade. Why do you think so much of our stuff is made in China? Nearly every civilization in history has relied on international trade to some degree. Some only wanted to import spices or delicacies. Others had to import lots of basic food supplies because they couldn't grow their own.

On the East Coast of Africa, international trade became so important that some cities were absolutely defined by it. A trading city is a city with an economy that is almost entirely dependent on export and international trade. These cities operated as mediators between the several trade routes that passed through the region, mostly along the Red and Arabian Seas. Goods came in from one region, passed through the trading cities of East Africa, and were exported to an entirely separate region that wanted those products. International trade was significant across the world, but East Africa was one of the first areas to be completely reliant on it.

Kingdom of Axum

Since the rise of major civilizations in Africa, international trade was part of life. Egypt traded with powers across the region, and the Kingdom of Kush became tremendously powerful and wealthy from trade. The first power to really become a trading city was the Kingdom of Axum, in modern-day Ethiopia. As Kush declined, Axum took over as the major economic center in the region. New sailing techniques eliminated the need for merchants to stop at ports all along North Africa in the first century CE, and the ships sailed straight to the major ports, like Axum.

Axum boasted easy access to the Red and Arabian Seas and fairly easy access to the Mediterranean Sea, making it a target spot for merchants from all over to sell their products. In addition, the steadily growing Roman Empire relied on lots of imported products, from food to perfume, and kept the demand for international trade very strong. The Romans were especially fond of products from India, and a lengthy network of trade between the greatest empires in the world, even stretching at times into China, all converged around Axum. From 100-940 CE, Axum was a major trading city that both controlled and depended on international trade. At its height in the 4th century, it was called one of the four greatest powers in the world, along with Rome, Persia, and China.

Trading Cities After Axum

The risk that trading cities face is that they rely almost entirely on trade, so if the trade disappears, their civilization falls. Axum was a powerful trading city, but in between the 6th and 7th centuries, it started to decline because new trading cities were popping up that worked together and shared an important trait: a devotion to the religion of Islam. Islam first appeared in the Middle East, working steadily into East Africa as Persian families migrated to the large cities there. Many of these families were already connected to the business of international trade; Persia had been an important trade center for centuries. The Persian merchants brought with them their expertise, their clients, and their connections to trade networks around the world. They also maintained close family ties and soon Islamic merchants began to dominate the trade economies of East Africa.

Axum went into sharp decline, officially dissolving in the 10th century. New trading cities took its place, which were almost entirely Islamic by the 14th century. These new trade cities looked different than Axum, mostly thanks to the rise of Islam, and new architectural structures, like mosques, became major features of the urban landscape. They were dominated by a class of merchants who were as politically powerful as they were wealthy, and who sponsored the arts and literature.

Throughout the 14th century, trading cities grew into major international powers and included cities like Mogadishu, Mombasa, Gedi, Pate, Lamu, Zanzibar, and Kilwa. They traded ivory from the south of Africa, gold from the interior, frankincense from the north, and textiles from the eastern cities, as well as African metals, like copper and iron. The trade networks of the major trading cities extended north into Rome, east into Persia, India, Indonesia, and even China. This was a global network of commerce, all facilitated by the East African Islamic trading cities.

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