Swahili City-states: Formation & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

For roughly 500 years, the Swahili city-states were amongst the most economically powerful in the world. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and legacy of these urban trade centers.

Swahili City-States

What is a state? We tend to thinks of states as smaller units within a country, but in politics this term actually refers to any area under the administration of a single government. So, the USA is itself one big state, a nation-state to be specific. Nation-states are what we call countries, which have strict borders. This is a relatively modern development, and before this people of the world had other ways to organize themselves.

Perhaps most notable was the city-state, a government based around, you guessed it, a major urban center. City-states were practically little kingdoms whose authority did not extend beyond the economic and political reach of the city. In many places, these city-states became pretty powerful, and extremely wealthy.

This was especially true along the east coast of Africa, among trading cities occupied by the Swahili people, a group defined by mixed Bantu and Arabic heritage. These Swahili city-states were wealthy, powerful, and connected to some of the most lucrative trade routes in history. How's that for a positive state?

The Swahili Coast
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Rise of the Swahili City-States

Africa's east coast was long inhabited by Bantu-speaking groups, who saw themselves as different people. They lived in agricultural villages and produced items for small-scale local economies. Then, around 1000 CE, something started to change. The Indian Ocean started filling up with trade ships running from the Red Sea to India to China.

Sailing techniques at the time didn't allow for open-ocean sailing, so merchants hopped along the coast, and those little Bantu villages found themselves in an ideal location. As trade increased, the villages became wealthier and larger, dominated by an elite class of merchants as the Swahili language and cultural identified was solidified.

Gradually, complex city-states emerged with complex political structures, immense wealth, and trade networks reaching from the Mediterranean all the way to China. These city-states truly achieved international trade dominance around 1350 CE, after they had all converted to Islam. Muslim merchants controlled the world's most extensive inland and maritime trade routes, and the Swahili city-states had attracted a large number of Persian merchants looking to expand. The conversion to Islam linked the Swahili city-states to massive trade networks that crossed Eurasia.

Governance of the City-States

The Swahili city-states were largely controlled by the elite merchants, although official power was in the hands of a sultan. Islam played a very important role in the economic, political, and social activities of these cities, each of which was centered around a great mosque, one of the few buildings the Swahili consistently constructed in stone, not wood.

Each city had substantial ports and trading centers, but they also produced their own objects and resources to bring into the international market.

Mosques, like this one from the city of Kilwa, were amongst the most important structures in a Swahili trade town.
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Creating a Swahili Identity

The rise of prominent city-states along Africa's east coast changed the character of the region. The agricultural villages did not really share any common identity. However, this changed with the rise of city-states.

Now, to be clear, each these city-states were their own individual governments; however, the trade networks brought them closer together. The elite merchants in one city were often related to elite merchants in another city. The fact that Islam played such an important role in all of these cities also gave them something else in common.

Finally, the fact that they had to do business together on a daily basis helped them standardize a single, consistent language that merged Bantu and Arabic into something all trading cities along the coast could use. In fact, most scholars trace the origins of the Swahili language and cultural identity to the rise of these Swahili city-states.

Life in Swahili City-States

Kilwa

Let's look a little more closely at some specific city-states. Let's start with Kilwa, a trading city on an island off the coast of modern-day Tanzania. Thanks to its ease of access, Kilwa had the largest port of any Swahili trade city, but being on an island also had a smaller population, around 4,000 people.

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