Some of the world's greatest cities during the Middle Ages were on the eastern coast of Africa. Their ornate stone domes and soaring walls, made with ocean corals and painted a brilliant white, were wonders to the traders that visited them from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. They were the superpowers of the Swahili Coast, and they've long been misunderstood by archaeologists. It's only recently that researchers outside Africa are beginning to appreciate their importance.
Photos by Samir Patel
Throughout the Middle Ages, great civilizations ringed the Indian Ocean. From Egypt, people could travel the Red Sea to reach the ocean, then sail south to Africa, or continue east to the Arab world and India. Then, of course, one could travel over land on the famous Silk Road from India through central Asia and into China. In reality, few people ever made that journey. But many trade goods did, passed from hand to hand in cosmopolitan cities whose cultural diversity would have made places like New York and Sao Paolo look like monocultures. Among those great medieval cities were places like Songo Mnara, a gorgeous and bustling Swahili city built on an island off the coast of Tanzania in the fourteenth century.
At a time when European cities were getting wiped out by plagues and famines, Songo Mnara was thriving.
This month, Samir Patel has a fascinating article in Archaeology about the city. He writes:
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.
Today, Songo Mnara is a ruin that had been almost forgotten by people living outside the local area. It was built by the people of Kilwa Kisiwanti, an ancient city on a nearby island, and they did it the way today's best city planners might. Though no one is sure why, they wanted to erect this city quickly. So they drew up a city plan and organized the homes, palace, and town's mosques around graceful open areas, with generously-sized courtyards that the locals used to greet traveling merchants.
Swahili towns didn't have marketplaces like comparable cities in Europe, the Middle East and China. Instead, archaeologists are learning, trade was conducted in the courtyards, which were halfway between public and private space. Similar kinds of public/private areas were common in ancient Rome as well. Perhaps merchants would stay with a family and other city dwellers would visit to trade with them. Or perhaps they would travel from courtyard to courtyard, offering their wares.