The Arab-Persian Trading Cities of East Africa

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The Arab-Persian Trading Cities of East Africa


Beginning with the arrival of Arab and Persian merchants in the period from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, trade flourished on the East African coast, and reached its peak between 1200 and 1500. During those centuries, ships plied the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, bringing import and export goods between the East Indies, China, India, the Arab lands, Persia, and East Africa. It was a time of great contact between cultures, an age that saw the establishment of some 37 city-states in what is now Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique, as well as Madagascar. Most notable among these were Mogadishu, Malindi, Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar.


Starting in about 1200 b.c., groups of peoples began migrating southward from the region of modern-day Nigeria. Though they constituted a loose collection of tribes and nations, they were united by language: in each of their tongues, the word for "people" was and is the same—bantu. In Africa, one of the most ethnically diverse regions on Earth, the average language today has only half a million speakers, whereas the significant Bantu tongue, Swahili, has some 49 million speakers in Kenya, Tanzania, the Congo, and Uganda. Furthermore, Swahili serves as the lingua franca—"common tongue"—of southern Africa, a common language much as Arabic became in the Middle East and as Latin was among educated Europeans of the Middle Ages.

Outside of Ethiopian civilizations such as those in Kush and Aksum, the Bantu were the first civilized peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. (Although they lacked several ingredients of civilization, including a written language, they were skilled iron workers and practiced a sophisticated form of agriculture.) As they migrated southward and eastward, they displaced the Pygmies and the Khoisan (i.e. Bushmen), forcing them to vacate to the rainforests and deserts, respectively. By about a.d. 500, Bantu peoples controlled the choicest spots in southern Africa.

The flourishing East African commercial city-states of the medieval period were a product of Bantu contact with Arab and Persian traders. North of Bantu-speaking East Africa, Aksum (modern Eritrea) had been connected—commercially and even, for several centuries, politically—with several thriving principalities on the pre-Muslim Arabian peninsula. Likewise the area that is now Somalia had seen regular contact with Arab trading powers for some time; but from about 700, Arab and Persian commercial interests turned southward.

Arabs used the name Azania, from the root word Zanj—their term for Africans—to describe all of East Africa south of Somalia. From the beginning, their interest was purely in the coastal areas, and as the thriving cities of Kilwa, Mombasa, Malindi, and others took shape, they became islands of civilization cut off from the forbidding interior of Africa. (Zimbabwe, Kongo, and other empires of central southern Africa did not emerge until near the beginning of the modern era.) Most of these city-states were in fact islands, protected by heavy fortifications both from the less civilized peoples of the interior, and from seaborne invaders.

By the ninth century, Arab geographers identified four major areas along the East African coast: Berber territories in Somalia; the Zanj city-states; Sofala, a land in what is now Mozambique; and below Sofala a vaguely defined region known as Waqwaq. The first significant settlement in Azania was on the island of Qanbalu, which may have been Pemba Island off the coast of modern Tanzania. Zanzibar, too, was inhabited by Arabs as early as 1100, though the days of its greatest influence lay in the future.

Kilwa, now in southeastern Tanzania, had perhaps the best harbor of all the city-states. It had existed for several centuries before the first traders began arriving from the Persian Gulf in about 900, but the most significant ruins—city walls made of coral masonry, as well as stone mosques—date from the period that followed. Cowries, a type of seashell, constituted the principal form of currency. (These shells had also been used for the same purpose in ancient China.) Another significant city-state of the early period in this area was Manda in what is now Kenya, established as early as the ninth century. There, sea-walls made of giant coral blocks weighing as much as a ton (more than 900 kilograms) protected the city against the Indian Ocean waves.

Among the products exported from East Africa were gold, much of it transported overland a great distance, as well as iron tools, ivory, tortoiseshell, and rhinoceros horn. These went to ports in Arabia, India, southeast China, and the East Indies. In turn the African city-states imported cotton and glass beads from India; silk and porcelain from China; pottery from Arabia, and other items.

A powerful force in the area from the twelfth century onward were the Shirazi tribe from the Persian Gulf, who established their influence in Kilwa and other regions—including the far-off Indian Ocean island of the Comoros. Under the leadership of Abu al-Mawahib, the Shirazi built the palace of Husuni Kubwa at Kilwa. With more than 100 rooms, it was the largest single structure in sub-Saharan Africa for many centuries.

During the early fifteenth century, Mombasa—still an important port in Kenya today—emerged as another important city-state, with a population of as many as 10,000. (Kilwa, for all its influence, had only about 4,000 inhabitants.) Also significant were Pate, ruled by the Nabahani tribe from Oman, and Malindi. In all these cities, Muslim rulers intermarried with the native Bantu population, creating a distinctive Swahili culture, and the appearance of visitors from far-flung ports of Asia served to enhance the international character of this area.

One notable visit was from the Chinese fleet under Admiral Cheng Ho or Zheng He (c. 1371-c. 1433). He went on a series of expeditions in the service of the Ming emperor Yung-lo (1360-1424), whose purpose was not so much trade as to display the wealth and power of China to the other nations of the world. On his fourth voyage (1413-15), Cheng Ho landed at Mogadishu and Malindi, and as a result the rulers of these city-states sent ambassadors to Yung-lo's court.

They also sent gifts, including ostriches, zebras, lions, and tigers. Perhaps the most notable of these was a giraffe, which the Chinese received as "a happy portent ... of Heaven's favor and proof of the virtue of the emperor." Cheng Ho also visited the East African port of Brawa on his fifth expedition (1417-19). Soon, however, the region would receive visitors from a completely different country, one destined to have an enormous impact on East Africa: Portugal.


After rounding the Cape of Good Hope on November 22, 1497, Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) sailed up the eastern coast of Africa, arriving at Malindi on March 29, 1498. The crew were in dire straits when they arrived, suffering from scurvy and badly in need of supplies. Malindi proved to be a friendly port for the Europeans, and not only did they take on the stores they needed—including fresh fruit to deal with the scurvy—but there they also contracted the services of a skilled pilot, Ahmed ibn Madgid. With his help, they were able to sail successfully on to India, where they arrived on May 18.

Pedro Alvares Cabral (1467-c. 1519) landed at Sofala, in Mozambique, in July 1500 before sailing up the coast. His crew received a hostile reception at Kilwa on July 26—the city's rulers took them for pirates—but like the expedition under Gama before them, they were welcomed at Malindi on August 2.

The years that followed the Portuguese arrival saw a protracted struggle between the Europeans and the Arabs for control of East Africa. The Arabs, however, were much more firmly established than the Europeans, and benefited from the help of their allies in Oman. By 1740 they had driven out the Portuguese, and under Sayyid Sa'id (r. 1806-56), the East African city-states achieved a degree of unity with one another and with Oman.

Until the time of Sayyid Sa'id, slavery had not been a significant factor in East Africa. Certainly the Arabs had enslaved Zanj during the Middle Ages, and the population of slaves in the Middle East became so great that during the ninth century they staged a protracted revolt against their Arab masters in Iraq, but slavery in East Africa never reached the proportions it did in West Africa during the period from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In the late eighteenth century, however, French demand for slaves in their New World colonies led to the expansion of the slave trade in East Africa.

During the nineteenth century, the cultural and political climate of East Africa became increasingly complicated. Migrant Indian workers constituted a new ethnic element, while Britain and even Germany emerged as colonial powers in the region. Then, in the period after World War II, the Europeans began to let go of their colonies in East Africa, until in 1975 the Portuguese in Mozambique became the last to go. Arab power had long since been eclipsed, as had the influence of the trading city-states of the Indian Ocean coast.


Further Reading


Clark, Leon E., editor. Through African Eyes: Cultures in Change. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Davidson, Basil. African Kingdoms. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1978.

Davidson, Basil, with J. E. F. Mhina and Bethwell A. Ogot. East and Central Africa to the Late Nineteenth Century. London: Longmans, 1967.

Internet Sites

Celebi, Joan E. "The Indian Ocean Trade:" A Classroom Simulation."

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The Arab-Persian Trading Cities of East Africa

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