The Swahili people number approximately half a million, inhabiting a string of small settlements along the East African coast in parts of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. They are believed to have descended from Bantu-speaking agriculturalists who lived in an area reaching roughly from Kenya's Tana River in modern Kenya to the Webi Shebelle region of Somalia. Although they had long supplemented their farming with fishing, it is believed that around 500 A.D. these people began to trade and migrate along the coast. Over the next three centuries migrant groups moved south by ship, establishing settlements both on the coast and on adjacent islands. These independent polities were linked by trade as well as by a common culture and language, Swahili. From an early date, merchants from the Arab peninsula, Persia, and India settled among and intermarried with the Swahili towns' African founders.
By the 12th century Swahili culture exhibited Arab and Asian cultural influences. A distinctive Swahili architecture had emerged, which reflected these influences. Houses made of coral rag and coral stone had replaced the circular mud-and-wattle buildings found in parts of inland East Africa. The ruins at the Gedi in Kenya provide one example of early Swahili architecture. Islam was also well established along the Swahili Coast by the 12th century, though elements of indigenous African religions remained.
For centuries Swahili merchants served as middlemen, exporting products from the East African interior in exchange for goods purchased from Indian Ocean merchant ships. Especially during the 19th century, Swahili caravans traveled far into the interior in search of slaves and ivory, and some of these traders established inland trading posts. One of the most renowned nineteenth-century Swahili traders was the Zanzibari Tippu Tip, whose trading empire stretched from the East African coast to the western bank of the Lualaba River in the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).
The arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century began a long era of foreign rule on the Swahili Coast. The imam (religious leader) of Oman drove the Portuguese from the coast in 1698, and gradually established his authority over the coast. Omani influences on Swahili culture proved to be very significant. In addition to introducing many Arabic words into the Swahili language, the Omani cultivated the belief that the way they practiced Islam and their social status was superior to that of the Swahili. Arab ancestry thus became a marker of status.
Beginning in the late 19th century, European colonial rule brought further changes to Swahili society. Although parts of the Swahili Coast remained under Omani control, European colonialism eventually brought an end to slave trading, and more generally undermined the Swahili's traditional role as East African middlemen. Modern shipping has taken over the long-distance ocean trade routes once traveled by dhows, the Swahili's wooden sailing vessels. Cities such as Mogadishu and Mombasa, now major industrial ports, have attracted many migrants from the East African interior. Swahili now contains many English words and has become the lingua franca of much of East Africa, spoken by more than 130 million people.
Source: Microsoft Encarta Africana. ©1999 Microsoft Corporation. Used with permission.