We explore the Age of Lost Empires by visiting the lost age of Swahili Kingdoms of the Ancient Swahili Coast, a formidable global trading empire that drew its strength and influence from extensive trade linking the African hinterland, to the East and Europe via the Indian Ocean.
The Kingdoms of Azania
One of the earliest sources on the lost age of Swahili Kingdoms is the reference to ‘Azania’ by the Greeks around 100 AD. The most important early written source that uses the word ‘Azania’ is the famous travelers guide of antiquity called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. The Periplus, which was likely written by a Greek-Egyptian, describes Indian Ocean trade and region in the early Roman Era.
It is accepted that “Azania” is the Periplus’ term for the east coast of Africa being the land of the lost age of Swahili Kingdoms.
The Swahili Coast, as the title suggests, was the coastal belt running a thousand miles from Mogadishu in the north to Sofala (near modern Beira, Mozambique) in the south, and also including the islands in between. Towns surrounding the natural harbours along this coast grew into small city-states, principally Kilwa, Malindi, Mogadishu, Mombasa, Pate, Sofala and Zanzibar.
Kilwa, in the south of modern-day Tanzania, one of the principal states of the lost age of Swahili Kingdoms, was built on a pair of islands in a sheltered bay in an excellent defensive position.
The Swahili Coast: Kilwa
The founding myth of Kilwa describes settlers and traders from Arabia and the Persian Gulf arriving, and setting up trading cities on the island. Another story describes a Persian ruler from Shiraz fleeing his own city, and being granted the island by the African ruler, perhaps in exchange for a payment in cloth.
However, evidence suggests that there were African settlements there before this and oral accounts describe people moving to Kilwa from the mainland according to the season, for agricultural purposes. Archaeological evidence supports this, showing that there are African origins for many of the settlements on the coast that have been excavated. It seems as though the claim to origins in Arabia or Persia was part of the claims to legitimacy of the Swahili rulers, and that the civilisation, although strongly influenced by merchants and traders travelling down from the Gulf area.
The origins of the lost age of Swahili Kingdoms was therefore an African one.
In around AD 956, Sultan Ali became the first ruler of independent Kilwa, and set about expanding its influence. Soon after this, the rulers of Kilwa started to mint distinctive coins, with rhyming inscriptions naming the rulers. These provide an important source of evidence for the names of the Sultans of Kilwa, and for the trade on the East African coast.
Al the way to the 15th Century, the Swahili Coast enjoyed strong international trading ties with the East, China and Europe. Unfortunately, it also attracted the attention of the Portuguese who sacked Kilwa in 1505 and put a temporary end to the power of the coastal states.
The wealth of Kilwa depended on trade in timber, ivory and other goods from the interior of Africa which were then exchanged with merchandise from Arabia and India and East Asia. One of the things that was traded along the Swahili coast was gold. Gold was mined in Zimbabwe and transported through other parts of the Swahili coast. In the 13th century, the city of Kilwa, an island off the coast, took control of the gold trade from Mogadishu. Kilwa became very powerful and wealthy because of its control of the gold trade.
Other goods from the African interior included copper, iron, coconuts, ivory and rhinoceros horn. In exchange, porcelain from China, and jewellery, glass, and cloth from India flowed through Kilwa and into the continent. Those who wished to trade could either do so directly at Sofala, or through the sultan at Kilwa.
In the early 15th century, the Chinese started equipping a series of huge fleets to develop the routes to India and beyond. They reached the coast of east Africa, and established diplomatic relations between the Ming dynasty and Mogadishu, Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Kilwa in 1415 and a giraffe was taken from Malindi to Beijing as a diplomatic gift for the Chinese emperor, where it caused great excitement.
This marked the height of the lost age of Swahili Kingdoms prior to Portuguese conquest.
Decline & Legacy
The Swahili Coast continued to thrive until the Portuguese arrived on the Eastern coast of Africa. In order to take control of the gold trade the Portuguese attacked settlements on the Swahili coast including Kilwa in 1505, and the city is in ruins to this day.
The kingdoms on the Swahili coast began to decline because of colonization by the Portuguese, who were interested in controlling the trade markets on the Swahili coast. Since the Portuguese took over the trade markets the kingdoms were not able to trade as much as before and as a result began to decline.
Nevertheless, the lost age of Swahili Kingdoms demonstrates that independent, thriving African States engaged and flourished in International Trade, being recognised as members of the International Community prior to their destruction and conquest by Colonial powers.
Check out the documentary below on the Swahili Commercial World and our Age of Empires Page.