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The Swahili people have a great affinity for coast and sea, and so excel at trade and transport.

Having formed part of the transcontinental trade flows since the 2nd millennium BC, the East African coastline remained a much-visited destination by merchants crossing the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Mediterranean at the start of the Common Era. From the 8th century onwards, the Swahili culture emerged from this as a result of contact between coastal populations and other cultural regions. It then underwent sustained growth between the 10th and 15th centuries, largely expanding along the coastline.

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The Swahili world is inextricably linked with the numerous cities founded from the 8th century onwards along the eastern coast of Africa, from Mogadishu to the mouth of the Zambezi river, in the archipelagoes of Lamu and the Comoros Islands and on the northern tip of Madagascar. Between the 10th and 15th century, they formed a series of independent states, united by the same urban, commercial and Islamic culture and a common language that incorporated vocabulary taken from Arabic and Persian into its essentially Bantu base.
The Swahili cities were dependent on the rural communities in the hinterland for their food supplies. On the continent, they maintained extensive trading networks controlled by a ruling class known as the waungwana. The latter were the indispensable intermediaries of the merchants whom they supplied with slaves, ivory, gold, salt and copper: resources that were then sent to the coasts of the Persian Golf, India and China. Swahili nobles and foreign merchants frequently entered into matrimonial alliances facilitated by their common practice of the Muslim religion, which was the main faith among these trading networks.
Commercial activity, which thrived between the 10th and 13th century, was drastically reduced by the eruption of the plague in the Indian ocean area in the 14th century. Trade then took off again in the 15th century, boosted by demand from the Ming and Ottoman empires and the dynamism of the Gujarati merchants.

Did you know?

Admiral Zeng He’s fleets visited the Swahili coasts on three separate occasions between 1413 and 1422. In response to these expeditions, the Sultan of Malindi sent Emperor Ming Yongle various emissaries and the gift of a giraffe in 1415.