Kenya’s Islamic Swahili Coast

Journeying the Swahili Coast, a world of Islam and Africa, spiced with a hint of India and East Asia.

For centuries, traders from Iran and Oman traded and settled along the East African coast, and these merchants bought a written language and connections to a vast ocean trade route.

Gorgeous river estuary at Kilifi.
Gorgeous river estuary in Kilifi. RIGHT: houses of expats amid colors of dusk and rainstorm; Swahili ruins of Mnarani were on a bluff above the river at Kilifi. NOTE: intact Arabic inscriptions and pillar tomb.

History of the Islamic Swahili Coast

Swahili culture developed in about 60 cities long the eastern coast (from present-day Mogadishu in Somalia to Sofala in Mozambique).

Islamic Swahili ruins at over-grown tree ruin at Gede in coastal Kenya
Swahili ruins at Gede. The city reached its peak in the 15th century and was abandoned in the 17th or 18th century. A tree overgrows the mosque, reminding me of the root-strangled temple of Ta Phrom in Cambodia.

Most famous, however, were the centers of power established at the archipelago Sultanates of Lamu and Zanzibar.

islamic Swahili ruins of small mosque and baobab tree at Kilifi on the coast of kenya
Swahili ruins of a small mosque at Kilifi, overshadowed by Kenya’s 4th largest baobab tree. It is 900 years old and is still a sacred ceremonial place – that pre-dates Islam in the region.

Islamic emirates controlled the sea trade from East Africa to Asia  

That was until 1498, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, looking for a sea-passage to India.

Fort Jesus Mombasa island kenya
The Portuguese built fort Jesus in 1593 on Mombasa island. But it changed hands 9 times, between 1631 + 1875, with attacks by Swahili rebels, Omani troops and later the British.

European conquest of the Swahili Coast cities

Within 3 decades of Da Gama landing in East Africa, Portugal had subdued and controlled the Swahili Coast, its lust muscling into the lucrative Muslim-controlled spice trade.

swahili coast scenes kenya
LEFT: Postcard-cliche Diani Beach—Kenya’s mega resort-land.

RIGHT: Cross monument where Vasco da Gama set foot in 1492 on the Swahili coast at Malindi and befriended the local Sultan, who helped the Portuguese navigator sail onto India, via a guide with trade-winds knowledge and hence began the era of Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean trade routes. CENTER: Islamic Swahili ruins at Gede.

Soon Portuguese forts sprouted along strategic ports and supply points along the coasts of west and east Africa.

monkeys swahili coast of kenya
The reason to visit mega-resort Diani Beach was not the lovely beach but to stay in a tree-house, surrounded by bush and monkeys and birds, etc. LEFT: Cobus monkey + baby. BOTTOM-RIGHT: Enjoying beer in the heat on my jungle balcony. TOP-

RIGHT: Sykes monkeys—bastards. They managed somehow—even the management can’t fathom how they can get in—but they squeezed into my locked tree-hut when I was showering. They ripped open my cask of red wine and spilled it on the floor… Suppose that’s what happens when I poke out my tongue and film them—without their permission.

This trading network linked the Persian Gulf to India and Indonesia’s ‘Spice Islands’ (Ambon + East Timor).

And later, Macau (in China).

Locals fishing and collecting seafood during low tide at the small town river estuary beach of Takaunga. I later hung out with guys under the shade of the baobab tree as they smoked ganja.

But the Portuguese didn’t get it all their way.

Rival European powers seized their forts.

people scenes swahili coast kenya
People of Swahili coast: Getting a local fry-up—spiced potatoes—to have with my beer; Boarding the ferry from Mombasa Island to the mainland; Islamic woman in the old town of Mombasa, passing the Hindu-Indian influences from this ancient trade route.

And by the early 18th century, the Portuguese had lost the entire Swahili Coast to the Omani-Arab Sultanate of Zanzibar.

Takaungu island swahili coast of coast kenya
Having taken a motorbike taxi, then crossed the estuary at low-tide by small boat, I arrived at Takaungu village, to gaze out at the river-mouth view of the sea.

Travels in Kenya – 2013

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