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Monday, June 7, 2010

Who Built Kilwa's Swahili Civilization - Arabs, Africans or Arab-Africans/African-Arabs?

I have just arrived from Kilwa (Lindi). While there I got the same feeling I get every time I see the ruins/residues/remnants of Swahili Civilization - in Mikindani (Mtwara), Bagamoyo (Pwani), Chumbageni (Tanga) and Msasani (Dar es Salaam). The questions that bothers me are: Who built the Civilization(s)? How come we can hardly see their remnants in these areas building at least the same type of architectures/structures? Why do people residing in these areas construct (supposedly weak) muddy houses instead of (presumably strong) stony ones as it was the case in the (glorious) past?

When I probed a couple of people in Kilwa they said it is the Arabs who built it and then left after their destruction. One of them even told me that recently one of the direct descendants came from 'Saudi Arabia' to check out the ruins of what his forefathers/mothers built. Now of course I am not an expert in Archaeology or Ancient History of Africa so I haven't really read and researched much about Swahili Civilization. But as someone who resides in these parts of the world and who is concerned with (developmental) connections between our past, present and future, I need to make sense of what happened and how it affects what is happening now and what will happen then. In sum, whither our now (impoverished) coastal areas?

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Dr. Deborah Bryceson's Response
I am attaching a paper that doesn't answer your question about the differences in architecture, but argues strongly against the idea that Swahili culture was 'Arab' or alternatively 'African', but rather creole. And while the architecture has fallen by the wayside the language and urban cosmopolitanism of Dar as opposed to other East African cities is an important legacy. But I am sure many would not agree with my interpretation in one way or another!
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Prof. Felix Chami's Response
You need to read more. We Africans do not read or look for literature. We bank on hearsays. There are too many documents published since 1970s showing that most of the Swahili coast monumental sites belong to Africans. For the most recent book see Chami (ed) 2009, Zanzibar and the Swahili coast from 30,000 years ago.You are welcome to my office for more literature.
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Adam Lingson's Response
I too, am puzzled.

That such great structures were something in part or wholly erected by 'visitors' I take for granted; but more to is why didnt 'we' emulate or learn such great arts/sciences? Tumeweza kwa mfano kuiga (sorry i mean kufuata) such complex ustaarabu as their religion, hadi makanzu yao, vibaraghashia hata bakora nk, lakini kwanini ujenzi huu ulitushinda kabisa? Je walituficha?

It appears to me this continues today - Tunajifunza ufisadi na upuuzi wote wa kimagharibi, lakini tumeshindwa sana kujifunza uzalendo na maono ya mbali kwa maslahi ya taifa kama walivyo wamagharibi hawa. Kunani hapaaaaa BONGO!!!?
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Mark Richardson's Response

Kilwa was founded by a Persian Prince Shiraz (not a local Bantu speaking Swahili) in 987.

Cape Town (Kaapstad) was founded by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652.

When Ibn Batuta visited Kilwa in in 1331, he found a lot of well dressed and wealthy black men there approximately 400 years after the place had been established.

If you care to visit Cape Town (Kaapstad) right now, (approximately 400 years after the place was established) you will find a very large number of wealthy and well dressed black men there - a president of the country amongst them - if you drop into "Tuin Huis" (just give him a little advanced notice).

Neither the Swahili speaking Bantu in Kilwa, nor the Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Pedi, Tswana, Ndebele etc. speaking Bantu in Cape Town (Kaapstad) had any more to do with creating what was there than the contribution of directed muscle power.

All you need to do is use the same examples up and down the East Coast and throughout Southern Africa and you will be right on the button.
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Rustum Kubwa's Response
Thats a good question Chambi, the actual truth is that, those buildings were constructed by swahili people who some had Arab blood in them, the swahilis built stone houses before the advent of arabs and this started north of east africa where a lot of evidence lies. Much of Gulf arabia never had stone buildings but scattered mud buildings with the exception of Yemen where the architecture is credited to have come from but much inferior to the swahili who used lime instead of mud, their only resemblance lies in the architecture, not materials. The art of limestone buildings goes back to the days of syrian golden years when damascus was the center of trade in all middle east they used lime for construction, so whether the architecture did come from syria is yet to be determined even though the swahili people did reach that far in trading, had the portuguese and the british not come to east africa, the swahili civilisation might have progressed to even higher heights. So in reality its the hybrid race of wangozi and arabs with an asian touch that created those buildings.
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"It is pointless to argue whether it was essentially an African or Arab culture given that it would not have existed in the absence of one or the other. Furthermore, it is helpful to see the process of ethnic fusion in a world historical perspective. Swahili culture, as an outcome of creolization" [- Deborah Bryceson]

This satement in itself diputes Deborah's claim, the one thing a writer, a thorough one does is to first identify the original place of conception before, determining anything that concerns a proposed thesis, you cannot begin from the middle, you have first to claim a point of begining something lacking in her article, she concentrates much on Dar es Salaam, a very young settlement, than Kilwa, what she should tell us, is which was the first settlement for the swahili people along the coast of east africa, and what type of swahili was being spoken, what was it called then, because swahili is an arabic word not bantu, where was it first spoken. The second part is she should say when was the first arab migration to east africa, because judging by her writing looks very recent, till all avenues are exhausted then, only then can one confidently present such an article, i also have one but am not confident enough to present it as am still seeking new info because each new encounter goes against the old one. The swahili civilisation, to me, started north of east african coast between somalia and kenya, what gives more confidence is the mention of the legendary shungwaya empire which is supposed to have existed in the same area and the oldest manuscripts to date plus oral history from my grandfathers. What i am searching for at the moment is how it migrated south, what were the words used before the advent of arabs, not persians, where did they borrow those words from, which part or clan of the hinterland bantus.
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Prof. Gloria Emeagwali's Response

………. And I guess she [Deborah Bryceson] would say that Arab civilization is also ‘creole’, having gained a great deal from African Egypt. Greek civilization is also ‘creole’ - having gained a lot from Ancient Egypt, at least according to the ancient Greeks themselves. The word creole is almost meaningless in discussing civilizations.

The civilization was fundamentally African. I thought this matter was settled long ago. See the video, AFRICA: A History Denied.

‘How come we can hardly see their remnants in these areas building at least the same type of architectures/structures?’ Chambi Chachage

Unfortunately civilizations do not necessarily grow in a linear format. Some probably do. Most don’t. I guess you would doubt that ancient Tanzanians were producing steel in antiquity, but generally lost the capability to do so by the 1960s.
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Prof. Abdul Sheriff's Response
You have raised a very fundamental question not only about the Swahili civilisations, but of all civilisations – who indeed built the monuments of all these civilisations – but I am not sure you start with the right hypothesis. You ask ‘Who built Kilwa’s Swahili civilisation - Arabs, Africans, Arab-Africans/African-Arabs?’ The dominant concept in all four is race.

One thing that we know about the history of the East African coast from the very first written account is that it has been visited regularly with the monsoons for more than 2000 years by traders and sailors from across the ocean. As we know from history, sailors in most cultures have been predominantly males, and they spread their wild oats wherever they went. As the Periplus of the first century says: ‘Arab skippers and agents who, through continual intercourse and intermarriage, are familiar with the area and its language.’

We also know from the Kilwa Chronicle that the first Shirazi ruler of Kilwa married the daughter of a local chief, and therefore the next ruler was Shirazo-African, if you want to stick to the race criterion. But in reality he was a prince of the mercantile ruling elite, and a creole, as Debbie Bryceson has said, if you still think the racial categorisation is an important historical consideration.

We are all familiar with the trilateral categorisation of the Zanzibar population between Arabs, Indians and Africans that dominated, and unfortunately still dominates our thinking of the recent history of Zanzibar. However, a recent genetic study of the Zanzibar population has shown that while 35% of the people, (even more than what censuses had been telling us), had inherited their genes from their immigrant fathers, 98% of them had had also inherited their genes from their Sub-Saharan African mothers. All this makes a mockery of our racial understanding of the history of the Swahili civilisation. But what should be the correct question to ask?

And this reminds me of the famous poem by Bertolt Brecht (‘A Worker Reads History’, quoted in H. Kjekshus, Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History, London: James Currey, 1st ed. 1977:

Who built the seven tower of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go?


The history of civilisations is not the ‘biography of great men’ and their monumental residences, but the complete account of all the people, their way of life, their production and consumption, their culture in its widest sense, beliefs, etc.

On this count our history and archaeology have indeed been guilty of almost total preoccupation with ‘Men and Monuments of the East African Coast’ (the exact title of a book by the colonial archaeologist of Kenya James Kirkman) The best of archaeology that is being done now does try to document the whole way of life of the people that can be preserved materially, although in some cases it is still dominated by the colonial paradigm of race, and that which is exposed to the tourist public is still predominantly monuments of the rulers.

It does not require a genius to realise that stone houses formed only a small percentage of the total habitations in the Swahili towns. A detailed list of the houses at the end of the 19th century showed that there were four huts for every stone house in the Zanzibar ‘Stone Town’ before the British moved out the huts to the Ng’ambo ‘native quarter.’ In this sense, the so-called ‘Stone Town’ is not a Swahili conception of urbanisation (as some anthropologists have begun to believe), but a British colonial creation.

Some archaeologists have begun to systematically excavate the mud and thatch houses of the poorer classes in between the stone houses in these towns in Pemba, and even the in the villages surrounding these Swahili towns on which they thrived (see Adrea Lavilette’s works). Some of the research may try to do genetic study of the people, and we should not be surprised to see that even in these poorer huts and villages there were people whose parents may have been immigrants who were either not rich merchants to start with, or were impoverished in the course of history and lived with the people with whom they intermarried, as can be historically seen with the ‘Arabs’ in Pemba in more recent times.

The fundamental question to ask, therefore, is not the race of the people who built Kilwa, who have been undergoing a continuous process of miscegenation (creolisation), but the class structure of the Swahili towns. In this sense, why is it difficult to say that the monuments and much else was built by the Swahili people of Kilwa as a cultural entity? Anything else is racial chauvinism, whether it is of the colonial rulers or of the new ‘African’ ruling classes to rewrite the history in their own image.
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2 comments:

Anonymous September 15, 2014 at 3:30 PM  

It is perhaps a little late on my part to participate in this discussion and it should be stated yours truly is a complete non-academic. However,anyone who has read my several papers online will readily recognise from the refs. cited my reading of the sources has been extensive and has occurred over many years.
Coming to the matter of the ancestry of severally called Swahili/Shirazi/Zanj, it can be understood that any discussion of this subject is likely to be vexed, especially given that this tends to prompt fied stances on either side of such discussion.
James Allen wrote what to my mind was the interesting "Swahili Origins" but which is denied as little more than a joke in John Middleton's introduction. Allen (ib.)pointed up the fact that attribution of the Swahili to either Persia/Iran and/or Arabia tended to depend on which of them dominated the western Indian Ocean at any given time. There is also the story of the seven brothers from Shiraz (Iran) founding what became the Swahili. This story competes very directly with that saying these brothers were Arabs and came not from any part of the mainland but from islands in the Persian Gulf. In any case, messrs Huyse/Donzel and Chami surely and convincingly demolished the Fors(Eth.)/Fars and Shiraz/Shirazi equations respectively some years ago.
This has at its basis that only non-Africans could be responsible for such as the Fors-type gardens, Zimbabwe-type structures,Swahili maritime history, etc. When the Benin bronzes are added, there is a tiresome familiarity attaching to this.
Such opinions were surely consigned to the dustbin years ago but looking at some of the comments prompting my mine, perhaps not.
One of those comments raises the matter of who built Cape Town. Usually joined with this is that Bantu were unknown there until the 1850s. Briefly noting those putting forward the case that Niger/Congo ancestors were known in parts of southern Af. millennia before they are alleged to have been on the currently accepted given wisdom, we go onwards and observe that as long ago as messrs Hall & Neal (not known for for their love of Blck Afs.), attention was being drawn to European maps showing that such as the Bantu-ruled Mwenmetepe/Monomatapa Empire stretched down to the Table Bay/Cape Town region.
If correct, this would mean the building of Cape Town and a Bantu presence in the neighbourhood can be seperated. It should be noted the latter would be at dates decidely anterior to those normal on the basis of received wisdom.

Pascal Bacuez October 20, 2015 at 8:37 AM  

Asante sana bui kwa ujumbe huo mzuri sana ulionasa watu wakubwa sana wanaoongea lugha ya kikoloni. Mimi mzungu nimetia komenti ya marumbano hayo ya kikoloni juu ya blogu yangu. Kwa hivyo naomba, chonde chonde, kurejelea makala hiyo murua nyumbani kwangu hapo : http://kimbilio-la-kiswahili.blogspot.ug/2015/10/ati-nani-kabildi-kilwa-sivilization.html Wa salaam !

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