Swahili Architecture

The Swahili coast of eastern and south-eastern Africa has had a very long history as a locus within extensive interior and international trade networks. The region has acted as a 'middleman' between Indian Ocean and African trade routes for over 2000 years. As Islam spread out from the Arabian peninsula, trade became easier and more extensive, and wealthy Islamic merchants rose to form an elite group on the coast. The first evidence of Islam in the area is found in the 9th century,  and the creation of a shared African-Islamic identity became an important part of Swahili culture, cementing economic relationships through architecture and material culture.

Architecture and status became very intertwined. The houses built by the merchant class were often constructed from stone and dehydrated coral, and show very strong Islamic and Portuguese influences that starkly contrast to the more traditional mud and wattle buildings that were prevalent further inland. Doorways were very ornate to reflect the social symbolism with which they were imbued: only suitably wealthy and well-connected kin could enter, and high-status women were kept in the warrens of courtyards and secret passages within, literally never setting foot in the street. Trading deals, the lifeblood coastal culture, were conducted just within the doorway, according them a further level of importance.

The houses' interiors were also highly reflective of the area's deep cultural mix. Typically-Arabian niches were carved into the walls to house their owners' collection of goods traded from all over the world: artefacts from China, Iran, India and Indonesia have all been found, as well as from the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Old, ornately-carved wooden doors from merchant houses in Lamu, Kenya's oldest occupied town.

Exterior of old house, date unknown (but looks 19th century) Tanzania.

Interior (note niches) of 19th-century house, Lamu.