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  • Research Notes:Monumental Tomb Architecture of the Medieval Swahili Coast
  • Thomas R. Gensheimer (bio)

Vanga lies on a bluff at the end of a narrow coastal inlet, just miles from the border between Kenya and Tanzania. As the tide recedes, the inlet becomes a broad marshy flat, exposing the stubby aerial roots of the mangrove forests that choke the banks of the channel. Beaching the dhows in the shallow waters, the people of this local Swahili community wade through the shallows to unload their recent catches of fish. It is a scene that has been repeated for centuries along the East African coast, as the Swahili developed a unique and prosperous culture through the exploitation of the resources particular to the coast since the beginning of the Common Era. Islam was introduced as early as the eighth century C.E. and remains the predominant religion along the coast to this day, the legacy of traders coming from southern Arabia, Iran, and western India to exchange their cargoes of glazed pottery, textiles, and porcelains from as far away as China for the rare and exotic materials of the African continent such as ivory, ambergris, and gold.

Historically the Swahili occupied the narrow strip of coastal lands stretching from the scrublands of southern Somalia to the tropical forests of Kenya and Tanzania, establishing themselves on offshore islands or near tidal creeks along the shoreline. Throughout the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, these settlements formed a chain of independent city-states, with many developing into substantial trading centers. This was a period of unprecedented architectural and urban development, of which only scattered remnants survive today. One of the most distinctive and enigmatic architectural forms that developed during this time were the structures associated with burials. The remains of monumental tomb structures dating to the medieval period still litter the coastal regions and mark many of the long-vanished centers of Swahili life in the period prior to European contact and domination.

Swahili tombs present a challenge to anyone seeking to document and categorize their specific architectural forms and meanings. Cities that have survived from the medieval period have been largely rebuilt over the centuries, obliterating many of the ancient structures with later development. Likewise, development of the coastal regions for international tourism has aided in the destruction of sites and structures located outside the modern urban centers. Many surviving medieval settlements exist only as overgrown ruins, often in difficult areas or remote locations with limited access, some accessible only by dhows that need to be poled up narrow tidal creeks. Safety can also be a concern, with the possibility of encountering a wayward lion, armed bandits, or any one of numerous poisonous snakes that populate the coastal forests. Limited historical evidence also hinders efforts to uncover the significance and social context of such structures, since they are largely ignored in European accounts prior to the latter part of the nineteenth century.1

Fortunately their construction from quarried coral and coral rag bound together with lime mortar and then covered with a lime plaster allowed them to survive long past other traditional structures found along the coast built from mud, [End Page 107] timber, and thatch. At times, they comprise all that remains of a once prosperous medieval Swahili site. The prevalence of their survival may be in part a result of the popular Islamic tradition that states that materials used for a religious structure cannot be reused for another purpose. But their continued existence may be related as well to traditional African concepts that place importance on the eternal presence of the ancestors within African societies. The relative scarcity of these tomb structures and the resources devoted to their construction suggest that those buried within were once prominent members of local Swahili communities, either rulers or more likely influential religious leaders or notable holy persons.

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Figure 1.

Tomb enclosure on qibla side of Kongo Mosque, south Kenya coast. Photograph by author.

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Figure 2.

Tomb enclosure with stepped corners at the site of Atu, Pate Island, north Kenya coast. Photograph by author.

The earliest monumental tomb structures found at Kilwa...


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pp. 107-114
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