The east coast of Africa experiences seasonally alternating ‘trade’ winds which have enabled sailing dhows to travel up and down the coast, fostering the movement of people and goods between the countries of Arabia, the Western Indian Ocean and East Africa for many centuries. Long before the first Europeans arrived in the area a loose confederation of coastal city states had developed along the East African coast which formed the basis of the unique Swahili culture of coastal East Africa. Three of these ancient ‘city states’ are now designated as world heritage sites.
All three are located on islands off the coast, where they were established around natural sheltered harbours. They were all flourishing towns by the 13th century, 300 years before the arrival of the Portuguese. At this time they were the centres of trade between the African interior and the countries of Arabia and the East. There is evidence that Kilwa Kisiwani had strong trade links with the gold-rich empire centred on Great Zimbabwe, and there were other well-established trading routes into the African interior from which ivory, gold, foodstuffs and slaves were exchanged for pottery, porcelain and other manufactured goods.
Following the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century, the economic and political life of the ancient Swahili settlements was severely disrupted, as the Portuguese sought to control trade and commerce in the area. Kilwa Kisiwani went into terminal decline and only the ruins of its opulent splendour and heritage now remain. Lamu Old Town is thought to be the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement on the East African coast, located on a small island off the north coast of Kenya. There are no vehicles on the island and goods are still moved through the narrow twisted alleyways of the town by donkey. Many of its cultural and architectural treasures – ornate courtyard homes with elaborately carved Arabic doors - date from the period of Omani Arab control from 1698 to the mid 1800s, during a Golden Age after the Portuguese had been overthrown.
The Stone Town of Zanzibar is today much bigger than Lamu, and its architecture includes a fusion of many different elements and influences. Much of it is more recent than Lamu, dating from the second half of the 19th century, after the Sultan of Oman had moved his sultanate to Zanzibar.
To read more about each of the world heritage sites characterising Arab influences in East Africa, and see a slideshow of each place, follow these links: