Swahili Coast is a narrow strip of land occupied the nearly 3000 km long coastline of Eastern Africa from Mozambique in the South to Somalia in the North, the area is home to what is referred to as Swahili Architecture, it encompasses a cultural combination of influence from mainland Africa, to MiddleEast, Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia. Swahili culture is the culture of Swahili people inhabiting Swahili Coast, incorporating today’s Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, as well as remnants of old town Lamu, Zanzibar Stone Town, Ruins of Kilwa Kiswani, all of which have been designated as Unesco World Heritage Sites. The physical foundation of Swahili civilization is urban, developed its towns and settlements in Eastern Africa that have been continuously inhabited for hundreds of years marked by the material culture that constitutes social, economic, and cultural interactions between East Africa and other parts of the World.
It is a term used to assign a whole range of distinctive building traditions to practice along the Eastern and South-Eastern Coast of Africa taking influence from African, South Asian, and Islamic traditions. The earliest houses around the 6th century AD at Swahili Coast were earth and thatch structures. Later houses and other structures were made of coral stone, which became a defining element of Swahili Architecture. The stone houses were a symbol of stability and a representation of the seat of trade. The use of coral stone into masonry walls with a mortar of lime, sand, and red earth protects the interiors of the house from the coastal heat. For the construction of roofs, mangroves poles were used another remarkable characteristic of Swahili Architecture. These domestic stone houses are often associated with open spaces, formed by walled courtyards or compounds with other buildings.
Architectural features of Swahili Towns
Swahili towns were organized into wards divided by city walls with religion and culture playing a significant role in urban planning. Mosques were the most elaborate and permanent structures and the focal point of each ward. A standard Islamic Design was followed with a large central mosque and main streets running off north, south, east, and west from its vicinity. The physical presence of the city mosque symbolizes unity and gave character to the city. The areas surrounding central congregational mosques were open spaces for various cultural activities, another defining element of Swahili Architecture.
Streets in Swahili Architecture are significantly small and narrow and are divided into two- commercial and residential streets. The commercial bazaar streets branch off many secondary streets and residential streets leading to the various sectors of the city. These streets are characteristic urban features of stone towns in Zalidar, Lamu old town, and Mombasa old town.
Features of Swahili Houses
Swahili houses were oriented towards the North, this provides protection from the sun and also reflects the common practice of orienting houses toward the qibla. All houses were constructed of coral limestone that was the ideal building material: light, strong, and readily available. Internally the houses were designed around a self-contained central courtyard. The courtyard is the spatial nucleus of the house for daytime activities and family gatherings. The exterior of the house has massive and imposing Doorways consist of arched openings. These arched openings carry carved Arabic Inscriptions like quotes from Quran. The detailed ornamentation of the doorways is a major element that expresses Swahili Architecture. The ornately carved doors seek influence from the Middle East and Indian subcontinent.
Internally, a typical Swahili house has wooden shutter Windows that perform a dual purpose with the upper half-open for daylight and the lower half can be shut, thus allowing some airflow, and shading the inhabitants from the direct glare. The most wonderful decorative aspect of traditional houses was elaborately carved niches and surrounding decorative plasterwork found in the rearmost galleries of a house that adds a sense of perspective beauty, and depth to the interiors. These niches were used for storage and display of Chinese & European Porcelain and other ornaments.
Most houses have open Balconies that were a dominant feature in Lamu Town, Mombasa, and all other Swahili towns. These balconies were supported by carved wooden brackets enriched with carvings and motifs also create shade for the streets and entrances below as per Islamic culture.
Swahili Architecture is a material manifestation of the overlapping, fusion, and harmonization of cultures. The influence of Swahili Architecture is widespread and we can learn a lot from the way the Swahili culture adapted to the environment and context they were found in.
Over the last two decades, UNESCO has protected the status of Kilwa, Lamu, and Stone Town, and adopted the conservation plan as a guide in balancing the community needs for development and sustaining the architectural values of the old towns.
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- 23rd May, 2019, Peninah Mutonga, Adaptation of Swahili Architecture and Identity: A Case Study of Lamu Island, https://www.researchgate.net/
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- The Pervasive Influence of Swahili Architecture, https://www.archdaily.com/
- 2021, The Swahili Civilisation in Eastern Africa, https://www.academia.edu/
- Swahili Architecture, https://www.academia.edu/