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Persian myths and realities on the Swahili coast: contextualizing the 'Shirazi' civilization.
Why geneticists found what archeologists and historians had failed to locate.
As Persian as Mike Tyson? the Swahili at first glance.
"I've heard that most people in Kizimkazi claim to be Persian, To me the people look about as Persian as Mike Tyson. It’s a bit like me claiming to be white because my great-great-grandfather was an Irishman named Brady. Its taken my people fifty years to move from Negro to Black to African American. I wonder how long it will take the Swahili to call themselves African." H.L.Gates, 1999
Professor Henry Louis Gates's documentary series on African civilizations is one the most celebrated accounts of African history on film. The travelogue style documentary series titled “Wonders of the African world”, which first aired in 1999, took him from Nubia to Timbuktu to Great Zimbabwe, and showcased the splendor of Africa's past as never before seen to most western audiences. On one of his stops to the East African coastal city of Zanzibar, Gates queried two local men about their racial identity, to which they responded that they were Persian, prompting the sarcastic quip quoted above.1
Some Swahili scholars such as Ali Mazrui were heavily critical of the series, and were understandably outraged at what they considered Gate's "Black orientalism". Among other criticisms regarding Gate's interpretation of the history of Egypt and Nubia, Ethiopia's ark of the covenant, and the slave trade from el-Mina, Mazrui, who is a specialist on Swahili history, was dismayed that Gates' "second episode of the TV series on the Swahili supremely ignores the scholarly Swahili experts on the Swahili people". Mazrui charged Gates with trying to impose an American definition of race onto a society which has always been proud of its own complex form of self-identification.2 Mazrui's critique of Gates was not well received by some of his peers such as Wole Soyinka, and the back-and-forth debate between Mazrui, Soyinka and Gates deserves a documentary of its own.
However, away from the war of words in the ivory tower, the Swahili unapologetically retained their 'Shirazi' self-identification, and they continued to tell whoever would listen that their ancestors came from the Persian town of Shiraz. Fast forward to 2022, a team of archeologists and geneticists analyzed the DNA of more than 80 people buried in the ornamental tombs of 7 Swahili cities dated between 1250-1800, and found that the ancestral background was equally split between east Africa and the Persian gulf. many Swahili were satisfied with the findings of the new study, with one stating that “It confirms the way I’ve always seen myself.” 3
Who are the ‘shirazi’ of early Swahili history? And why couldn’t archeologists and historians find them before geneticists did?. This article explores the Shirazi-Persian question in the history of the Swahili.
Map of the western Indian ocean showing the various African, Arabian and Persian coastal cities.4
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Excavating the Shirazi “myth”. From Persians to Arabs in Swahili archeology (1920-1970s)
"The reason for their leaving Shiraz in Persia was their Sultan one day dreamed a dream. He was called Hasan Ibn Ali: he was the father of these six men and the seventh of those who left." Kilwa chronicle, 1552
Like most of Africa, Swahili historiography heavily relies on archeology, as much as it does on other disciplines, in reconstructing the origins and evolution of Swahili societies. Even though some historians of Swahili society have decried the resulting "confusion" from allowing these other disciplines to "determine almost entirely the content and boundaries of our discourse".5
Early archeologists working with a relatively limited set of tools and information, focused their attention on the monumental ruins and elite sections of the old cities. And as has always been the case for all scholars working on history, these early archeologists were influenced by the prevailing political and social conditions of the colonial era in which they lived. In this colonial context of western foreign elites ruling over a subject "native" population; the "Swahili towns struck outsiders as foreign transplants" and the Swahili's own writings such as the Kilwa chronicle quoted above, appeared to confirm the colonialist's preconceptions.6
In the colonial era, the nebulous definition of what constitutes "foreign" in Africa was informed by a pre-conceived racial conception of "African-ess" created in the Atlantic world. In its essentialist understanding of social identities, everything perceived to be "foreign" (like the colonists) was considered superior to everything "native" (like their subjects). Their interpretation of African-ness and African history within this racialist world-view was not confined to the Swahili but to every part of the continent, from Nubia to pre-Aksumite Ethiopia, to the Yoruba of Ife and to Great Zimbabwe7. These colonial scholars were less concerned with achieving accurate historical reconstructions than with reasserting their own world vision. They thus interpreted pre-existing traditions of Swahili history in ways that supported their own rationales. Periodizing Swahili history in two vaguely defined eras labeled "Persian" and "Arab", the former being preceeding the latter.8
Its in this context that colonial writers such as Francis Pearce’s 1920 book on Zanzibar history, William Ingrams’ 1931 book on Zanzibar’s history and Lawrence Hollingsworth 1929 book on the history of the East African coast, popularized the idea of early Swahili history as belonging to a Persian civilization which was "not African" but the achievement of an immigrant ruling class. They believed they could discern a distinctive "shirazi" style of architecture in the older ruins, superseded later by an Arab style. They considered the early period to be the work of a Persian-ruled "Zinj empire", which they credited with the introduction of coral-stone architecture, wood carving and cotton weaving.9
Their opinions on the so-called Shirazi colonization of east Africa were taken up by the 'professional' historian Reginald coupland in his aptly titled book "East Africa and its Invaders" published in 1939. Coupland then passed this interpretation on to the archeologist James Kirkman, whose excavations at Gedi beginning in 1948, were the first of their kind for any Swahili city. It was Kirkman however, who first cast doubt on the received knowledge about the Persian to Arab periodization. Kirkman found no epigraphic evidence for the existence of Persian settlers at Gedi, and concluded that the Persian loanwords in Swahili would have come from Arabic. Writing that "the distinction between Arabs and Persians is deprecated. It is far better to avoid use of the term Persian until there is some evidence of the use of Persian speech and Persian customs which have not been adopted by the Arabs".10
Ruins of Gedi in Kenya, Kirkman found that its stone-buildings were constructed gradually, several centuries after the city had emerged.
Identifying Persian ‘colonists’ in Swahili material culture continued to elude archeologists as more medieval Swahili cities and archipelagos such as Mombasa, Manda, Lamu were dug up between 1948-1956. The ruins of Gedi, Ungwana, Kilepa, among other towns yielded a lot of local handmade pottery (later called 'tana' wares and 'kwale' wares) with some imported Chinese and Islamic glazed wares (often wheel-made), the latter of which enabled the earliest phases of the cities to be dated to the 13th century11.
Following kirkman's new periodization, these ruins were labeled "Arab" not necessary for their settlers but for their dating. It wasn't until 1963 that just two epigraphic inscriptions of Persian names were found at Mogadishu, and by 1973, archeologists G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville and B. G. Martin compiled a list of more than 34 inscriptions from the same city, and dozens from along the coast, only two of which had Persian nisbas (al-Khurasani and al-Shirazi) dated to the 13th century.12
Excavating the “African” roots of the Swahili (1970s-2010s)
In 1978, the archeologist Neville Chittick briefly resurrected the idea of a 'Persian' periodization with the publications of his decades-long excavations at Manda. Chittick claimed Manda was created by immigrants from the Persian gulf. According to Chittick, Manda was larger, richer and older than other Swahili sites. Its use of brick and stone in construction was imilar to Siraf and Sohar, and its proportion of imported wares was higher than later "African" and "Afro-arab" towns. Chittick claimed that small numbers of colonists from the 9th/10th century province of Fars (with a mixed Persian Arab population) intermarried with Swahili elites and by virtue of their trading links created their own elite lineages spread throughout the towns. With time, the 'colonists' became culturally and "racially" indistinguishable from the Swahili.13
Chittick's peers, especially the archeologist Mark Horton and historian James de Vere Allen found his findings unpersuasive. The latter in particular was compiling sources for a lengthy monograph on Swahili origins (eventually published in 1993) in which he explored the varying oral and written traditions, both internal and external (from Arabic to Persian to Chinese to Swahili to Portuguese), to address the elusiveness of Swahili identity. Allen viewed the Swahili as a highly permeable nd fluid population where identity was constantly redefined and origin myths adjusted to suit political prerogatives of the elite. 14
They included not just the shirazi origin, but also the ever-present shungwaya traditions, and other origin traditions tying the swahili to mainland groups such as Majikenda and Segeju, as well as some Cushitic speaking groups. Allen found no external textural evidence for a Persian migration, and showed that the Swahili were themselves unfamiliar with the location of Shiraz (an inland city which had been well-past its heyday even in the 10th century), but were familiar with other coastal towns, indicating that wa-shirazi connection was more about status. Allen's understanding of Swahili origins was at odds with the colonist model proposed by Chittick, and he wasn’t alone.15
As an archeologist, Mark Horton's critique of Chittick was more focused on the latter's methods of excavations which informed his interpretations. Horton says Chittick's dating of Manda's earliest layers to 850 AD, was based on Chinese wares found in a beach site far from the settlement, and could have been disturbed by water action, Horton instead prefers the better preserved Islamic pottery which he dates much earlier to 800AD. This would make Manda contemporary to similar sites excavated by Horton such as Shanga and other sites on the Lamu archipelago16.
Horton also questioned whether the earliest phases of Manda were built in stone, unlike his own excavations at Shanga whose stratigraphy showed a clear progression from round mud-walled huts, to coral stone houses. Horton pointed out that the earliest coral-stone buildings in Chittick's own account were 2-3 centuries older than the town's purported founding, making it unlikely that Chittick's Persian colonists took centuries to re-create building techniques they would have already been familiar with. Furthermore, Manda's houses, like all early swahili "stone" houses, were built with Poitres coral which was cut undersea, while all contemporary Persian construction at Shiraz and Siraf used bricks and sandstone, with the only similar poitres-coral houses being built in the southern red-sea at the african island of Dahlak Kebir. The Swahili architectural layout was also very dissimilar to the Siraf/Shiraz style, houses at Manda (and Shanga) were set in a podium, had central cisterns, with annexed rooms built around them, which was unlike the layout used in Siraf, but was coincidentally similar to that used in the southern red sea. Horton showed Chittick's Persian colonization model to be untenable, there was simply too little evidence for Persians on the coast, with the only few external influences -If any- coming from the red-sea and southern Arabia.17
Mark Horton's findings at Shanga showed that the 8th century iron-age town emerged gradually as a small fishing and farming village, it occupants grew African grains, were marginally engaged in foreign trade and lived in round-thatched houses of mud walls before slowly replacing them with timber and coral-stone constructions, —this definitively proved an African origin of the Swahili cities, something hinted at by Chittick's excavations at Kilwa in 1965 before he abandoned this view after the Manda excavations18. Further archeological digs over the subsequent decades would confirm the pattern of growth popularized by Horton, that Swahili cities emerged as African villages in the second half of the 1st millennium, grew into cosmopolitan mercantile towns by the 11/12th century, and became centers of agglomerated polities by the mid-second millennium.
The most recent compilation of Swahili archeological studies and interdisciplinary research by more than 50 Swahilists was published in 2018, titled 'The Swahili world', was edited by the archeologists Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Adria LaViolette. In their introduction, Wynne-Jonnes and LaViolette summarize this definitive shift in Swahili archeology and early history, writing that "There are now no serious scholars who suggest external origins or significant Arab or Persian colonisation as the starting point for coastal settlement.".19
It should however be noted that while the dozens of Swahili cities show a gradual emergence from small villages to large cosmopolitan towns, there is one notable exception of Sanje ya Kati, which appears to have been founded, settled and abandoned in a short period of time during the 11th-13th century. Excavated by the archeologist Stephane Pradines who published his results in 2009, Sanje was identified as the ‘Shang’ of Kilwa’s chronicles. Its sudden appearance on a site with little prior settlement, with a fully developed architectural tradition and high proportion of imported wares could only have been the work of immigrants from the Persian gulf. 20
While Sanje ya Kati provides some archeological evidence of Persians at the Swahili coast, no similar sites have been found on the coast which emerged suddenly like it did. All the recent archeological digs such as Tumbe and Chwaka on Pemba island display the same type of stratigraphy better known at Shanga, where a small 7th century African village grew into a cosmopolitan costal town by the 11th century.21
Mosque sequence revealed through excavation by Horton at Shanga, showing some of the remains of the earlier timber mosque and its post-holes, that was later enlarged several times until the final phases which used coral-stone.
Linguists and Historians debating foreign influences on Swahili language and society (1980s-2010s)
At the same time Horton published his ground-breaking study of Shanga in the 1980s, linguists such as Thomas Hinnebusch, Derek Nurse, and Thomas spear proved that Swahili was a predominantly African language of the Sabaki subgroup, closely related to the mainland Sabaki speakers including Elwana, Pokomo, Comorian, and Mijikenda. These were inturn descended from a broader stream of Bantu-peaking peoples called the Northeast-Coastal Bantu-speakers, who had migrated to the coast and its from the Great Lakes region around 100-200 AD. By using the methods of historical linguistics, Nurse and Spear's 1985 book; The Swahili: reconstructing the history and language, helped to prove that the Swahili were entirely Bantu ("African") in their ancestry, and not "Arabs," as scholars as late as the 1960s had thought. Based on the evidence of loanwords, they contended further that "Persians", "Indians", "Arabs" and other exogenous peoples (including mainland Africans) played little role in Swahili history until the 19th century. The classification of Swahili as a Bantu language was widely accepted by Linguists and confirmed by subsequent research.22
While the linguists' conclusion that Swahili was a bantu (African) language was also accepted by historians in the decades since, some historians claim that when it comes to reconstructing early Swahili history based on linguistic evidence, the linguists were too dismissive of the exogenous influences. The historian most critical of the Linguists' view of early Swahili history was Randal Pouwells. In the years following Kirkman's publications, Pouwels and his peers such as Spencer Trimingham had in the 1960s dismissed the Persian colonist model as mostly legendary associated with the northern towns, differing from Freeman-Grenville who initially contended that the Swahili are of "pure Bantu stock" but that some would have descended from immigrant sailors. 23
Pouwels also differed from his peers like James Allen and Thomas Spear who in the 1970s, suggested the nothern Swahili towns of cosmopolitan 'Shungwaya' (with its mixed Bantu, Cushitic and Arab population) were the dispersal point of the Shirazi legends. Pouwells instead found that the Shungwaya dispersal happened much later and was associated with the "Arab" families who played a prominent role post-1600, and who were the subject of Pouwel's studies.24
Beginning with his 1987 publication "Horn and Crescent", and in later articles, Pouwels maintains that external contacts played as much of a role as internal changes in the development of Swahili society. The combined internal and external influences altered local value systems, created new symbols of power and furthered the growth of social complexity. Responding to the Linguists, Pouwels states that "The Northeast Coastal, Sabaki, and early Swahili did not live in a vacuum, so exogenous influences on their cultural metamorphoses have to be fully considered in any discussion". He adds that "the fact that many of these items were confined to just a few spheres does not obviate the significance of these influences. To the contrary: they attest to the role played by foreign ideas in the social, economic, and cultural changes that were occurring in coastal societies". Observing that the existence of Arabic as a written language by the 9th century, alongside Swahili as the lingua franca, means that the former may not have been "represented accurately in loanword evidence of the sort found in linguistics research".25
Its important to note that many Swahili specialists adjusted their interpretations of early Swahili history when presented with new evidence, but generally speaking, there was a consensus on the Swahili's settlement's African origins even though there was disagreement on the role played by exogenous groups from the African mainland, the Persian gulf and the Arabian peninsular. There was much firmer evidence for Arabian (and mainland) influences on Swahili society in the 12th/13th century (coinciding with the Swahili's islamization) and accelerating in the post-1500s era. A short monograph by B. G. Martin in 1974 on early Arab migrations to the Swahili coast was the first of many studies that would reveal more conclusive evidence of small Arab families (often Alawi saintly families from Hadramawaut in Yemen) settling on the coast at varying intervals, while Pouwels' extensive studies of such migrations follows them well into the 19th century.26
Pouwels' study shows that the immigrant elites were never 'colonists' who imposed their cultural and political values on the Swahili but were instead thoroughly acculturated into the Swahili society, their offspring from marriage alliances with local elite women were then accepted into Swahili elite circles, they could accumulate wealth from trade, and some were buried in monumental tombs like other elites. It should be noted that the accepted 'arabs' only refered to a select class (often Alawis and northern Swahili families from Brava who claimed Arab origins) but not most Arabs who were disdained for being lowclass (eg Hadramis) or overbearing (eg Omanis). 27
Pouwels stresses that "Swahili is not Arabic and coastal culture is not Arab culture, though both have borrowed some elements from the heartlands of Islam. Townspeople certainly recognized these facts in the past and, significantly, asserted the primacy of their language and civilization in the face of Arab pretensions time and time again". Pouwels’ studies on the Arab saintly lineages have recently be expanded by Anne K. Bang's ‘Sufis and scholars of the sea’ published in 2003. Both Pouwels and Bang highlighted the Alawis' contribution to Swahili literature, especially regarding poetry and genealogy, that had been mostly absent during the early centuries.28
The 16th century Kilwa chronicle: disputed authorship and conflicting versions
While inscriptions from as early as the 9th century prove that the early Swahili society was a literate one, there's little evidence for a local pre-16th century text of history like the chronicle (s) of Kilwa. The Kilwa chroncile is therefore a rather exceptional work of Swahili historical literature, both for its early date and its content. There are two Kilwa chronicles, with the older chronicle having since been proven by the historian Adrien Delmas to be a collaborative effort between the Portuguese (who interfered in Kilwa's politics beginning in 1505) and their chosen allies (installed tenuously in 1506 but later deposed). of the two versions, the older chronicle survived only in a Portuguese version included in a wider history work of Joao de Barros in 1557, and a later Arabic one composed shortly after, titled Kitāb al-Sulwa, very likely in response to the earlier version. The Portuguese version was likely written by allies of the short-lived sultan Ancony (r.1506), and the Arabic one by the twice-installed sultan Ibrahim (r. -1505, 1512-).29
Barros' account differs significantly the one appearing in the Arabic version, something that philologists and historians attribute to the partisan biases of the authors, and not necessary a reflection of the accuracy of either version of the chronicle. Eg: Barros's account mentions that Ali was born of a Persian sultan and an 'Abyssinian' slave mother thus forcing him to flee the disdain from his brothers by sailing to Kilwa with his companions. It adds that Ali avoided the "Arab" ruled Mogadishu and Brava (which were purportedly founded by seven "Arab" brothers from Al-hasa near Bahrain) because he was both black and Persian. Conversely, the Arabic version defends the nobility of Ali, his father, and his brothers stating, "This is based on strong evidence, that they were kings in their own country, and is a refutation of those who deny it. God knows all the truth!", and adds six other places where the Sultan and Ali's brothers settled.30
Both chronicles agree that Ali settled at Kilwa, married a local princesses and established a new dynasty that begun with his son, and would continue to rule despite being briefly deposed after an attack from a nearby town of “Shang”. Around 1277, a sultan named al-Hassan Bin Talut ascended to the Kilwa throne, Barros identifies him as a son of the previous ruler, but the Arabic version says he was the founder of a new dynasty of Mahdali origin (claiming Yemeni affiliations). Barros’ version also contains some 13th century sultans not included in the Arabic version, but two of whom were credited with Kilwa's pre-eminence, seizing sofala's gold trade and constructing a large palace. But the Arabic version attributes Kilwa's prominence to the 14th century Mahdali era. In the Arabic version, the city-state is said to have been divided between an emirate (with military power but no sovereign power) and the kingdom, which eventually led to non-royals from the former to seize the latter. Non-royal elites would again emerge in the emirate as kingmakers just prior to the Portuguese, and form the basis for the rivary between Ancony (a non-royal) and Ibrahim (a royal).31
Shirazi traditions and the role of women in early Swahili society: Matrilineages and matrimonial alliances
Returning to the Shirazi traditions in the Kilwa chronicle and in other written and oral accounts, it should be noted that they are very widespread and there are far more extant versions than the few which have been published so far. The two 16th century chronicles provide rather abridged accounts of a mostly similar event in which Ali al-Shirazi settled at Kilwa, married and the princess of its ‘pagan’ king and “acquired” the island by giving the ‘pagan’ king alot of cloth.32
A more detailed account is contained in the 19th century copy of the Arabic chroncile. It mentions that Sultan Ali bin Selimani the Shirazi is said to have come to Kilwa, married a local princess of its ruler; Elder Mrimba, and gave the latter gifts (a lot of cloth to reach the mainland) so that Mrimba would leave Selimani and the princess on the island. Mrimba agreed to move to the mainland after receiving the gift, he later made war with Selimani but retreated, Selimani himself only had power on Kilwa and was at war with Sanje ya kati island, but he built no fort or wall at Kilwa, and didn’t tax his subjects since Kilwa was only a modest farming and fishing village. Selimani later had a son with the princess, whom he named Mahomed, the latter moved to the mainland to visit his grandfather Mrimba. It was Mrimba who then conferred power onto Mahomed, allowing the latter to return to Kilwa and rule as sultan of Kilwa and its mainland. "So Sultan Mahomed ruled, because the people saw he had power on the mainland. His relatives, who had come from Shiraz, did not take power. And the people of the town followed Sultan Mahomed on account of his power".33
This tradition includes two important aspects which are relevant to understanding how the recent DNA studies have uncovered genetic record that has eluded archeologists and historians. The two aspects are; the nature of Swahili political structures, and the role of women in Swahili society.
Swahili political organization was extremely diverse but the form of 'kingship' (al-mulk) appearing in the kilwa chronicle appears to have been the exception, as Swahili cities were often governed by a council of elders/patricians (waungwana) who represented heads of the oldest/wealthiest/powerful lineage groups34. Eg, Mombasa and Lamu were organized into a dual principal of opposing sets of spatial and social halves of waungwana clans from diverse backgrounds (with the “shirazi” clans often being the oldest). The waungwana were organized into clan alliances which appointed members to a council and had great power over political affairs and over the 'sultan' or governor35. In the 16th century matters of sucession, taxation, trade, justice, and military organization in the city of Pate were also in the hands of the council despite the presence of a king/royal dynasty36.
Map showing Mombasa’s spatial and social divisions, the pre-Islamic quarter was governed by a ‘matriach’ named Mwana Mkisi or her dynasty, which was then replaced by a ‘shirazi’ dynasty of Shehe Mvita around the 13th century, before their power was also eclipsed in the 18th century by the “arab” Mazrui dynasty.37
The tension between patrician "republican" government and hierarchical/dynastic kingship seems to permeate historical analyses of the coastal polities. In Kilwa, the political structure was also characterized by a distribution of power and influence despite its appearance as 'sultanate' with hierarchical kingship. Both royals and non-royals are represented as "the people of major decisions"38 in connections with matters of sucession, trade and diplomacy with foreigners. The antagonism between Kilwa's kingship and the emirate in the chronicle, or between the kilwa sultan and his council in 16th century Portuguese accounts39 may well represent this form of Swahili dynamism in which power couldn't be monopolized by the executive.
The second important aspect is the role of women in early Swahili society. There is strong evidence that women in the pre-1600 cities enjoyed much higher status than in later centuries. Coastal traditions, dating from as far back as the 16th century, and Portuguese sources are awash with stories of influential women and queens who played prominent parts in Swahili public affairs. They oversaw important events concerning their kin groups, participated in public celebrations, attended mosques with their men, and were encouraged to become literate. They wielded greater social and economic power than was possible later, apparently having rights of inheritance and use of property equal to those enjoyed by men. There is also evidence that governing authority in some cities was inherited through female members of ruling lineages. For example, the epic conflict of Pate which pitted the shirazi noble Fumo Liongo and his half-brother, Mringwari, centered on the opposition between Islamic patrilineage (associated with Mringwari) and an older Bantu tradition of matrilineal inheritance (associated with Fumo Liongo). 40
Matrilineal descent is a fairly common among some Bantu-speaking groups of Africa particulary in the so-called “matrilineal belt” stretching from Angola to Tanzania, as well as some west-African societies, and has been a subject of several studies. It should be noted that matrilineal descent doesn’t mean “matriarchal” power (rule by women), nor did it exist as a monolithic cultural phenomena but was diverse in practice with some matriclans recognizing dual descent and patrilocal marriages (wife moves to husband’s home).41
However, there are relatively few anthropological studies on matrilineal descent in the Swahili towns, presumably because such traditions were greatly altered during the 19th century Omani era. On the east African coast, Matrilineal inheritance and lineages, as well as matrilocal marriages (where the husband moves into the residence of his wife) have been explored in greater detail on the Island of Comoros in Sophie Blanchy's "Maisons des femmes, cités des hommes", and Iain Walker's "Becoming the Other, Being Oneself".
Ethnographically known Swahili houses (especially from 19th century Lamu) were often associated with women, who could inherit them (often at their wedding), and rarely left the block in which they lived. The Swahili's matrilocal marriages meant that houses would need to be extended to cater for incoming husbands, leading to the organic growth of domestic houses with annex rooms around the main complex. Property transferred to daughters (often from their fathers but attimes from their mothers) couldn't be owned by the husband, and it thus remained within the lineage.42
The existence of matrilineal inheritence among the Swahili has been challenged by a few scholars, notably the anthropologist John Middleton, who suggests that Swahili houses were mostly owned and transferred based on lineages (rather than individuals) and these lineages which may or may not be matrilineal. He adds that while matrilineal descent requires that the successor of a man in authority has to be his sister's son, the sucessors of Swahili patricians were often the sons thought most likely to suceed in business. Middleton instead postulates that the recognized mode of descent (particulary in 19th century Lamu) was both patrilineal and bilateral, Although its unclear whether this was the same several centuries earlier.43
While the exact nature of Swahili women's social power and their role in Swahili inheritence systems is disputed, there's little doubt that marriage alliances which they initiated/were engaged in, played a vital role in the political and social structures of Swahili society. While men held the highest political authority (atleast in the 19th century), women —particulary those of patrician descent— were the means through which the lineages perpetuated themselves, thus enabling the lineages to retain and accumulate wealth, and guarantee their political power.44
To quote Pouwels, "A crucial aspect of the development of many coastal settlements was the persistent, frequent necessity of integrating groups of such newcomers (wageni) with the established social order within them. A revealing feature of these traditions, though, is how the ambivalence of the Swahili townsman's relationships with the outside world is expressed in the dualisms built into their structures. the nature of these pairings in Swahili society, the terms in which such oppositions were perceived and expressed, were historically conditioned by the frequent arrival of strangers. These dualisms presented the essential opposition and connection between Swahili society and African and Middle Eastern societies alike"45
The best documented integration of “Middle eastern" strangers” into Swahili society is represented by the Alawi immigrants of the 16th century who came from Yemen and were respected as saints.46 They are known to have married into several prominent Swahili families of Pate, Zanzibar, Comoros, Ozi, Vumba Kuu, Kilwa and Lamu, thus enabling local elites to take on the nisba al-Alawi. According to traditions, the rulers of stone-town (on Zanzibar island), who bear the title of Mwinyi Mkuu, descended from a 16th century matrimonial alliance between ta reigning queen of a “Shirazi” dynasty and a Sayyid Alawi who had links to Pate. The stone-town queen who reigned in the 1690s also had a grandson who reigned in 1729 as Sultan Hassan bin Ali Alawi, portuguese sources also mention sultans of Pemba with the al-alawi nisba in 1728, and a notable at Kilwa with the same nisba in 163547, while traditions from Comoros contain several prominent Alawis (often from Pate) who married local princesses Alima I and founded a new dynasty beginning with the daughter, who’d be suceeded by her son Sayid Alawi48.
That most Alawis were said to have come from Pate is unsurprising given the city-state’s political hegemony over the northern coast during the 16th-17th century, when it invited the Alawi family of Abi Bakr bin Salim to counter the Portuguese advance and herald a cultural and religious revival on the Swahili coast49. In all cases however, the immigrants comprised a small community whose integration into Swahili society was determined by the pre-existing Swahili elites. As the historian Thomas Vernet notes; “in the space of one or two generations, the descendants of the hadrami migrants became Swahilis … Their descendants are both versed in the local culture and also master certain traits of the hadrami culture - at least for the very first generations. This phenomenon fits naturally into the capacity of ancient Swahili society to absorb. foreigners and to acculturate them”50
Graveyard of the Al-Shaykh Abi Bakr b. Salim, Grande Comore Photo: Anne K. Bang
The two ancestry studies on ancient Swahili DNA.
In a 2011 ancient DNA study conducted by archeologist Chap Kusimba et.al, geneticists used the remains of 80 individuals recovered from 13 elite tombs found in the archeological site of Mtwapa, just north of Mombasa, dated to between 1615-1685. The study found that 94% of the Mtwapa swahili’s mtDNA are of the L mitochondrial haplogroup, typical of African populations, indicating a predominantly African maternal ancestry. However, paternal ancestry was evenly split, with 52% of Y-DNA belonging to the typically non-African F mega-haplogroup (often found between the strait of Hormuz and the Persian gulf) while 45% of the Y-DNA belonged to haplogroups typical of African populations (mostly from the coast of Tanzania and Kenya).51
The authors concluded that “The genetic data are consistent with some settlement of non-African migrants in Swahili communities prior to the eighteenth century. However, these data should not be seen as supportive of the old colonial theories of Arabian colonies on the Swahili coast.”
A more comprehensive ancient DNA study of the Swahili was conducted by several archeologists and geneticists, and published in 2023. The study used the remains of atleast 80 individuals from elite graves in 7 towns ( Mtwapa, Manda, Faza, Kilwa, Songo Mnara and Lindi) dated to between 1250-1800. It found that 59 of the 62 individuals carried African mtDNA haplogroups, while the majority of the Y-DNA came from Southwest Asian haplogroups (plausibly Persian with some from the Indian subcontinent), with 16 of the 19 Mtwapa individuals carrying non-African paternal haplogroups, while 3 carried African paternal haplogroups (and a few had Austronesian ancestry)
The researchers back-dated the event of this genetic mixing to around 1,000 AD, concluding that “our results suggest that the children of immigrant men of Asian origin adopted the languages of their mothers, a common pattern in matrilocal cultures, the elite inhabitants of Mtwapa and other sites developed from admixed populations and were not foreign migrants or colonists.”
Both studies prove that the genetic admixtures between Africans and Persians in early Swahili society were real events rather than simple fables, but the stark absence of Persian cultural influences also reveals something more significant about how immigrants were acculturated into Swahili society contrary to what is expected of immigrant male settlers.
As the geneticist David Reich admitted, it was his own “naïve expectation” that the patrilineal Persian settlers moved into the region by force and displaced local males. But this hypothesis proved untenable, Swahili language contains only 3% Persian loan words, and as the archeological and historical research on the Swahili has shown, there is little evidence of Persian colonists in Swahili material culture nor in external texts. An alternative theory was offered by the archeologists Adria LaViolette and Chap Kusimba, who explain that the “Swahili was an absorbing society” and that Even as the Persians who arrived influenced the culture, “they became Swahili”. for this reason, “African women retained critical aspects of their culture and passed it down for many generations”. effectively making the Persians archeologically invisible.52
Acculturating immigrant males: an example of how Bantu-speaking kingdoms and city-states were absorbed into Malagasy society of Madagascar.
That male settlers could be culturally absorbed into a another society isn’t too uncommon in east African coastal history. The genetic ancestry of modern Malagasy-speakers on Madagascar is predominantly African on the paternal side (about 70%) and south-east Asian on the maternal side (about 50%)53. Recent research on Madagascar’s history and archeology have showed that the island was populated by free migrants from both Africa and south-Asia who set up their own states, intermarried and eventually produced the modern society we see today. Yet the African contribution in modern Malagasy culture pales in comparison to the south-east Asian influences, especially in their language ;Malagasy is an Austronesian language with few Bantu loanwords.54
The fate of Madagascar’s African settlers could be uncovered in the demise of the Antalaotse city-states on the nothern coast of the islands, and the decline of the African kingdoms on the western coast of the island. Among the latter we have the kingdom of Guinguimaro, which according to contemporary Portuguese accounts, had subjects who included bantu-speakers (“Cafre” language of “Mozambique to Malindi”) in the 16th century, and would itself be absorbed into the Malagasy-speaking (“Buque”) kingdom of Boina of the 17th century. The Antalaotse cities, which were established by Swahili immigrants around the 10th century, would also be absorbed by Boina kingdom. The city of Mazalagem Nova with its “negro” traders who sold inland goods from Vua (ie: Uva/Merina kingdom), fell to the Boina state in 1685.55
The African groups like the Antalaotse who were absorbed into the Malagasy-speaking states often “married local Malagasy women, from whom the children would learn to speak Malagasy rather than the language of their fathers”56 A curious athropological study in late 19th century north-western Madagascar mentions the presence of men known as ‘Biby’. These biby were mostly “Swahili-Arabs” who were married to Sakalava queens and in a reversal of gender norms “were subject to certain rules similar to those which bind the wife of an influential Arab or Swahili”, they couldn’t leave their houses except with an escort, and had to remain faithful or he would be executed.57
Its therefore not uncommon for the male derived cultural aspects of settlers to be completely absorbed and “disappear” into the local population, as it happened to the Persians on the Swahili coast, or to the Swahili themselves in Madagascar.
Conclusion: The Swahili as a cosmopolitan coastal civilization
What then can we make of the Persian origin traditions of the Swahili in light of the DNA discoveries? In my (non-specialist) opinion, i think the nearly century-long research into early Swahili history hasn’t been overturned by the discovery that the Persian ancestry wasn’t a myth, instead, the new DNA discoveries will complement what we already know about the Swahili past —a cosmopolitan civilization which linked the east African mainland with the Indian ocean world.
As for the interpretation of the Shirazi traditions, its now clear that it wasn’t just seven men who got on a ship, but possibly a small group of settlers steadily migrating to the Swahili coast over several centuries and being integrated into the local culture. To quote Pouwels; "One can identify the Shirazi traditions specifically as origin myths. As in most African origin myths, their creators identify certain fundamental symbols and institutions as uniquely their own, all of which set them apart from other peoples. As other origin myths, too, they relate the appearance/creation of these symbols/institutions to a single significant episode. In reality, of course, such episodes usually conceal what were complex social and cultural transformations which took place over many decades and even centuries, while the traditions, like the civilization whose history they relate, are themselves the end-products of this historical process."
These processes included the conflation of several origin myths of slightly similar themes at varying points in time inorder to "pay honour to the uniqueness of coastal civilization; explain its creation (by their 'coming from' Shiraz/Shungwaya) in mythical time; and, somewhat more rarely, repay a historical debt coastal culture owes to its African roots. Theirs was a new world at the edge of a cultural frontier. Yet the culture that developed remained still a child of its human and physical environment, being neither wholly African nor 'Arab', but distinctly 'coastal', the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, if they became Muslims, they did not become 'Arabs'; if they built mosques, their styles were neither recognizably African nor Middle Eastern; if their houses were stone, the 'stone' in fact was coral; and if they took Cushitic megaliths for their tomb markers, the tombs faced Mecca and again were constructed from locally available materials".
"The 'Shirazi' then were the Swahili par excellence, those original 'people of the coast', whose claims to residence in their coastal environs were putatively the most ancient. The greatest error might be the tendency to interpret coastal civilization only in terms of its non-coastal affinities, be they African or Arab. Whichever way one chooses to see coastal culture will depend on whether he is looking at Lamu, for instance from Aden or Shihr or from a Pokomo village. Surely by now though, Africanists can appreciate that any culture is greater than the sum of its parts, and in the hypothetical case of Lamu it would make more sense to look at Lamu both by itself and in association with Shihr and the Pokomo village.58
The Swahili were the architects of their own civilization, they were a cosmopolitan society linking Africa to the western Indian ocean through cultural syncretism, trade and matrimonial alliances. Their accomplishments weren’t products of foreign colonists but were instead organic creations that grew out of the diverse social institutions in which east-African cultural values were predominant. Its for this reason that immigrants could “disappear” archeologically but retain their presence in local traditions and in the Swahili’s DNA
In the year 1086, a contingent of west Africans allied with the Almoravids conquered Andalusia and created the first of the largest african diasporas in south-western Europe. For the next six centuries, African scholars, envoys and pilgrims travelled to Spain and Portugal from the regions of west africa and Kongo
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Making Identity on the Swahili Coast by Steven Fabian pg 23)
A preliminary critique of the TV series by Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Ali Mazrui, Black Orientalism? Further Reflections on "Wonders of the African World by Ali A. Mazrui
Map by Stephane Pradines
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