Islam and Islamic Arts in Africa

by Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Swahili door, Lamu, Kenya, 1969. Photo by Allen F. Roberts.  


 Swahili culture is characterized by the two features of this image from coastal Kenya: rich cultural development and raw power. East Africa was attractive to traders from the Indian Rim, for its ready supplies of ivory, metals, and bonded labor. Cultured cities such as Lamu were founded in the 7th century to pursue such commerce, in which coastal Africans participated actively. Trade worked both ways, and people of African descent have lived for centuries in lands as distant as western India, some as a result of peaceful economic interactions, others because of the east African slave trade (Hawley 2008). This latter reached its peak in the 19th century, as inland warlords and Omani and European merchants and colonizers on the coast engaged in a vast plundering of the central African interior, with Zanzibar and other coastal cities as exit points for many thousands of enslaved Africans (see Roberts 2013).