Islam and Islamic Arts in Africa

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

Swahili peoples, Kenya, Swahili door carving. Photo by Allen F. Roberts.

Swahili expressive culture, as a mixture of African, Arabian, Persian, and Indian arts, crafts, languages, musics, and cuisines, flourished for many centuries. Ornamental door-carving that reached its height in the 19th century is an example of such cosmopolitanism. Commissioned by wealthy men engaged in Indian Ocean trade, these large, elaborate doorways were and sometimes still are proclamations of prestige and influence. Lintels, sideposts, and centerposts of the double-leafed doors are embellished with geometric and floral designs with symbolic associations such as the chain signifying security, the rosette and lotus denoting reproductive power, and the date palm and frankincense motifs suggesting wealth and abundance. A Koranic inscription often protects the threshold and occasionally includes the owner’s name and the house’s date of construction. Still seen in Stone Town on Zanzibar and in other storied cities of eastern Africa, Swahili doors and related architecture are a significant attraction of today’s cultural tourism (Aldrick 1988, Nooter 1984).