Islam and Islamic Arts in Africa

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

Swahili engraved silver anklets. Photo by Robert H. Nooter. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.


Large engraved silver anklets formed part of the ceremonial dress of upper-class Swahili women of Zanzibar in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are made in two hinged sections opening in the front that fasten by a bolt. This particular pair was inspired by Indian models and probably made by Swahili silversmiths who answered the tastes of their cosmopolitan clientele, some of whom were of Indian or Arabian origin. Similar anklets are found in Pate, Lamu, Mombasa, and other coastal east African cities, confirming a common Swahili culture (Allen 1972; Fair 1998).  Apocryphal stories abound concerning the function of anklets such as these, including their being used to enhance the beauty of young women being sold in markets of the slave trade extending from the eastern African coast and islands around and across the Indian Ocean (see Alpers 2009); most likely, though, they were worn at weddings and other important occasions, as ornamental anklets were across much of Africa in precolonial times.