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A rectangular two-story building with a flat roof and small windows and doors - East African history

East African history: Debre Dano Christian church (Ethiopia, 500s AD)

East Africa trading on the Indian Ocean

Because it is on the coast, East Africa had contacts with India and Egypt and West Asia. East Africans also traded with Indonesia and  China.

Early African history
Meroe and Aksum
All our Egypt articles
All our Africa articles

The earliest written evidence we have about East Africa comes from a Roman guidebook for sailors. That’s the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Somebody wrote this book, in Greek, about 50 AD.

Early African economy
African ships and sailing
Slavery in early Africa

This guidebook describes a bunch of East African ports. Probably the guidebook got as far south as modern Kenya. Traders were already buying enslaved men and women from Ethiopia and Kenya. They sold these people north in the Roman Empire and the Sassanian Empire, and in India.

Faras Cathedral in northern Sudan (700s AD)

Faras Cathedral in northern Sudan (700s AD)

Islam comes to East Africa

There is archaeological evidence for a port around 700 AD at Shanga, in modern Kenya. There were only a few people living there. They seem to have kept cattle.

Medieval African economy
Medieval African food
Where do cattle come from?

Some archaeologists think the people of Shanga had already converted to the new religion of Islam by the 800s AD, although the evidence is not very clear.

What is Islam?
What is a mosque?
The Bantu expansion
Swahili language

But they were certainly building an Islamic mosque by the 900s. Sometime around this time, the people of East Africa also started to speak a Bantu language, originally from West Africa. They mixed in a lot of Arabic words. We call this language Swahili (swah-HEEL-ee).

Kilwa (East Africa, ca. 1320 AD)

East Africans buy glass beads and cotton cloth

By the 1000s AD, many of the coastal ports of East Africa were involved in trade with the Fatimids in Egypt and the Abbasids in West Asia, and also with the Chola Empire in India. From ports at Mombasa, Kilwa, and Chibuene, African traders sold high quality iron to Indian steel-makers.

Medieval African history
Who were the Fatimids?
Chola Empire

Many of these African ports, to make trade go more smoothly, were minting gold, silver, and copper coins. And Fatimid dinars from before 1066 AD have been found at Mtambe Mkuu in modern Tanzania.

What is copper?
Elephants and ivory
History of steel
Indian cotton cloth
Indian economy

The African ports also sold gold and furs from central Africa, ivory, and rock crystal. In return, they bought glass beads, Chinese porcelain, and Indian steel and cotton cloth.

The Europeans arrive

In 1320 AD or so, the African ruler of the port of Kilwa (in modern Tanzania), al Hasan ibn Suleiman, built himself a great stone palace out of cut coral. The great North African traveller and writer ibn Battuta visited al Hasan there.

Who was Ibn Battuta?
Trade with the Pandyas in India
Charles V and colonialism
Portugal and Mozambique

By 1500 AD, however, Europeans from Portugal had begun to take over the East African ports. So they gradually pushed out Islamic and Indian influence.

Learn by doing: a day in Africa
More about Kenya after 1500 AD

Bibliography and Further Reading:

East Africa by Cynthia L. Jenson-Elliott (2002)

City-States of the Swahili Coast (First Book) by Thomas H. Wilson (1998)

Kings and Queens of East Africa, by Sylviane Anna Diouf (2000)

Egyptian History
History of Meroe and Kush
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