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date: 22 November 2019


  • Diane M. Pelrine


People living on the coast and islands of East Africa from Mogadishu in Somalia to Tanzania’s southern borders. Swahili culture is Islamicized and urban. Its visual arts serve mostly religious or local political purposes. Art and architecture can be best viewed in situ: in the towns themselves, at such architectural ruins as those at Gedi and Kilwa, as well as in local museums such as those at Lamu and Zanzibar, where outstanding examples of Swahili crafts are displayed. Outside East Africa, Swahili arts are not very easily accessible. Most museum material is kept in storage. There are, however, important collections in museums in the USA (e.g. Washington, DC, N. Mus. Nat. Hist.) and Europe (e.g. London, BM; Berlin, Mus. Vlkerknd.). See the works listed in the bibliography for illustrations, especially Bravmann’s African Islam for a broad range of Swahili crafts.

The origins of the Swahili have long been debated, but current research indicates that they are clearly African, although contact with outside influences, particularly Islam, has resulted in a culture distinct from that of the rest of East Africa. Elements of Swahili culture have also diffused into many parts of the hinterland, often blurring simple distinctions between coastal and hinterland peoples. In addition, through trade in particular, such pockets of Swahili culture as the town of ...

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Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1954–)