Early African ports and International Maritime Trade

By Aga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

Rock CrystalAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

Where to find Rock Crystal

Dembeni has been a major distribution centre for rock crystal in the Indian Ocean, and it was imported to Mayotte and the Comoros from Madagascar together with other products, notably steatite (soapstone). 

The rock crystal arrived in Baghdad in the 9th- 10th centuries, and later in Cairo in the 11th- 12th centuries through the Persian merchants’ intermediaries who chartered Omani boats and set sail for Africa for many months.    

Bowl Chinese celadon longquan 14th c. found in Gede, KenyaAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

The 9th- 10th century-ceramic imports in Dembeni provide archaeological evidence of the strong relations between the Abbasids and East Africa, which also observed at other sites such as Manda and Shanga. Dembeni is unique because it provides evidence of the goods imported and exported with the rock crystal. 

Bowl so-called black on yellow, Yemen, 13th c. found in Gede, KenyaAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

The large quantities of hatched sgraffitos and Garrus Wares from Iran indicate that they were produced for export and represent the largest ceramic import to the Indian Ocean before the introduction of Chinese porcelain. 

Palm treesAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

How did Rock Crystal influence trade in the Indian Ocean

The rock crystal trade in the Indian Ocean favoured the process of urbanisation and ‘Swahilisation’ of the Comoros Archipelago in connection with the Abbasid and subsequent Fatimid traders.  

Ceramic drawing, Kua island, Mafia archipelago, TanzaniaAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

The ample supply of gold, ivory and rock crystal objects in the countries of the ‘Islamic world’ corresponds to the beginning of urbanisation in East Africa, as the development of stone cities only began around the 11th-12th centuries with the period known as ‘Shirazi’ in many Swahili oral traditions.   

Site of Dembeni excavated in Mayotte (Comoros archipelago)Aga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

This trading system accelerated in the 9th century and it is possible that the Abbasids had inherited ancient nautical knowledge, perhaps from the Sassanids. Nevertheless, no traces of Sassanian trading networks have been recovered in the Comoros.   

Bowl so-called black on yellow, Yemen, 13th c. found in Gede, KenyaAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

The islanders of Dembeni had a trading monopoly that yielded large profits which meant that they could acquire imported objects such as Persian and Chinese ceramics. A similar phenomenon occurred in Kilwa with the monopoly of the gold trade, and a caravanserai (Husuni Ndogo) was even built there in the early 13th century.   

Rock crystal mines in MadagascarAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

An important outcome of research was to incorporate the Comoros and Madagascar in the ‘bigger picture’ of the East African trade, as rock crystal was a highly-valued product.      

Kilwa Bay mapAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

How Rock Crystal lead to the development of Kilwa

Kilwa is located at a major crossroads between the East African coasts and the Comoros, and its geographical location between the gold and rock crystal mines is key to understanding the development and urbanisation of Kilwa.     

Site of Dembeni excavated in Mayotte (Comoros archipelago)Aga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

The fate of the site of Dembeni corresponds to the ‘urban shift’ observed at the end of the 12th century and beginning of the 13th century, where major Swahili sites were abandoned or rebuilt.    

Gedi archeological survey stone housesAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

The abandonment of old sites and the creation of new urban centres was linked to new trading relations. In the 13th century, stability was established with the Ayyubids and then the Mamluks in Egypt and the Rasulids in Yemen. In Kilwa, the Shirazi Dynasty was replaced at the end of the 13th century by the Mahdali Dynasty, a Hadhrami tribe from southwest Yemen.

Credits: Story

Professor Stephane Pradines, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, Aga Khan University   

Credits: All media
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