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Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere

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On the Swahili coast of East Africa, monumental stone houses, tombs, and mosques mark the border zone between the interior of the African continent and the Indian Ocean. Prita Meier explores this coastal environment and shows how an African mercantile society created a place of cosmopolitan longing. Meier understands architecture as more than a way to remake local space. Rather, the architecture of this liminal zone was an expression of the desire of coastal inhabitants to belong to places beyond their homeports. Here architecture embodies modern ideas and social identities engendered by the encounter of Africans with others in the Indian Ocean world.

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Introduction The Place In-between

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On the Swahili coast of east Africa, monumental stone demarcates the border zone between the African continent and the Indian Ocean. Since at least the twelfth century locals have built luminously white coral stone houses, tombs, and mosques to transform wild coastlands into ordered civilization. Kilwa, a powerful port city in the fourteenth century, was famous for the glowing whiteness of its stone façades. Its harbor palace complex, known as Husuni Kubwa (figure 0.1), once dominated the coast of east Africa, its vaulted pavilions, domed halls, and hundred-plus rooms covering nearly a hectare on a promontory overlooking the Indian Ocean. Aluminous white lime plaster, made of shells and coral, covered its walls, reflecting the light of the sun so that its grandeur could be seen from great distances by incoming ships. Kilwa’s networks connected the societies and economies of mainland Africa with the maritime world of the western Indian Ocean, and a key function of its waterfront architecture was to structure the exchange of ideas, goods, and also people across vast distances. It was an architecture of mercantile mobility whose style mirrored the built form of oversea emporia, especially those of the Arabian Sea.

 

1 Difference Set in Stone: Place and Race in Mombasa

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Architecture has a powerful impact on how culture is experienced. The very notion that people “belong to” or can claim a certain territory is constituted by culturally variable politics of inhabiting, in which the built environment plays a central role. Examining how these spatial processes unfold in such fluid borderlands as the Swahili coast is an especially clarifying exercise because its port cities are fundamentally nonterritorial cultural landscapes, shaped by the constant movement of peoples and things across great distances. Here the relationship between identity and place is particularly mercurial and in constant flux.

For centuries permanent stone architecture occupied an important place in the civilizational order of Mombasa. Founded sometime in the early second millennium, this ancient Swahili city was the site of an important port long before it became part of the British Empire. In contrast to Lamu and Zanzibar, whose global connectivity is a fairly recent phenomenon, Mombasa has nurtured direct connections with inland Africa, Europe, and Asia since at least the fourteenth century. Great Zimbabwe, Portugal, and Ottoman Turkey were among the major empires that had regular contact with the city. Mombasa Town stood at the edge of intersecting worlds; its vibrant mercantile culture drew peoples from the African mainland, South Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Merchants, diplomats, and even attacking armies came to Mombasa because it provided access to the markets and resources of inland Africa. As a result Mombasa figured prominently in the consciousness of foreigners. This long history of transcultural contact also influenced the worldview of Mombasans. Locals learned to appropriate faraway objects, styles, and technologies in the making of their city. Yet the nineteenth century marks a major watershed moment in this long history of transregional engagement, when industrial capitalism and colonization changed a range of preexisting systems and traditions. I chart this process of transformation by showing how stone architecture once embodied the Swahili ideal of the “elsewhere” and how it came to stand for racialized difference. What becomes clear is that the revolutionary circumstances of the nineteenth century forced Mombasans to reconstitute how they made their sense of place useful to themselves and legible to others in the world.

 

2 A “Curious” Minaret: Sacred Place and the Politics of Islam

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While stone architecture in general is important in local worldviews, only one type of masonry structure is essential for creating sacred place on the Swahili coast: a mosque. Port cities, such as Mombasa, Lamu, and Zanzibar, can claim being true stone towns precisely because their histories begin with the building of stone mosques. For example, Mombasan origin stories recount how founding father Shehe Mvita constructed the first stone mosque on Mombasa Island with the help of three mysterious men from “the North.” Their help came in the form of a new building material: lime mortar, the binding agent that makes stone masonry possible.1 The earliest written documentation of this event presents lime as miraculous matter: “The lime which the three strangers presented to Shehe was sufficient for building a mosque in a few days, whereupon these remarkable persons departed and constructed mosques in other places.”2 Transforming the architectonic order of Mombasa from earthen impermanence to stone permanence marks the beginning of Islamic time on Mombasa Island.

 

3 Architecture Out of Place: The Politics of Style in Zanzibar

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The third Busaidi sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Barghash (r. 1870–1888), created vistas and monuments of modern vision that radically transformed the way Zanzibar Stone Town’s built environment was experienced. His reign was an era of unprecedented transcontinental competition, when would-be colonizers, financial speculators, adventurers, and merchants from all over the world converged on Zanzibar City. Zanzibar became a key node in the global market, selling cloves (produced by enslaved plantation workers) and ivory to the industrializing North and supplying African consumers with North American, South Asian, and European commodities. The Busaidi family and their business partners amassed huge fortunes as a result, and Barghash spent much of his considerable wealth building both public and private monuments; these defined the cityscape of Zanzibar from afar, eventually becoming the landmarks of the city and island.

While in many ways Barghash sought to present a fashionably “new” city to the world, his structures were a complex synthesis of old and new sign systems. This was especially the case with Beit al Ajaib, the House of Wonders (plate 11), his most ambitious architectural monument, and the focus of much of this chapter. As we shall see, the structure served not only to visualize his ambition to assert his control over the city in the face of European colonizing agendas, but also to subvert local histories and indigenous claims to the city. Further, what will become clear is that the House of Wonders was not only about geopolitical power; it was also an expression of Barghash’s dream to make Zanzibar a center of artistic and technological innovation. The verandahs of the House of Wonders acted as a grand stage for new musical performances, and they framed his vision of Zanzibar as a perfect picture of modernity. The House of Wonders therefore represents a pivotal moment in the architectural history of the coast, when old and new systems of signification converged and overlapped to produce a spectacle of radical modernity.

 

4 At Home in the World: Living with Transoceanic Things

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Swahili coast interior design and ornament invites an extended exploration of the meaning of objects when their “life” is shaped by transoceanic circulation. As we have seen in the case of Zanzibar, its modern palaces existed at the intersection of new and old building cultures. Sultan Barghash deployed a multiplicity of forms and technologies to manufacture architectural theaters of triumph and pleasure. His project was part of a larger nineteenth century phenomenon: the desire to transform east Africa’s port cities into strategic sites of imperial power and capitalist modernization. This chapter presents a more intimate analysis of the social lives enacted within the architectural spaces of the Swahili city. I explore the reasons why imported ornament and objects captured the imagination of Swahili coast residents for centuries and how the impact of industrial modernity intensified the local desire to collect things from overseas.

People give meaning to objects by arranging them in relationship to other things. The production of meaning therefore has a physical effect on the material environment, since such arrangements change how we experience a particular room or material landscape. When an object comes to rest in a new place it also expresses a new idea or concept. Through its arrangement in real space it will become commodity, artifact, art, souvenir, or relic. How objects take on different values and meanings as they move through time and space is now often called the “social life of things,” after Arjun Appadurai’s seminal edited book of the same title, published in 1988. But it is people who set this life in motion through various actions upon things, including trading them, buying them, or placing them on altars or graves. In a sense the agency of things is always constituted by someone’s actions. Scholars such as Patricia Spyer and Nicholas Thomas, among others, have complicated our understanding of human–object relationships by foregrounding how the act of appropriating things from a foreign society simultaneously consolidates and displaces existing systems of signification.1 The moment of displacement from one context to another brings the thing into sharp focus: it presents the object laid bare, before it is assimilated and before it transforms and is transformed by its new context. When objects are displaced, we become particularly aware of their physical presence and materiality. They stand out. This is especially the case with trade objects that circulate across physical borders and move into vastly different cultural settings. Because they are exotic or foreign they tend to retain something uncanny and untranslatable about their form, even long after they have come to rest in their new homes. We can apprehend them as a thing, or we see their pure presence, outside of the cultural meaning projected onto them, more easily. This thing-ness is exactly what was cultivated as an aesthetic in the interior spaces of the Swahili coast. The Swahili culture of things celebrates the ability to displace objects and values across great distances.

 

Conclusion Trading Places

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Today ornate doorways such as the one in figure 5.1 are often celebrated in the west as emblems of local authenticity and Swahili identity. Yet from a local perspective, and much to the discomfort of Africanist art historians, they give material form to the circulatory networks of the Indian Ocean. Their design program was originally meant to evoke a faraway place. Carvers were constantly changing their compositions by incorporating the latest styles and patterns of ornament from objects being imported from overseas. Yet, they did not simply produce copies, but masterfully transformed exotic forms to create works that exist at the edge of stylistic categories, such as African, Asian, and European. For example, the design of this door is typical of nineteenth-century innovations and fashions. This was a time when the tradition of carving doors reached new heights of intricacy and delicacy. As can be seen, carvers cultivated an Indian-inflected style, often preferring the lush ornamentation of British Raj woodwork. The pediment and central post feature minimalist rosettes and abstracted pineapples, their repeating forms creating a rhythmic movement along the horizontal and vertical planes of the massive doorway. Especially the restrained linearity of the floral motifs exemplifies the way local carvers created strikingly innovative works.1

 

Appendix

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Aziz Ahmed, November 2005

Rahima Ali, May 2005

Bi Shuali Amran, May 2005

Sheikh Msellem Amin, January 2005

Fatuma Mbwana Amiri, March 2005

Hadija Mmwana Amiri, March 2005

Mzee Hamid Mohammad al Baloushi, 2004–2005, 2014

Ustadh Ahmad Nassir Juma Bhalo, February 2004 and July 2013

Mama Hubwa, 2004–2015

Abdul Rasul Hussein, April 2005

Zaiten Hussain, February, May 2005

Mohammad Jaffer, April 2005

Ma’allim Ali Jemadari, August 2003

Sheib Khamis, June 2005

Nawas Khan, September 2004–July 2005

Waffyahmed Kotaria, March 2005

Ustadh Khamis Al Kumri, April 2005

Mwalimu Mohammad Matano, July–August 2003, 2004–2005

Mohamed Abdallah Mohamed Matano, July 2013 and July 2014

Mohammad Miran, February 2005

Mohamed Mchulla, 2004, 2005, 2014, 2015

Sheikh Abdullahi Nasser, January, February, April 2006

Stambuli Abdullahi Nasser, February 2004, August 2005

Aisha Mohammad Nassir, 2005

 

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