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Memory and Eternity: Swahili tombs in the later Middle Ages.

February 1, 2013

Mida creek is one of many tidal inlets that form a common geographical feature of the East African coastline, but unlike most, it widened out into a large shallow bay before emptying into the Indian Ocean.  I stopped my jeep at a small village along the shoreline and approached an elderly man sitting near a smoldering fire pit ringed by a dozen small fish drying on sticks.

“Kuna magofu karibu hapa?” I asked in my limited Swahili, although I already knew the answer to my query as to whether there were any ancient ruins nearby.  “Ndiyo” was all I understood of his answer, but his affirmative response was all I needed to hear to negotiate his price to take me to them.  It was certainly his lucky day as well as mine, since undoubtedly I would pay him more than he would make during an entire day of fishing.

Without delay we set out in his small dhow, joined by a young boy with a long mangrove pole which he used to push into the murky bottom of the creek to drive the boat forward, making a gentle splashing sound as we glided through the stagnant waters of the bay.  As we entered the channel his pole lost the bottom, at which time the boatman hoisted a triangular canvas sail up the mast to catch a barely perceptible ocean breeze, which then pulled us slowly towards an island in the middle of the tidal bay.  Before long we were facing the dense wall of mangrove trees which lined the island’s shore.  Gliding along, the boatman found an opening where he beached the dhow, allowing us to disembark into shallow waters and make our way onto the island’s sandy shore.

At first the loose sandy soil supported only fan-palms and scrub brush, but further inland the island became more overgrown with the dense lowland forest typical of the tropical climate of the central coast of Kenya.  Tall trees hung with vines shaded the thorny underbrush which stuck to my clothes as we pushed on.  An encounter with a coiled puff-adder, his brown mottled skin barely visible against the sandy soil, hindered our progress only temporarily, causing a small detour from the path inland.

Soon we ended at a small clearing where my guide stopped and announced “magofu” as he pulled away a clump of brush, exposing the overgrown remains of a paneled façade of a tomb enclosure made of shaped coral blocks with a distinctive column rising from the central face.  All its original plaster surface had eroded away and the coral underneath had weathered to a bluish-gray consistency, with a greenish moss clinging to the sharp edges and flattened surfaces.  The ruin was one of a cluster of similar structures which formed a line of monumental tombs that at one time were placed near or within a local settlement.  No remains of houses or other structures had survived; most likely they were made of mud, timber and thatch which would have long weathered away in the course of the six hundred years since the Swahili people built and prayed at these monumental tombs.

Pillar Tomb at Kilepwa, central coast of Kenya

Pillar Tomb at Kilepwa, central coast of Kenya

Historically the Swahili occupied the narrow strip of coastal lands along the coast of East Africa stretching from southern Somalia to Mozambique, establishing themselves on offshore islands or near tidal creeks along the shoreline.  For over a thousand years, they had been at the crossroads of trade and cultural exchange between the people of southern Arabia, Persia and India and those of the African continent, resulting in significant cultural and architectural influences. With the adoption of Islam new building types were introduced, one of the most notable being that of monumental tombs which became widespread during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The simplest tomb structures were modest rectangular enclosures, bounded by four low walls.  They could vary in size and scale, and are sometimes found as large enclosures located along the qibla side of a mosque, most likely built to accommodate multiple burials.  Often tomb enclosures were made more conspicuous and imposing through the addition of stepped corners or through the decoration of eastern façade with rectangular panels created by the patterned placement of carved coral blocks to create a series of recessed surfaces.  Commonly some form of superstructure was added to the upper wall of the eastern façade, making them more readily visible and calling attention to their presence within the settlement.  This often consisted of a square or rounded slap of masonry, which could be left plain or decorated with carved calligraphic patterns, and on rare occasions even bear the name of the person presumably buried within the tomb.

Yet the most distinctive and unusual feature of many Swahili medieval tombs was the addition of a tall column-like structure, forming a characteristic building type along the East African coast referred to as pillar tombs.  These pillars come in many sizes and shapes, from rounded, square, multisided or fluted and rose to various heights above the top of the eastern façade of the tomb enclosure.  The remains of possibly the tallest example can be found at Mambrui on the central Kenya coast, and is believed to have been as tall as 15 meters in height.  These pillars, and sometimes parts of the surrounding enclosure walls, were often decorated with inset porcelain or other glazed ceramic bowls imported from such distant lands as southern Arabia, Persia and even as far as China, increasing their aesthetic appeal with the addition of color which contrasts with the brilliant white plaster surfaces, forming a distinctive decorative tradition unique to the medieval East African coast.

Pillar Tomb at Takwa, north Kenya coast

Pillar Tomb at Takwa, north Kenya coast

Although more orthodox Islamic beliefs largely argue against such practices, the construction of monumental tombs are commonly found throughout the medieval Islamic world.  By the 13th century, widespread popular Islamic customs involving the honoring of the graves of holy men and descendants of the prophet became a common practice throughout the Islamic world, with the belief that those buried within could function as intermediaries between God and ordinary believers.  Such tombs were considered places where the baraka, or spiritual power, of the deceased still radiated from the grave after death, and which could be accessed through visitation and prayer at these special sites.  Along the medieval East African coast, monumental tombs such as these were visited by pilgrims and local residents where the burning of incense and the offering of food would take place in the belief that one could gain favors through such rituals; a practice which continues to a certain degree until the present day.  Some tombs included arched openings on the eastern façade which may well have helped facilitated the placement of offerings and act as a focal point of prayer at the site.

Their placement as focal points and public spaces within the settlement may reflect a distinctively East African context which may go back to pre-Islamic settlement forms.  Likewise their frequent association with domestic structures in both their design and their placement, may represents a continuation of traditional African practices and beliefs related to the spirits of the ancestors.

Swahili medieval tombs represent a unique and enigmatic funerary tradition, the origins of which are largely unknown.  These ancient tombs remain to this day as hidden reminders of Africa’s distinctive and diverse architectural heritage, which is generally little known and not well documented by traditional architectural historians.

For a more in depth examination of this distinctive building type, see Thomas R. Gensheimer, “Monumental Tombs of the Medieval Swahili Coast”, Buildings and Landscapes: the Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, vol. 19, no. 1, Spring 2012, pp.107-114.  See Faculty Publications.

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