EVOLUTION OF SWAHILI ARCHITECTURE

While the history and origin of the Waswahili people remains a contentious issue, scholars of culture
and house form have in the past acknowledged that there is an obvious difficulty in attempting to
transfer ideas and concepts from one culture to another. Swahili culture has been seen to display a
myriad of influences from the wider Indian Ocean, producing an integrated mix that is different from
its antecedents, something Deetz termed as creolization. Over time, Swahili architecture, which is a
physical manifestation of the cultural form, has evolved with the changing pressures and tastes
exerted from within and without its boundaries. While the port cities of the Swahili coast resemble
the mercantile cities of the Gulf region, most of the stone houses reflect an architecture that is distinct
and in fact contrasting other Islamic architecture, which goes to show that Swahili architecture
suggests African roots for some features of the structure and planning.
By following the theories of Amos Rapoport, who highlights physical factors and culture as the
determinants of the built form, the discussion on the history, planning developments and conservation
measures of Mombasa, Lamu and Zanzibar by A. Shatry, Ussam Ghaidan and Fransesco Siravo in
that order, the attempt by Cynthia Salvadori to fill in the conspicuous gap in the shelves of Kenya’s
history with Europeans and Indians, the investigation of the Iranian presence in East Africa by Lodhi
A.Y. and the comprehensive study of the vernacular architecture of the Oman Sultanate, this study
sets out to define and explore Swahili architecture, investigate the various factors that have impacted
on its evolution and the particular contributions of various societies.
Based on critical literature review and field study using the case study design strategy, which is
considered to be most appropriate because it is specific but flexible and expansive enough to adapt
the various complexities that encompass the subject matter, Swahili architecture has been defined as
the architectural style practiced by the Waswahili people living along the East African coast. The
factors that have impacted the evolution of Swahili architecture include political influences, climate
and the need for shelter, the site and geographical extent, the Islamic religion, the need for defense
and the socio-cultural form which incorporates the concepts of privacy, hospitality, a sense of
community, minimalism and austerity, dominance, introversion, self-sufficiency, flexibility and
adaptability borrowed from the African, Iranian, Arabic and Indian cultures, while the change and
transformation is in most cases associated with the influence of European architecture.
Since there is no archaeological study that has been carried out to investigate whether the early
coastal African swahili people constructed stone houses and whether coastal towns (even of mud)
actually existed before the advent of Islam, further research and excavations should attempt to resolve
this matter
 

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