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Perched on the edge of the Indian Ocean against a sun-drenched backdrop, the Swahili Coast is among Africa's most distinct regions. For centuries, Arabs, Indians, Portuguese and more came to these shores looking for slaves, ivory, spices, gold and more. Their influence has proved lasting, reflected in the region's architecture, cuisine, music, language and dhow sailboats.

The Indian Ocean's monsoon winds lay the foundation for what would be one of Africa's oldest and richest trading histories. Between November and March Omani and Indian ships sailed south to the Swahili Coast, and returned home again on northern winds in July and September. Between monsoon periods, the traders lived among the coast's Bantu-speaking people. Swahili, the area's dominant language, reflects this mix, combining African languages with some Omani and Indian words. Today, most people who call themselves Swahili are also Muslim and trace their roots back to Arab traders.

Rich from trade with countries as far afield as China, the Swahili Coast boasted a string of powerful sultanates, full of coral palaces. When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed along the Swahili Coast in the late 15th century, these glistening cities caught his eye. The Portuguese returned, laying siege to such legendary city-states as Zanzibar, Kilwa and Mombasa. Though other European powers eventually replaced Portugal on the Swahili Coast, Mozambique remained a Portuguese colony until 1975.

Today, large commercial fishing ships outnumber the Swahili Coast's traditional dhow sailboats and the sultanate of Mombasa has become a grimy industrial port. Tourists regularly comb through Zanzibar's Stone Town and the ruins of Kenya's Gedi. But the vibrancy of the Swahili Coast lives on - both in its language, spoken by more than 130 million people in East Africa, and in its conviction that Swahili culture is truly unique.


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