EAST AFRICA: Persian relations with the lands of the East African coast, particularly Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

i. Economic, political, and cultural relations through 1900.

ii. Persian loanwords in Swahili.

iii. Baluchi and Parsi communities.

iv. Bahai communities.


From early times monsoon winds have permitted rapid maritime travel between East Africa and Western Asia. Persian relations with the African coastal regions were largely via this maritime trade network (Hourani, pp. 4-6, 38, 79-82). Although large-scale Persian settlement in East Africa is unlikely and the only known Persian inscription in East Africa comes from an imported glazed tile, now lost, decorating a tomb at Tongoni (Freeman-Grenville and Martin, p. 116), Persian cultural and religious influences nonetheless were felt. Ki-Swahili, the language of the East African coastal regions, contains Persian loan words (q.v.), mainly nautical terms. Archeological evidence from East Africa shows economic connections with the ports of southern Persia from the 3rd to the 15th centuries C.E., and African traditional history connects the founding of some of the East African ports with Shiraz.

Sasanian interest in East Africa seems to have been largely directed toward the Red Sea and the northern coast of Somalia. Competition between Ethiopian and Persian merchants for the lucrative Indian trade may have been one cause of the Persian campaigns in Yemen during the reign of Ḵosrow I (r. 531-79), which campaigns led to Sasanian control of the Red Sea route to the Indian Ocean (Cosmas Indicopleustes apud Wolska-Conus, pp. 141, 159, 197; Procopius, de bello Persico 1.20.9-12). Persia may also have been after slaves, who in the pre-Islamic period were obtained from the Horn of Africa. Duan Chengshi, in Yuyang za zu (ca. 850 C.E.), describing an earlier period, also refers to “Possu” (probably here meaning “Persian”) merchants on the coast of Bobali (possibly northern Somalia) who formed caravans of several thousand men to obtain ivory and ambergris (Duyvendak, pp. 13-14). Before trading, these merchants were forced to draw blood and swear an oath. Persian ceramics of the 3rd/ 5th centuries C.E. have been found at the site of Ras Hafun (probably ancient Opone) in northern Somalia (Smith and Wright, pp. 125, 138-40), though 5th century ceramics, very similar to those from Ras Hafun, have been claimed from Chibuene in southern Mozambique and from the island of Ngazidja in the Comoro archipelago (Sinclair, p. 190). The 4th/10th-century Ḥodūd al-ʿālam (tr. Minorsky, pp. 163-64, with commentary), the only surviving early Persian geographical text with detained evidence on East Africa, describes the coast, termed Zangestān, as lying opposite Fārs, Kermān, and Sind; the people are described as extremely black, with curly hair and the nature of wild animals. Three towns are noted: M.ljān (possibly Unguja, the original name of Zanzibar Island), the port visited by foreign merchants; Sofāla, the royal capital, in modern Mozambique; and Hwfl (a corruption of Waqwāq?), the richest in goods. Gold is important, and ancient gold mines are well known from the basement rock complex of southern Africa (Summers, pp. 11-17, 31-104; settlement sites in the interior, such as Mapungubwe/K2, were in contact with the coast by at least the 10th century C.E. and probably much earlier (Hall, pp. 74-90).

Masʿūdī (Morūj, ed. Pellat, I, pp. 112-13, 124-25; II, p. 113), who last visited East Africa in 304/916 on a ship owned by two brothers from Sīrāf, suggests that regular voyages were made from Oman and Sīrāf to the Belād al-Zanj, and in particular to the port of Qanbalū (most likely Pemba Island). Masʿūdī (who was writing after the Zanj revolt) suggests ivory was the main export. Jāḥeẓ suggests (Rasāʾel, written ca. 235/850, para. 210-213) that many Zanj slaves came from Lanjuya (Unguja, Zanzibar Island) and Qanbalū. These claims are supported by recent archaeological work that has yielded 6th-century-C.E. radiocarbon dates from Unguja Ukuu on Zanzibar and 3rd-4th/9-10th century occupation at Ras Mkumbuu and Mtambwe Mkuu on Pemba. Other African exports were ambergris and timber, especially mangrove poles. Ebn Ḥawqal (tr. Kramers, p. 277) records that Sīrāf was built with sāj (teakwood) and other kinds of wood from East Africa.

The ports in the Lamu archipelago, though not mentioned in the literary sources, are known from archeological evidence to have also played a central part in the maritime trade. Excavations at Manda (Chittick, pp. 65-106) and Shanga (Horton, forthcoming) have produced ceramic assemblages very similar to those from Sīrāf, including numerous unglazed storage jars that were actually made in Sīrāf as well as the more widely distributed Sasanian-Islamic glazed jars and white-glazed wares. Chinese stonewares have also been found at these levels.

By the 5th/11th century the Indian Ocean trade had shifted to the ports at the head of the Persian Gulf, in particular Kīš and Hormoz (Ricks, pp. 352-55), which traded East African products to India, the Far East, and the West. In East Africa, the shift was marked by the appearance of sgraffito pottery manufactured in the Makrān. During the late 7th/13th century, the main center of the East African trade moved to the South Arabian coast. Though some Persian Gulf pottery found its way to East Africa in the 9th/15th century, by the time of Portuguese contact, East Africa was trading directly with either Aden or the ports of western India, not with the Persian Gulf itself.

African traditional history recognizes early connections with the Persian Gulf. The most pervasive are stories of origin from Shiraz. The Ketāb al-solwa fī aḵbār Kelwa (BM Or. 2666; excerpts and summary in Freeman-Grenville, 1962, pp. 45ff.) tells of the voyage of seven ships manned by a father who, after a dream, left Shiraz with his six sons for East Africa, founding towns at Mandakha, Shaugu, Yanbu, Mombasa, Pemba, Kilwa, and Hanzuan. Another tradition recorded by the Portuguese in the 16th century tells of a migration of seven brothers from Laçah [al-Ḥasā in eastern Arabia], but it is unclear whether this is another version of the same story or a distinct tradition (J. de Barros, Decadas da Asia, ed. A. Baiao, Coimbra, 1930, I/8/4; trans. in Freeman-Grenville, 1962, pp. 31-32).

Chronicles from Mombasa, Vumba, and the Comoros give local elaborations of the Shirazi origin myth; the coastal peoples who claimed these origins often termed themselves “Shirazi,” and a political party—the “Afro-Shirazi” party—was formed in 1957. Explanations for this myth—no modern scholar accepts that any substantial migration took place from Shiraz—range from the extensive trade links with Sīrāf/Shiraz to religious and political factors. Allen (pp. 116-18, 179) suggests that the Shirazi myth is an Islamization of indigenous origin myths, particularly those associated with Shungwaya. Alternatively, the African courts may have looked to Buyid Shiraz as a model. Hints of this come from the descriptions of court practice and apparel. These were observed by Ebn Baṭṭūṭa in Mogadishu (pp. 179-96; tr. Defrèmery and Sanguinetti, II, pp 179-96; tr. Gibb, II, pp. 373-83), where state processions in which the ruler dressed in turban and cloak, shaded by ceremonial parasols, were preceded by a band, and followed by barefoot court officials including viziers and amirs. The Song annals (Song Shu 490, f 20 verso) describe a delegation of Africans from Zangistan who reached China in the late 11th century. The annals call the African ruler by the Buyid title Amīr-e amīrān (Chin. Ameiluo Ameilan; Hirth and Rockhill, p. 127; see AMĪR-AL-OMARĀʾ). This use of Shirazi practice may explain the observance of the Persian New Year, “Siku ya Mwaka,” on Zanzibar (Gray, 1954; 1962, p. 20), although this could equally well be linked to seafarers’ use of Now-Rūz (Nairuzi) in the navigational calendar (Tibbetts, pp. 361-66). The surviving titles such as Sheha (locally elected chief) and dīvānī (ruler) have also been cited as evidence for Persian links, but are more likely the result of the adoption of general Arabic terms for government offices by Swahili Muslims.

Islamization of the East African coast may have followed trade contacts with Sīrāf/Shiraz. A 10th-century mosque at Shanga is very similar to family mosques in Sīrāf (Horton, 1991, p. 43). The floriated and plaited Kufic inscriptions on meḥrābs at Kizimkazi (Plate LV) and Tumbatu in Zanzibar resemble inscriptions carved at Sīrāf in the 11th and 12th centuries (Whitehouse, p. 56), although the style of the polyloped arch seems to draw more upon North African or Spanish influences; local coral is used for the Zanzibar inscriptions . Two Persians were recorded on Arabic inscriptions from Mogadishu during the 13th century: Abū ʿAbd-Allāh b. Moḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Nīsabūrī al-Ḵorāsānī on a tombstone, dated 614/1217, and Ḵosrow b. Moḥammad al-Šīrāzī on a meḥrāb inscription at the ʿArbaʿa Rokūn mosque, dated 667/1268-69 (Freeman-Grenville and Martin, pp. 102-03).

The last period of Persian influence came in the 19th century when Saʿīd bin Solṭān (1806-56), the Omani ruler of Zanzibar, took two Persian wives. The first—Šāhzāda, daughter of Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Mīrzā Farmānfarmā, the governor of Fārs—came from Shiraz. She went to Zanzibar in 1832 and left with the dissolution of the marriage in 1833. The second marriage was in 1849 to a daughter of Īraj Mīrzā, an alleged son of Moḥammad Shah; this, too, was dissolved a few years later.

Palaces built in Zanzibar to accommodate Persian tastes fashionable at the time, including baths, have survived. Those at Kidichi, probably built in 1832, were elaborately decorated in stucco by masons brought from Persia (Zanzibar Guide, p. 64). Saʿīd b. Solṭān relied on Baluchi mercenaries, recruited at Gwadur and Mukulla, to secure Zanzibar and the coastal regions. They were garrisoned at the fort in Zanzibar but acted more as police than as a standing army. They rarely numbered more than eighty.


Bibliography: (For cited works not given in detail, see “Short References.”)

J. de V. Allen, Swahili Origins. Swahili Culture and the Shungwaya Phenomenon, London, 1993.

H. N. Chittick, Manda. Excavations at an Island Port on the Kenyan Coast, Nairobi, 1984.

J. J. L. Duyvendak, China’s Discovery of Africa, London, School of Oriental and African Studies Occasional Paper, 1949.

G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, The Medieval History of the Coast of Tanganyika, Oxford, 1962.

Idem, “Shi’i Rulers at Kilwa,” Numismatic Chronicle, 7th ser., 1978, pp. 187-90.

Idem and B. G. Martin, “A Preliminary Handlist of the Arabic Inscriptions of the East African Coast,” JRAS, 1972, pp. 98-122.

H. A. R. Gibb, tr., The Travels of Ibn Battuta. AD 1325-1354 II, London, 1962.

J. Gray, “Nairuzi, or Siku ya Mwaka,” Tanganyikan Notes and Records XXXVIII (Dar es Salaam), 1954, pp. 1-23; XXXXI, 1954, pp. 68-72.

Idem, A History of Zanzibar from the Middle Ages to 1856, London, 1962.

M. Hall, The Changing Past. Farmers, Kings, and Traders in Southern Africa, 200-1860, Cape Town and Johannesburg, 1987.

F. Hirth and W. W. Rockhill, Chau Ju-kua. His Work on the Chinese and Arab Trade in the 12th and 13th Centuries, entitled Chu-fan-chi, St. Petersburg, 1911.

M. C. Horton, “Primitive Architecture and Islam in East Africa,” Muqarnas 8, 1991, pp. 103-06.

Idem, Shanga. A Muslim Trading Settlement on the East African Coast, Nairobi, forthcoming.

A. Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Medieval Times, Princeton, 1951.Al-Jāḥeẓ, Rasāʾel, ed. H. Sandabi, Cairo, 1933.

T. M. Ricks, “Persian Gulf Seafaring and East Africa, Ninth-Twelfth Centuries,” African Historical Studies 3/2, 1970, pp. 339-57.

P. P. J. Sinclair, “Archaeology in Eastern Africa. An Overview of Current Chronological Issues,” Journal of African History 32, 1991, pp. 179-219.

M. C. Smith and H. T. Wright, “The Ceramics from Ras Hafun in Somalia. Notes on a Classical Maritime Site,” Azania 23, 1982, pp. 115-43.

R. Summers, Ancient Mining in Rhodesia, National Museum of Rhodesia, Memoir 3, Salisbury, 1969.

G. R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the Coming of the Portuguese, London, 1971.

D. Whitehouse, “Siraf. An Islamic City and Its Rôle in Art,” Storia della Città 7, 1978, pp. 54-58.

W. Wolska-Conus, La topographie chrétienne de Cosmas Indico-pleustes. Théologie et sciences au VIe siècle, Bibliothèque byzantine. Études 3, Paris, 1962.

Zanzibar Guide, 2nd ed., Zanzibar, 1949.


The earliest Bantu-speaking communities entered eastern Africa during the last five centuries B.C.E. Swahili is a member of the Bantu subgroup known as Sabaki. Proto-Sabaki was likely spoken on or near the East African coast during the first half of the first millennium C.E., and Proto-Swahili on the coast a century or two later. Based on archeological and linguistic data, the earliest Swahili settlements along the coast from southern Somalia to Mozambique are usually assigned to 800 C.E. or slightly earlier. A set of 1,400 lexical reconstructions for Proto-Sabaki and thus Proto-Swahili (Nurse and Hinnebusch, chap. 3 and apps.) show that few were necessarily derived from Persian (or Arabic) during most of the first millennium C.E.; that is, either the items are also attested in Arabic and/or Indic languages in an identical or similar form, which means these languages could also be the source, or they are not cognate across the Swahili dialect spectrum, which means that, although we tentatively reconstructed them from the early protostage, they more likely entered Swahili later. The paucity of lexical material at this stage as well as the total absence of nonlexical material suggest very light Persian influence. The few items of general reference at this stage include *(m)pula “steel,” *bwana “man, gentleman,” *(m)pamba “cotton,” and *(n)kasa “turtle,” which correlate with Middle Persian pōlāwad, bān, pambag, and kašawag.

By about 1700, when the first recorded documents in Swahili appeared, Swahili vocabulary was much as it is today, containing several hundred items from Persian (Krumm; Knappert) and many more from Arabic. Thus, most of these entered Swahili between 800 and 1700. The recentness of their arrival is corroborated by their having undergone only recent and local sound shifts affecting Swahili. They cluster in certain categories—tools, ornaments, spices, plants, household items, and maritime and kinship terms—and contain few general items. This pattern derives from trading contact rather than sustained political intertwining. As with the small, earlier set, it is possible that many entered Swahili indirectly via Arabic or Indic languages. Many are also attested in Comorian and Mwani, a Swahili-like language on the Mozambique coast.



J. Knappert, “Persian and Turkish Loanwords in Swahili,” Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 5, 1983, pp. 111-44.

B. Krumm, Words of Oriental Origin in Swahili, London, 1961.

D. Nurse and T. J. Hinnebusch, Swahili and Sabaki. A Linguistic History, Berkeley, 1993.

A. N. Tucker, “Foreign Sounds in Swahili,” BSO(A)S 11, 1946, pp. 854-71; 12, 1947, pp. 214-32.


Members of the Baluchi and Parsi communities, both of which have had historical links with Persia, began settling in East Africa in the 19th century. A small group of the Baluchis first went to Zanzibar around 1837 as bodyguards of the Arab sultan of the Būsaʿīdī dynasty. They spoke a variant of Persian, and, unlike the majority of the other Sunni Muslims (who were Shafiʿite), they followed the Hanafite school of Islamic law (Salvadori, p. 138). They became traders over the years (Gregory, p. 33), and intermarried extensively with Arabs and Swahilis with the result that some of the youths today speak Swahili as their mother-tongue.

On the other hand, the Parsis (q.v.), who had originally emigrated from Persia to India after the Islamic conquest in the 7th century, in order to preserve their Zoroastrian faith, vigorously retained their identity as Zoroastrians. In time, the Parsis became “Indianized” in language and culture, adopting Gujarati as the language of communication and prayers. However, cardinal features of Zoroastrian identity were retained: the consecration of the sacred fire from Persia, the establishment of burial places (“the towers of silence”), and the creation of the anjoman, the community. These features were recreated in Zanzibar (and later elsewhere in East Africa), where, beginning in about 1845, the Parsis settled.

In East Africa, as elsewhere in their diaspora, the Parsis have distinguished themselves as a dynamic community which places a high premium on education. Although a community of relatively small numbers, their contribution has been significant, particularly as traders—the firm of Cowasjee Dinshaw was one of the pioneer firms in Zanzibar—and as members of the professions (lawyers, doctors, account-ants, etc.). Today, however, the Parsis are faced with an issue that is far-reaching in its implications for the continuity of their identity: whether a child born of a non-Zoroastrian parent should be accepted as a Zoroastrian Parsi. It is a modern challenge which they did not have to face in East Africa in the 19th century.



R. G. Gregory, The Rise and Fall of Philanthropy in East Africa. The Asian Contribution, New Brunswick, 1992.

C. Salvadori, Through Open Doors. A View of Asian Cultures in Kenya, Nairobi, 1983.


The earliest contact of Persian Bahais with East Africa followed plans developed in 1950 by the then Guardian of the Bahai faith Shoghi Effendi. The national Bahai community of Persia had direct responsibility for settling Italian Somaliland, one of twelve designated areas in East Africa, though Persian Bahais settled in other territories, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, the first areas in the world to experience mass conversion to the Bahai faith. During the formative years of Bahai communities in East Africa, the area received eighty Bahai settlers, “pioneers,” forty of whom were Persians. Forty percent of the Persian Bahais were women. In 1993 there were an estimated 223,000 Bahais in East Africa and 1,268 Bahai local governing councils (“Statistical Table, Six-Year Plan Final Figures,” in The Bahá’í Encyclopedia).

The Ethiopian Bahai community was established as early as 1933 by an Egyptian Bahai, Ṣabrī Elyās. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia caused Elyās to leave the country, only to return in 1944 with his spouse, Fahīma Yakot; they remained until 1954 when they left for Djibouti. Between 1953 and 1963, a large influx of Bahais from Persia, Egypt, and the United States resulted in conversions sufficiently numerous to undertake active Bahai work in many parts of the country. The area, however, attracted only two Persian couples, namely the Monajjems and Dr. and Mrs. Farhūmand; the latter donated land and national and regional Bahai centers to the Bahais of Ethiopia. Formed in 1956, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of Ethiopia was legally incorporated in 1992. One finds Bahais in several hundred localities at present.

The Uganda Bahai community. A leading center for Bahai expansion, the Uganda Bahai community was formed considerably later. In 1951 six Bahais, four of whom Persians, arrived in the country. Among the most notable Persian Bahais were Mūsā Banānī (1886-1971), in 1952 appointed a “Hand of the Cause” (Ayādī-e Amr-Allāh), his wife Samīḥa, his daughter Violette, and his son-in-law ʿAlī Naḵjavānī. Many Ugandans accepted the Bahai faith rapidly. A number of them traveled westward across Africa to open new territories to the Bahai faith. In 1956 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of Uganda was formed. In 1961 the first Bahai House of Worship in Africa was dedicated in Kampala. During the 1970s the Bahai community of Uganda lost its legal recognition, as did many other religious communities during Idi Amin’s rule, but by 1979 recognition was restored. Uganda has several Bahai schools and in 1992 had more than 335 local Bahai governing councils (more properly known as “spiritual assemblies”).

The Tanzania Bahai community. Tanzania attracted the greatest number of Persian Bahais, namely eighteen. The foundation of the Bahai community was laid in 1951 by Jalāl Naḵjavānī (1917-1982), the first contemporary pioneer to settle in Africa, his wife Daraḵšanda Naʿīmī, his brother-in-law Farhang Naʿīmī, and ʿEzzat Zahrāʾī. The Egyptian Bahai Ḥasan Ṣabrī and the American Isobel Ṣabri were also influential in promoting the work of the new faith in Tanzania. Farzāna Yazdānī, her husband, and their family arrived in 1952 in Dar es Salaam, the former capital and chief port of Tanzania. In 1954 Dr. Farhūmand left Tehran and settled in the country with his three children; his wife followed. Dr. Farhūmand was particularly noted for his founding a multiracial clinic in Dar es Salaam and eventually served as personal physician to the first president of Tanzania. In the course of these early years, many Tanzanians became Bahais. The death of a Persian Bahai, Mrs. Afrūḵta, widow of a professor of medicine at Tehran University, provided the opportunity for the still emerging Bahai community of Dar es Salaam to establish the first multiracial cemetery in that city. Bahais can be found in 508 localities, of which 191 have spiritual assemblies (Yazdani, “Tanzania”).

The Kenyan Bahai community. Like those of Uganda and Tanzania, the Bahai community in Kenya started to take shape in the early 1950s. Kenya was the recipient of the second largest contingent of Persian Bahais, namely thirteen individuals. This group included ʿAzīz Yazdī, a businessman from Tehran, and his family; the ʿAlāʾī family; the ʿAlīzādas; Manūčehr Maʿānī; the Sohaylīs; and the Fanānāpaḏīrs. The Bahai presence is greatest in the Western Province. The national spiritual assembly of the Bahais of Kenya was formed in 1964. There are now over 700 spiritual assemblies (Sohaili, “Kenya”).

The Somalian Bahai community. The Bahai situation in Somalia is strikingly different from that in the four other East African countries. The growth of the Bahai community was much slower in Somalia. The notable Persians who settled in Italian and British Somaliland were Sohayl and Cyrus Samandarī (1934-58), Šīdān Fatḥ-Aʿẓam, and Mahdī and Ursula Samandarī. The last couple stayed for twenty years. There were Bahais in only one locality (Smandari, “Somalia”).

Aside from activities that have led to a dramatic growth of the Bahai faith in East Africa, Persian Bahais, through the establishment of local and national Bahai governing councils, the donation of land and buildings, and support of the African Bahai Temple erected in Uganda in 1964, have made a significant contribution to the consolidation of the Bahai faith in Africa as a whole. Persians have also assisted Western Bahai “pioneers” in settling in East Africa.



Africa Teaching Committee Records, National Bahai Archives, Wilmette, Ill. A. Banani, “Musa Banani,” Bahāʾī World 15, 1979, pp. 421-23.

M. Bossi, “Jalal Nakhjavanī,” Bahāʾī World 18, 1978, pp. 797-800.

M. and U. Samandari, “Cyrus Samandari,” Bahāʾī World 12, 1956, pp. 925-6.

The Bahá’í Encyclopedia (forthcoming) is the source for the following references: Will. C. van den Hoonaard, “Africa”; idem, “An Annotated Index of the United Africa Teaching Committee Minutes and Correspondence: Bahá’i History in 25 African Countries”; S. Samandari, “Somalia”; M. Sohaili, “Kenya”; and F. Yazdani, “Tanzania.”

(Will. C. van den Hoonard)

(Mark Horton, Derek Nurse, Farouk Topan, Will. C. van den Hoonard)

Originally Published: December 15, 1996

Last Updated: December 2, 2011

This article is available in print.
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