Coral Stone Architecture, Chinese Porcelain, and Indian Ocean Artifacts along the Swahili Coast: Cross-Cultural Dynamics in Medieval East Africa


While the use of Chinese porcelain dishes in the stone towns along the Swahili coast has recently found much attention in art historical scholarship regarding the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, the pre-history of these dynamics in the medieval period has up to now only been fully considered in other fields such as archaeology and anthropology. This paper sheds new light on the interrelations between the built environment and material culture in coastal East Africa from an art historical perspective, focusing on premodern Indian Ocean trajectories, the role of Chinese porcelain bowls that were immured into Swahili coral stone buildings, and on architecture across boundaries in a medieval world characterized by far-reaching transcultural entanglements and connectivity. It will show how Chinese porcelain bowls in premodern Swahili architecture linked the stone towns along the coast with other sites both inland and across the Indian Ocean and beyond, and how these dynamics were shaped by complex intersections between short-distance and long-distance-relationships and negotiations between the local and the global along the Swahili coast and beyond.

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