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Prita Meier, Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere

Bloomington, IN; Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016 (African expressive cultures)
Sarah Longair
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Prita Meier, Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere, Bloomington, IN; Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016 (African expressive cultures)

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Index de mots-clés :

mondialisation, ville portuaire

Index by keyword:

globalization, port city

Indice de palabras clave:

globalización, ciudad portuaria


Globalisierung, Hafenstadt
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1Prita Meier’s Swahili Port Cities: the Architecture of Elsewhere is a highly original and important contribution to scholarship on East Africa, and more widely for scholars interested in complicating how we understand the formation of global cities and border zone societies. It is not a conventional architectural history, yet it places buildings, in particular the coral and lime stone constructions found on the Swahili coast, at its heart. Meier uses the “materiality of city life” to offer “a genealogy of architectural meaning” in which “a seemingly stable form—coral architecture—became a palimpsest of multiple and even oppositional claims over the last two hundred years” (p. 3). While her focus is upon the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Omani and then European rule dominated in East Africa, one contention of the book is the need to look to the pre-colonial to explain nineteenth-century phenomena, identifying continuities whilst carefully acknowledging the shifting political, social and economic context. The “elsewhere” of the title refers to “the desire to claim belonging to a range of elsewheres” (p. 2), highlighting the enduring importance for the peoples of the Swahili coast of connections overseas. Meier seeks to demonstrate that white stone architecture gives “material force” to this “age-old Swahili desire” (p. 2). While these ties to “elsewheres” are apparent within the design of Swahili coast architecture, Meier argues throughout the book for the futility of attributing features or styles to particular places or cultures, arguing that “things, houses, and even people on the Swahili coast are relational loci, brimming with all sorts of different cultural traditions that cannot be traced back to one place or society—even when they look distinctly ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘foreign’” (p. 10). Concurrently, she investigates the colonial processes which led to the designations, such as “Arab” or “Indian,” to architectural styles.

2The book focuses primarily upon the cities of Mombasa and Zanzibar, with references to several other Swahili coastal towns, including Lamu, Kilwa and Pate. The four main chapters investigate the “micropolitics of architectural space” (p. 22), taking particular sites or buildings as their starting point. The first examines Mombasa’s old town, setting out how stone architecture “once embodied the Swahili ideal of the ‘elsewhere’” but became associated with racial differences in the colonial era (p. 27). The focus on Mombasa allows for a discussion about the complexities of Swahili identity and the impact of interactions with waves of outsiders, as well as how buildings and identities were contested amongst the Swahili population in the colonial period. Chapter 2 continues the focus upon Mombasa and centres upon two mosques, the Mnara mosque, founded c. fourteenth century, and the sixteenth-century Mandhry mosque which share a distinctive tapered form of minaret, unique to East Africa, and regarded as “curious” by Western observers. Building from an analysis of these mosques and their form, she discusses other religious sites, including pillar tombs which similarly are only found in Muslim communities on the East African coast, to demonstrate how religious space binds the region to the umma, the global Muslim community. She then discusses how these mosques became the sites of contestation over religious space in the colonial period between Swahili and Omani Muslims. In this chapter, and throughout the book, Meier demonstrates how meanings associated with buildings are never static but dynamic and continually evolving.

  • 1 Garth Myers, Verandahs of Power: Colonialism and Space in Urban Africa, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Uni (...)

3In the third chapter, Meier’s focus shifts to Zanzibar and the transformation of the city in the 1870s and 1880s by Sultan Barghash, whose reign witnessed an “era of unprecedented transcontinental competition” in which merchants, explorers and diplomats “converged from all over the world on Zanzibar City” (p. 102). She takes as her principal example Barghash’s palace, the Beit el Ajaib, or House of Wonders, a site known to all who visit Zanzibar and previously examined by Garth Myers as a metaphor for interrogating colonial hierarchies.1 She breaks down many existing preconceptions about this building, revealing the intensely global nature of its construction: a German designer, British metalwork, South Asian workmen and an Omani patron. At a time when Barghash was apparently bowing to British power, she argues that this building was a symbol of independence, representative of his use of “the visual politics of place-making” (p. 105). She considers in particular the optics of this space and Barghash’s use of the verandahs enabling him to see and be seen. He inaugurated the concept of the building as a site of performance, including regular music and band parades, which contrasted with earlier notions of privacy in Swahili palaces. While Barghash’s contemporaries dismissed his display of Western curiosities as an Eastern uncritical admiration, Meier demonstrates that his obsession with observation creates a logic behind the wealth of material he displayed inside, including mirrors and telescopes.

  • 2 Prita Meier, “Objects on the Edge: Swahili Coast Logics of Display,” African Arts, vol. 42, no. 4, (...)

4The final chapter brings the materiality of the house into focus to analyse “the social lives enacted within the architectural spaces of the Swahili city” (p. 139). It expands upon Meier’s illuminating earlier work, which analysed the “Swahili coast logics of display” and the meaning of porcelain in domestic space.2 Two photographs printed at the start of the chapter depicting Swahili merchants serve as a point of departure for the chapter which analyses in turn porcelain, viti vya enzi (chairs of power) and carved doors. She traces the much longer history of acquisition of foreign objects amongst the Swahili, but again emphasises how global shifts in the nineteenth century influenced these display cultures. Industrial production and colonial power increased access to some objects, especially porcelain, for many people. This chapter concludes with a section documenting Meier’s interviews with contemporary residents of Lamu and Mombasa, which serves to highlight how meanings associated with objects and architectural space linger and are still shifting. Through this we see how display and object-cultures in Swahili homes “illuminate the complicated reciprocities enacted in fluid border zone societies” (p. 178).

5The structure of the case studies for each chapter means this cannot be, nor seeks to be, a comprehensive survey of Swahili architecture and material culture in spite of the broader implications of the title. Yet myriad themes in architectural and social history are discussed using these examples as starting points. The book draws upon a wide range of source material including oral histories in order to maintain the focus upon indigenous meanings, rather than the observations of colonial writers. The book has much to interest global historians and Meier’s aim is not to ascertain “what is local and what is global,” but rather to focus upon the stone house “as a place of social and symbolic mobility” (p. 186). Much scholarship on the built environment of the Swahili concentrates on the Swahili “golden age” of in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, and earlier archaeological sites. Meier’s book is a vital addition to the field, demonstrating the importance and complexity of Swahili architecture and material culture in the modern era and the insights they offer into wider issues of identity and politics.

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1 Garth Myers, Verandahs of Power: Colonialism and Space in Urban Africa, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002 (Space, place, and society).

2 Prita Meier, “Objects on the Edge: Swahili Coast Logics of Display,” African Arts, vol. 42, no. 4, Winter 2009, p. 8‒23. URL: Accessed 22 November 2017; Prita Meier, “Chinese Porcelain and Muslim Port Cities: Mercantile Materiality in Coastal East Africa, ” Art History, vol. 38, no. 4, September 2015, p. 702‒717.

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Sarah Longair, « Prita Meier, Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere »ABE Journal [En ligne], 12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2018, consulté le 30 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Sarah Longair

University of Lincoln, Lincoln, United Kingdom

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