Writing a review entails taking a book apart, fragmenting it into a set of claims and concepts to be critiqued. In the case of Prita Meier's Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere, this is no easy task. Compact and complex, Meier's sensitively differentiated historical exploration of Swahili Coast material culture is a challenge to unpick. She does not present a simple argument, but an aggregate of fine-grained analyses of a diverse range of subjects and objects that contribute to producing the constructed environments of Lamu, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. By layering studies of porcelain plates imported from China, full-scale oil portraits of Sultan Barghash authored in Paris, mass-manufactured cast-iron verandas from Glasgow, and local coral-stone merchant houses, Meier collapses binaries such as local/global, high/low, or indigenous/foreign and challenges established analytical categories—for example, the nation state. In this innovative and carefully considered book, she persuasively argues that real and imagined oceanic mobilities and the possibility of being simultaneously both here and elsewhere are fundamental to the production of Swahili built space.
Swahili Port Cities takes a contradiction as its starting point. East African littoral society is defined by the wide-ranging mobility and circulation of people and goods, but the architecture that tethers it to the land is marked by a sense of permanence and fixity. By writing a long history, which begins in the ninth century, dwells on the colonial period, and ends in the present, Meier succeeds in reconciling the opposition. She unsettles the perception of stasis, uncovering shifting layers of meaning in and around the coral stone walls of the urban fabric. Through analyzing these palimpsests, Meier reveals how built form and material culture mediate human experience, as well as how stone architecture became a source of contestation in the local imaginary. Key to her interpretation is her reading of Swahili culture as inherently poly-local and saturated with a profound “cosmopolitan longing” (p. 13). Resolutely oriented towards the sea, the luminous lime-plastered buildings form part of a network of port cities in the Indian Ocean region, recognizable to sea-faring merchants and traders from a long distance. As such, these coastal beacons are caught up in interchanges with multiple localities that make and remake Swahili urban identities, building on an “age-old Swahili desire […] to claim belonging to a range of elsewheres” (p. 2). Beyond the surface of the whitewashed walls, these “elsewheres” are evident in different aspects of the built environment that she analyses in this sophisticated and highly engaging book.
Like the Swahili culture she describes, Meier is committed to transcending boundaries and bringing a diverse range of influences to bear on her work. While acknowledging close ties to the field of archaeology (p. 21), Swahili Port Cities seamlessly interweaves art history, architectural history, social history, political history, and cultural anthropology into a rich narrative with a broad interdisciplinary appeal. Her methods also reflect this plurality as she mixes an ethnographic approach with site visits/fieldwork in Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Lamu, and research in, for the most part, state archives in Kenya, Germany, Tanzania, and the UK. The resulting analysis of interviews, architectural plans, oral histories, building forms, historical and contemporary photographs, nineteenth century advertising, furniture and domestic objects, interiors, urban plans, poetry, carpentry, and wall finishes produces a very nuanced, complex account while also challenging art and architectural historians to look and think beyond established disciplinary tropes.
Meier grounds her explorations in the case studies that make up the four main chapters of the book. These chapters progress elegantly through a series of scales, shifting from an urban historical analysis of Mombasa's Old Town in chapter 1, through the discussion of an exterior urban feature—the minarets on two Mombasan mosques—in the second chapter, to the semi-public veranda space of Zanzibar's House of Wonders in chapter 3, to the interior decoration of merchant houses in Mombasa in chapter 4. This progression from macro to micro is mirrored by an increasing intimacy, or privacy, in the spaces and objects discussed.
Chapter 1 investigates the “fundamentally nonterritorial cultural landscape” (p. 26) of Mombasa's Old Town in relation to the stone architecture it inhabits. It charts changes in the local perception of the stone buildings through hegemonic shifts: from the mercantile elite, to Portuguese colonizers, the Omani sultanate, the British imperialists, and the Kenyan nation state. Meier grounds her social analysis in Swahili concepts of spatial organization. The mtaa or neighborhood, for example, is not defined by streets or boundaries, but by migration and historic events, becoming a “palimpsest of communal memories and shared experiences” (p. 32)—its social and cultural interpretations changing and developing over time. As a result of such events, the prominent waterfront area was renamed mtaa ya mzungu or “white peoples' quarter” after British colonization (p. 62).
In chapter 2 Meier turns to the sacred architecture of the predominantly Muslim Swahili community. Focusing on two intriguingly shaped mnara minarets, she connects the Swahili commitment to the global umma with the development of local religious building forms. The Mandhry and Mnara mosques are among Mombasa's oldest, dating from the sixteenth century or earlier. While their main volumes are read as “stylistic and spatial entanglements, where diverse forms and histories interlock and overlap to create densely layered structures” (p. 85), their squat, unadorned conical minarets are peculiarly local, connected to older space-making practices where Islamic and non-Islamic spiritual realms intersect. Their long histories, complex forms, and inherent openness to diverse interpretations by different groups supported their becoming sites of resistance and collective agency during the colonial period.
Temporarily leaving these everyday spaces of cultural practice, in chapter 3 Meier turns to Zanzibar's exceptional House of Wonders, commissioned by Sultan Seyyid Barghash and completed in 1883. Scaffolded on three sides by remarkably deep, cast-iron verandas, the House of Wonders staked a spectacular claim to modernity. Its technophile, global form and furnishings—telescopes, anemometers, clocks, thermometers—put it in competitive dialogue with British authority, while interior walls and doorways embossed with Arabic calligraphy marked it as a Muslim space. Framed and illuminated by the verandas, taarab performers and a military band of Goan musicians (conducted by a German bandleader) entertained audiences assembled in the waterfront grounds, further complicating the building's expression of cultural identity. Rather than localizing the “global” in a colonized periphery, Meier powerfully maps out how the House of Wonders “enacted a vision of Zanzibar's profound centrality in the world” (p. 138).
The fourth chapter follows transoceanic objects into domestic spaces, investigating how the Swahili aesthetic “eschews place-based authenticity” (p. 141) through the locals' embrace of imported ornaments. Meier also demonstrates how these objects are appropriated and transformed, becoming constitutive agents in the local vernacular. Porcelain dishes imported from China first took their place in niches of eighteenth century patrician houses before bursting out to cover entire walls. Hundreds of chinaware bowls were arranged to create patterns that both visualized a connection to far-flung Muslim maritime networks and provided talismanic protection (p. 154). Meier uses the concept of uwezo (power, dignity, agency) with these and other objects, such as vita vya enzi chairs, to underline their innate affective power. Describing the interiors as “montage[s] of diverse temporal and cultural sites” (p. 178), Meier evocatively evidences the Swahili espousal of global connectedness and local semiotics in the most intimate of spaces.
While Meier connects Swahili material culture to multiple Indian Ocean “elsewheres,” she does not investigate its potential reciprocal trajectories. Bombay is possibly the city Meier most often cites in relation to the Swahili coast. She names it as an inspiration for Bharghash, a source of itinerant labor and financial capital, and a center of export of architectural elements such as prefabricated balconies or carved wooden doors, and quotes the East African Standard and Mombasa Times of February 9, 1907: “Dhows from the Persian Gulf, Bombay and Somaliland are arriving daily in Mombasa” (p. 63). Judging from a Bombay memoir from the same era, the situation there was similar:
[L]ook at the … Arab and Somali and other Mahomedan mariners, crews of buglows [a high-seas capable dhow] from Muscat, Makalla, Aden, Basra and Zanzibar who are to be seen in large numbers at our docks and more distant bunders (Wacha 1920: 411).
Although it is clearly beyond the scope of this book, one wonders what a comparative study of Indian Ocean material culture might reveal about transmissions, translations, circulations and exchanges in other port cities.
Meier does not problematize the concept of “city” in relation to Swahili culture, nor does she study the forms of commercial, infra-structural, administrative, defensive, or public space that must have contributed to shaping urban culture. Moreover, perhaps in an effort to streamline and neatly package her research, Meier's staunch focus on coral stone in the introduction belies the content of at least two chapters in which the building material is of secondary interest. Perhaps more disappointingly, she does not engage questions regarding architectural labor, interrogate local macuti constructions, or indeed explore the proximate “elsewheres” of the African mainland. Despite these criticisms, Meier's book remains an immersive read, richly researched and precisely expressed. Engaging with her expansive consideration of Swahili “networks of affinity with faraway places” (p. 25), her focus on in-between-ness and emphasis on plurality in the construction of identity, is both rewarding and challenging to scholars contemplating historical built environments everywhere.