The Swahili architectural tradition, which includes buildings of coral and lime, sets coastal society apart from its hinterland neighbours. For scholars, this ‘stone’ architecture has been seen as the quintessential expression of Swahili society; ethnographic accounts also emphasise its importance in contemporary identity politics on the eastern African coast (Meier, this volume). When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama first encountered the coast in 1498, he was astounded to find well-developed urban centres with buildings of ‘stone and mortar, with windows and terraces like those of Spain’ (Theal  1964, Vol. 6: 179). These stone-built houses were a characteristic feature of medieval Swahili settlements from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique, constructed by the elite Swahili merchant class to serve as symbols of their position and status within the urban community.