Comoros Islands

Located in a strategic position at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel, the Comoro Islands once played a major role in a thriving world economy of the western Indian Ocean. The archipelago arose from the seabed of the western Indian Ocean as the result of volcanic activity. The four major islands: Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Moheli), Nzwani (Anjouan), and Maore (Mayotte), are of varying age with distinct topograhical characteristics. Mayotte, the oldest of the islands, is closest to Madagascar and is highly eroded with slow, meandering streams. Ngazidja, the youngest of the islands is closest to Africa and has a massive, active volcano.

The Comoro Islands have long been important to the trading networks of the Indian Ocean, maintaining contact with the African mainland, Arabia, and Asia from the 10th century on. Though Islam provided cultural continuity to the Comoro Islanders, rival sultanates on each island obstructed political unity.

Since the 19th century local leaders have often appealed to European, and especially French, outsiders to help with internal questions. This practice aided the French in assuming control of the islands during the late 19th century, but the role of outsiders has continued to be a matter of dissension since independence. For many Comoro Islanders, different cultural traditions contribute more to secession movements than to national unity.

The Comoros were originally settled by Malaysian and Polynesian peoples. From the 10th to the 15th centuries, Africans, Arabs, and Shirazian peoples from the Persian Gulf arrived in great numbers, and it is from these peoples that the current population is descended. During this same period the influence of Islam spread through the islands, and Sunni Muslims make up the vast majority of Comorans, except for on the island of Mayotte (Mahore), which is a French dependency where Roman Catholicism has many followers.

The population also includes important Indian, Malagasy, and European minorities. The official languages are French and Arabic, though most people in their daily life speak Comoran, a language very similar to Swahili with the addition of many loan words from around the Indian Ocean.

Music is the form of cultural expression shared by most Comorans, and many forms exist. Solo or choral, improvised or rehearsed, instrumental or a cappella, music in all its forms is widely appreciated. The traditional instruments of the islands include gongs, tambourines, drums, rattles, oboes, zithers, and five-string lutes. Comoran musicians combine these in particular ways for special events. For example, zithers and rattles are the featured instruments in the women’s wedding dance. Comorans have also participated in modern music movements, skillfully adapting traditional sounds to contemporary themes.

The cultural landmarks of the Comoros vary from island to island. On Nzwani (Anjouan), vestiges of the country’s trading heritage exist at Domoni in the form of an ancient walled community on the eastern side of the island. On the island of Njazidja (Grande Comore), the country’s capital, Moroni, is also the largest port. The Arab quarter here is full of narrow streets lined with buildings from the precolonial age. One of the primary landmarks is the Friday Mosque, constructed in a half round with multiple arches around the perimeter of each level and a taller tower overlooking the city.

At Mudsamudu, on the island of Mwali (Moheli), there is also a crumbling citadel and sultan’s palace. Otherwise, Mwali reveals fewer of the walled cities with narrow winding streets and multistoried stone houses that are common throughout the rest of the country. Instead, wattle and daub or tressed palm frond huts stand along wide, open streets.

The islands possess a variety of animal life with several species unique to the Comoros or rarely found elsewhere. The famous Coelacanth, a fish once thought to be extinct for millions of years, is found very much alive in Comorian waters. Livingstone’s flying fox, a giant fruit bat with a wing span over four feet, is found nowhere else in the world. Several varieties of insects and over a dozen species of birds are unique to the islands. Many of these animals are now being threatened with extinction. There is an abundance of life in the sea around the islands and one can see everything from giant whales to tiny shrimp.