The Cape Malay Quarter
 in Cape Town

The Cape Malay quarter in Cape Town
© South African Tourism

The Cape Malay Quarter, or 'Bo-Kaap' which sprawls along the slopes of Signal Hill, bordering our city, presents a scenario of enduring historic and cultural significance. It's certainly worth taking the time to explore the area when you come to Cape Town.

The establishment of the Cape Malay people evolved with the Islamic influences which became their religion and culture during the years of slavery in Cape Town in the 18th century and beyond.

The 'Malay' term is understood to have been used by the Colonial settlers to describe this growing Islamic faith among the Cape slaves and their descendants, and not, as commonly thought, their origins.

Some history
During the era when the Cape was under the rule of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), slaves were imported in order to provide labour in the building of the city. They were shipped in from other parts of Africa and also from Madagascar, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indonesia and South East Asia. Many were sold as personal slaves. They brought with them a wide range of occupations and skills.

Many of these people intermingled over the following years with the indigenous Khoi San people and the Dutch settlers. Their need for spiritual independance led them to establish an active Moslim religion and culture within their community. They built a number of Kramat s (holy burial sites) around the Bo-Kaap and Cape Town area to commemorate Muslim leaders and sheikhs. These shrines have become symbols of religious expression.

The earliest Cape Muslims were slaves of Dutch officials. They were initially forbidden to practise Christianity by their owners and so turned to Islam.

Muslim slaves imported from Africa to build the Table Bay breakwater were known as 'Free Blacks'. They married into the community and contributed to the spread of the Islamic way of life among them.

The Cape Malay Quarter

Apart from the unique development of the Afrikaans language, the Islamic culture became embedded among the slaves when prominent Muslim noblemen, 'Orang Cayen' (men of power and influence) political exiles from Asia who had opposed colonisation of their countries by the Dutch, were 'banished' to the Cape. They were influentual in laying the foundations for Islam in the Cape slave community

The most prominent among the Orang Cayen was Sheikh Yusuf of Mucassar (Indonesia), a revered Sufi scholar whose Kramat  is situated today at Macasser on the Cape Flats.

The original Cape Malay community settled in what became known as the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town. They passed on their Islamic faith and culture through their descendants, many of whom still live there. The first Mosque built there in 1798 is known as Awwal Mosque.

Today the Cape Maly Quarter largely retains its original appeal of steep cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings built in the traditional fashion, interspersed with Mosques for worship. Much of the area has been upgraded amd modernised however and many buildings have been sold and revamped, as developers take advantage of a popular housing market.

When you're in the area make a point of visiting the Bo-Kaap Museum in Upper Wale st. See the Kramat s  and Mosques, experience the unique cuisine and get a personal insight into the original way of life and long standing traditions of the Malay Quarter.

Accommodation information
here: Cape Town Accommodation

Visit my
Cape Town History  page.

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