The Comoro Islands

A close up of a map

Description generated with high confidence

The Comoros consist of four major islands and smaller islets located strategically at the northern end of the Mozambique channel. They are 10 to 12 degrees south of the equator and halfway between northern Madagascar and eastern Africa. Three of the islands, Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani), and Moheli (Mwali), are members of an independent country, the Union of the Comoros. The fourth island Mayotte (Maore), is a department of France. The names in parentheses are the Comorian names of the islands. In the following paragraphs, the French names will be used reflecting the common use in English publications.

Volcanic in origin, the Islands arose from the seabed of the Indian Ocean over many eons. Today, each island has distinct geological characteristics due to its age. Mayotte, the oldest of the islands, has highly eroded mountains and slow, meandering streams. Grande Comore is the youngest of the islands and has no permanent rivers, a number of recent lava flows, and an active volcano that dominates the southern half of the island. The other two islands, Anjouan and Moheli, are of intermediate age and have relatively high mountains, tropical forests, no recent volcanic activity, and rivers flowing swiftly to the sea.

Occasionally, the name of the archipelago is written as the "Comoros Islands" with each word ending in 's'. In English, the proper way to refer to them is "Comoros" or "Comoro Islands." Referring to them as "Comoros Islands" is incorrect, just as referring to the Philippine Islands as the “Philippines Islands" is incorrect.

Another error is the Comoros being referred to as "the islands of the moon." This is due to a misinterpretation of an Arabic label on a 12th century Indian Ocean map. The label correctly identifies the islands as "al Qmr" (the Comoros). However, the meaning of ‘al Qmr in Arabic is “the moon” and someone unacquainted with the islands transformed the label from the Arabic map into “the islands of the moon”. This mistake has since appeared in a number of publications.

Genetic evidence indicates that the Comoro Islands were populated by peoples of African, Arabian, Asian, Austronesian, and Polynesian descent. A recent archaeological study substantiated that they have been settled for over a thousand years. Strategically located in the western Indian Ocean, the Comoros have played an integral role in the maritime trade of the western Indian Ocean for many centuries. Merchants sailed between the Island and a number of Indian Ocean ports and traded a wide variety of goods including gems, rare animals, slaves, exotic woods, and spices. Domoni, a town on the eastern shore of the island of Anjouan, was specifically mentioned in a document by the navigator, Ibn Madjid. Madjid had visited the Comoros on his travels in the 15th century and he noted that Domoni was a major port for African, Indian, and Persian sailing vessels at that time. Archaeological evidence also verifies that the town, establishied by the 12th century, was involved in maritime trade for centuries.


Livingstone's Flying Fox

The mountainous islands have diverse microecologies with spectacular scenery, exotic plants and rare animals. Several species are unique to the Comoros. One animal, Livingstone's Flying Fox, is a fruit bat that soars on wings spanning more than four feet (1.2 meters)! It roosts in steep-sided valleys high in the mountainous forests of Anjouan and Moheli. With disappearing forests due to increased human demands for cleared land and timber, the bat's habitat is diminishing and the species is endangered.

The Anjouan-scops owl is one of over a dozen bird species unique to the islands. All are under a threat of extinction due to expanding human populations trying to meet their needs. The islands also have a number of species of insects found nowhere else in the world plus a variety of rare orchids and other plant life on the mountains that have seldom been seen. Some of these have medicinal properties unknown to western science.

A large variety of sea life can be found in the waters around the Comoros. One can find everything from giant whales, large sharks, big manta rays, sailfish, sunfish, to lobsters, crabs, blennies (Alticus anjouanae) and tiny shrimp. Deep water close to the islands, coral reefs, miles of both rocky shores and sandy beaches, plus fresh water streams and shoreline springs provide multiple habitats for marine life. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in pollution from human activity that now threatens the coastal life around the islands. The coral reefs and their associated sea life, in particular, are being affected.

One species of fish, the Coelacanth, has a remarkable story. Scientists for a long time thought that the Coelacanth had been extinct for 60 million years! But, in 1938, one was caught in the waters near South Africa and brought to the attention of an ichthyologist. The ichthyologist, once he learned that coelacanths were still being caught in the waters of Anjouan, went there to secure a specimen from fishermen who regularly caught the fish for their kitchen tables. Since then, numerous specimens have been caught, preserved, and sent to museums around the world. Coelacanths have also been photographed live in Comorian waters. There are videos of the living fish on YouTube. To learn more about this remarkable story visit the National Geographic web site.




At the Berlin conference of 1884-5, the major European powers divided up their spheres of influence in Africa and the Comoros became a French protectorate. France declared them a colony in 1912 then, in 1946, they became an Overseas Territory of France. They remained under direct French political control until 1975 when the local government declared the Islands' independence. Three years of political turmoil then ensued followed by three of the islands forming the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands in 1978. The three islands: Grande Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan, constituted the Republic while Mayotte remained under French administration. French administration of Mayotte was disputed by the new Comorian government and the United Nations General Assembly recognized the island as part of the independent nation of the Comoros. In spite of these actions, the French government remained in control of the island and made it a Department of France in March, 2011. Mayotte remains a part of France today.

In 1997, separatists on the islands of Anjouan and Moheli demanded more independence from the Republic. This led to the breakup of the Federal Islamic Republic and a reformation of the central government under a new constitution in 2001. The country was renamed the Union of the Comoro Islands and the constitution gave each of the three islands considerable autonomy. Besides there being an elected president of the Union, each island would have its own president. In 2007, the president of Anjouan, who proposed independence of the island from the Union, refused to relinquish his position after losing an election. Subsequently, in March of 2008, he was removed by a combined military force of soldiers from the Comorian Union and the African Union. This led to a newly elected president of Anjouan and a return to a normalized relationship with the central government.

Under the Union's constitution, presidential elections were scheduled to be held every four years with the office rotating between the three islands. In 2002, Colonel Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore was elected President. He was followed in 2006 by Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi from Anjouan and then, in 2011, by Ikililou Dhoinine from Moheli. Azali Assoumani was elected President again in the Spring of 2016.

Some web sites with information about the Comoro Islands are:

The Permanent Mission of the Union of the Comoros to the United Nations.

Seniors Discover the Comoros by Jim Becker.

Dahari is a Comorian NGO founded in 2013.

Al-watwan, daily news about the Comoros. (In French and Arabic)

Radio and Television from the Comoros. (In French, Arabic, and Comorian)

World Bank Country Profile.

BBC News Country Profile.

Comoro Islands Resources Page of Stanford University Libraries.

University of Pennsylvania's African Studies Program.

Library of Congress Country Studies.

United States Peace Corps web site.

United States Department of State Background Notes.

United States Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.

IMF (International Monetary Fund) publications on the Comoros.

Interested in examples of Comorian money? Go to Coins of the Comoros.

Any questions, suggestions, or comments about this site contact:

Dr. Martin Ottenheimer or Dr. Harriet Ottenheimer
Emeriti Professors of Anthropology
K-State University