Kilwa Kisiwani

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"Kilwa" redirects here. For other uses, see Kilwa (disambiguation).
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Ruins of Songo Mnara
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
The Great Mosque
Type Cultural
Criteria iii
Reference 144
UNESCO region Africa
Coordinates Coordinates: 8°57′36″S 39°30′46″E / 8.9600°S 39.5128°E / -8.9600; 39.5128
Inscription history
Inscription 1981 (5th Session)
Kilwa Kisiwani is located in Tanzania
Kilwa Kisiwani
Location in Tanzania

Kilwa Kisiwani is a community on an island off the coast of present-day Tanzania in the African Great Lakes region. Historically, it was the center of the Kilwa Sultanate, a medieval sultanate whose authority at its height stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast.


Main article: Kilwa Sultanate
A 1572 depiction of the city of Kilwa from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg's atlas Civitates orbis terrarum.

A document written around AD 1200 called al-Maqama al Kilwiyya, discovered in Oman, gives details of a mission to reconvert Kilwa to Ibadism, as it had recently been affected by the Ghurabiyya Shia doctrine from southern Iraq.

According to local oral tradition, in the 11th century the island of Kilwa Kisiwani was sold to Ali bin Hasan, son of the "King" of Shiraz, in Persia. Another tradition relates that his mother was African ("Abyssinian"). Ali bin Al-Hasan is credited with founding the island city and with marrying the daughter of the local African king. Tradition also relates that it was the child of this union who founded the Kilwa Sultanate. Archaeological and documentary research has revealed that over the next few centuries, Kilwa grew to be a substantial city and the leading commercial entrepôt on the southern half of the Swahili Coast (roughly from the present Tanzanian-Kenya border southward to the mouth of the Zambezi River), trading extensively with states of the African hinterland and interior as far as Zimbabwe. Trade was mainly in gold, iron, ivory, and other animal products of the African interior for beads, textiles, jewelry, porcelain, and spices from Asia.

By the 12th century, under the rule of the Abu'-Mawahib dynasty, Kilwa had become the most powerful city on the Swahili Coast. At the zenith of its power in the 15th century, the Kilwa Sultanate claimed authority over the city-states of Malindi, Mvita (Mombasa), Pemba Island, Zanzibar, Mafia Island, Grande Comore|Comoro, Sofala, and the trading posts across the channel on Madagascar.

Ibn Battuta recorded his visit to the city around 1331, and commented favorably on the humility and religion of its ruler, Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman. He was particularly impressed by the planning of the city and believed that it was the reason for Kilwa's success along the coast.[1] From this period date the construction of the Palace of Husuni Kubwa and a significant extension to the Great Mosque of Kilwa, which was made of coral stones—the largest mosque of its kind.

In the early 16th century, Vasco da Gama extorted tribute from the wealthy Islamic state, but not soon after, another Portuguese force commanded by D. Francisco de Almeida took control of the island in (1505) after besieging it. It remained in Portuguese hands until 1512, when an Arab mercenary captured Kilwa after the Portuguese abandoned their outpost. The city regained some of its earlier prosperity, but in 1784 it came under the rule of the Omani rulers of Zanzibar. After the Omani conquest, the French built and manned a fort at the northern tip of the island, but the city itself was abandoned in the 1840s. It was later part of the colony of German East Africa from 1886 to 1918.

Archaeology and Preservation[edit]

Serious archaeological investigation began in the 1950s. In 1981 it was declared a World Heritage Site, and noted visitor sites are the Great Mosque, the Mkutini Palace and some remarkable ruins.

Inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger: 2004. There is a serious rapid deterioration of the archaeological and monumental heritage of these two islands due to various agents like erosion and vegetation. The eastern section of the Palace of Husuni Kubwa (Palace of the Queens) is progressively disappearing. The damage to the soil caused by rainwater wash is accentuating the risks of collapse of the remaining structures on the edge of the cliff. The vegetation that proliferates on the cliff has limited the progression of the rain-wash effect, but causes the break-up of the masonry structures. The World Monuments Fund included Kilwa on its 2008 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, and since 2008 has been supporting conservation work on various buildings.

Songo Mnara was a Swahili stone town, dominated by the well-preserved remains of more than 40 large domestic room-blocks, five mosques, and numerous tombs. Room blocks wrap around and enclose an open, central area of the site where tombs, a walled cemetery and a small mosque are located.

Compared to the 800-year occupation of nearby Kilwa, the relatively short, 200-year occupation of Songo Mnara makes it an ideal candidate to examine household and public spaces from a discrete period in time.

Kilwa Kisiwani is an archaeological city-state site located along the Swahili Coast on the Kilwa archipelago. It was occupied from at least the 8th century AD and became one of the most powerful settlements along the coast. The seasonal wind reversals would effect trade circulations. [2] Many of the Swahili settlements showed complex layouts that reflected social relations between groups, however at Kilwa, there are many questions still left unanswered about the town layout. The cemeteries were located on the edge of the town, which was common for the region, and large, open spaces were likely used for social gatherings. [3] An important city for trade, around the 13th century there were increased fortifications and a greater flow of goods. For these to take place, there would need to be a form of political administration overseeing the city, controlling the movement of goods. Much of the trade networks were with the Arabian peninsula. Kilwa Kisiwani reached its highest point in wealth and commerce between 13th and 15th centuries AD. [4]

Evidence of growth in wealth can be seen with the appearance of stone buildings around the 13th century AD, where before all of the buildings were wattle-and-daub. The socio-economic status of the individuals residing there could be clearly seen in the type of structure they were living in. At around this time, Kilwa had seized control over the trade of gold at Sofala. The wealthy also possessed more commercial goods than the individuals who were of lower class did. Luxury cloths and foreign ceramics were among a few of the items they would have owned, though some items, such as luxury cloths, do not preserve in the archaeological record. [4]

Marine resources were abundant and utilized for food. Food sources would also come from the surrounding land. But because of the huge impact the sea, with all of the resources and trade opportunities, had on Kilwa, it is important for the focus of archaeological investigation to be on the harbors and ports. The soil at Kilwa that was found over the limestone was of poor quality, so the land food sources came from the areas of higher ground. However, the soil in the Kilwa region would have been suitable for growing cotton, which could be used in sail manufacture. 12th century spindle whorls have been found, indicating that cotton was used and processed in this area. [4]

Ceramic artifacts are most plentiful and can be divided into two groups: regional and coastal. All of the ceramics with regional distribution were locally produced, but the area of distribution is limited. Imported ceramic materials are not found in rural areas. They were used as a sign of social status by the elite. They were kept in wall niches made just for the purpose of displaying them. These imported ceramics played important symbolic roles along the Swahili Coast. The symbolism attached to the imported ceramics was so strong that it carried on to modern Swahili culture. [5]

Husuni Kubwa, situated outside the town, was an early 14th century sultan's palace and emporium. Other defining features include causeways and platforms at the entrance of the Harbour made from blocks of reef and coral nearly a meter high. These act as breakwaters, allowing mangroves to grow which is one of the ways you can spot them from a distance. Some parts of the causeway are made fro mthe bedrock, but usually the bedrock was used as a base. Coral stone was used to build up the causeways with sand and lime being used to cement the cobbles together. Some of the stones were left loose. [6]


The fort on the banks of Kilwa Kisiwani.

The town is located within the Kilwa District of the Lindi Region.

It is possible to visit the island of Kilwa Kisiwani and most people base themselves in Kilwa Masoko. The town Kilwa Masoko can be reached by bus from Dar es Salaam (leaving Mbagala bus stop), and is served by Coastal Aviation. There are numerous basic guesthouses and a handful of tourist hotels, mostly spread along Jimbiza beach and the beautiful and highly regarded Masoko Pwani.

A permit is needed to visit the ruins of Kisiwani itself, and can be easily obtained from the local government building on the main road in Kilwa Masoko. Once the permit has been obtained it's easy to arrange dhow transport over the narrow channel to Kisiwani.

Kilwa District host another UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Selous Game Reserve, a huge abundance & diversity of wildlife live in a protected area the size of Switzerland.

Other wildlife in the area include hippo pools and mangrove forests inhabited by hippos and crocodiles, while the nearby seagrasses harbour the rare and elusive dugong. Further out to sea lie miles of virgin, coral reef waiting to be explored and documented.


  1. ^ Dunn 2005, pp. 126–128
  2. ^ Elkiss, Terry A. (1973). "Kilwa Kisiwani: The Rise of an East African City-State". African Studies Review 16 (1): 119–130. 
  3. ^ Fleisher, Jeffery; Wynne-Jones, Stephanie (2012). "Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practicees". Afr Archaeol Rev (29): 171–207. 
  4. ^ a b c Pollard, Edward John (2008). "THe maritime landscape of Kilwa Kisiwani and its region, Tanzania, 11th to 15th century AD". Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (27): 265–280. 
  5. ^ Wynne-Jones, Stephanie (2007). "Creating urban communities at Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, AD 800-1300". Antiquity (81): 368-380. 
  6. ^ Pollard, Edward (2008). "Inter-Tidal Causeways and Platforms of the 13th- to 16th-Century City-States of Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania". The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 1 (37): 98–114. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Chittick, H. Neville (1974), Kilwa: an Islamic trading city on the East African coast (2 Vols), Nairobi: British Institute in Eastern Africa . Volume 1: History and archaeology; Volume 2: The finds.

External links[edit]