Tanzania > Kilwa Kisiwani

Kilwa Kisiwani

Kilwa Kisiwani is a community on an Indian Ocean island off the southern coast of present-day Tanzania in eastern Africa. Historically, it was the center of the Kilwa Sultanate, a medieval sultanate whose authority at its height in the 13th-15th centuries AD stretched the entire length of the Swahili Coast. Kilwa Kisiwani has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site along with the nearby stonetown Songo Mnara.

History and archaeology

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 affect trade circulations. Trade connections with the Arabian Peninsula as well as India and China influenced the growth and development of Kilwa, and, though there are Islamic words and customs that have been adapted into the culture, the origins are African. 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. 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.

Evidence of growth in wealth can be seen with the appearance of stone buildings around the 13th century AD, before which 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. Among Kilwa's exports were spices, tortoise shell, coconut oil, ivory, and aromatic gums, as well as gold and slaves. 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. For approximately 500 years, Kilwa was minting coins. This lasted from about A.D 1100-1600 and the coins have been found across the region, including Great Zimbabwe.

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, the archaeological investigation of the harbors and ports is considered to be quite important. 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.


At first, most of the focus was placed on the archaeology of Kilwa's ports and harbors, however, more and more emphasis is being placed on Kilwa's hinterlands. Ceramic artifacts are plentiful at the site 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. These unglazed ceramics were referred to as Kitchen Wares, though their uses were not necessarily just as cooking vessels. It is important to note that all of the varieties of locally produced pottery found in the region were also uncovered at the site of Kilwa itself.

While the Kitchen Wares could be seen throughout the region, there were ceramics that were mostly seen within Kilwa itself. These included modeled forms and red-burnished wares. The distribution pattern of the red-burnished wares was coastal. Other ceramic types that were seemingly restricted to town were the imported ceramic vessels from the Arabian peninsula and China. 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. The lack of imported goods in the hinterlands indicates that, while Kilwa was undergoing a process of urbanization, the local communities did not undergo dramatic transformation.


In 2004, Kilwa Kisiwani was inscribed on UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger. 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, for example, 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.

Notable features

Great Mosque

The Great Mosque of Kilwa is a congregational mosque on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, in Tanzania. It was likely founded in the tenth century, but the two major stages of construction date to the eleventh or twelfth and thirteenth century, respectively. It is one of the earliest surviving mosques on the Swahili Coast.

The smaller northern prayer hall dates to the first phase of construction. It contained a total of 16 bays supported by nine pillars, which were originally carved from coral but later replaced by timber. The structure was entirely roofed, and was perhaps one of the first mosques in the area to have been built without a courtyard.

In the early fourteenth century, Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman, who also built the nearby Palace of Husuni Kubwa, added a southern extension which included a great dome. This dome was described by Ibn Battuta after he visited Kilwa in 1331.

Palace of Husuni Kubwa

Husuni Kubwa (the "Great Fort"), 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 the breakwater can be spotted from a distance. Some parts of the causeway are made from the 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.

The Palace of Husuni Kubwa is a ruined structure on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, in Tanzania. The majority of the palace was erected in the 14th century by Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman, who also built an extension to the nearby Great Mosque of Kilwa, although portions may date back to the 13th century. The palace was inhabited only for a brief period of time, and abandoned before its completion.

The structure was built out of coral stone on a high bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean. It consists of three major elements: a south court, used primarily for commerce; a residential complex including over one hundred individual rooms; and a wide stairway leading down a mosque that was situated on the beach. Other notable features include pavilion, which likely served as a reception hall, and an octagonal swimming pool. All of Husuni Kubwa spans across approximately two acres. The coral rag was set in limestone mortar and cut stone was used for decorative pieces, door jams, and vaults. The rooms were about 3 meters tall. The roof was made from cut limestone blocks laid across cut timbers and the floors were white plaster. The main entrance to Husuni Kubwa is from the shore. Most of the imported glazed pottery recovered at the site was Chinese celadon, though there were a few Ying Ch'ing stoneware sherds present. A Yuan dynasty flask dated to about A.D. 1300. It is interesting to note that neither the Kilwa Chronicle nor any Portuguese accounts describe a building comparable to Husuni Kubwa.

Husuni Ndogo

Husuni Ndogo ("Little Fort") is built from coral rubble and limestone mortar. The rectangular enclosure wall surrounds the complex and at each corner stands a tower. The foundations extend two meters below ground level. It appears to have been built as a fort, but the exact purposes and uses are somewhat unknown. There is some evidence that it, for at least a time, was used as a mosque. Architecturally, it appears to be different from other buildings along the coast, resembling buildings constructed under the Caliphs of the Umayyad at around A.D. 661-750. However, whether or not the structure is related or even dates to the Arabic buildings remains uncertain, though it seems unlikely.

Outside influence

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 Abyssinian (Habesha). Ali bin Al-Hasan is credited with founding the island city and with marrying the daughter of the local king. Though he was credited with the founding, he had arrived at an already inhabited area. He did, however, come to power and is credited with fortifying the city and increasing trade. 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 Southeast African hinterland as far as Zimbabwe. Trade was mainly in gold, iron, ivory and other animal products of the 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, 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. 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. In 1505 another Portuguese force commanded by D. Francisco de Almeida took control of the island 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 was conquered by 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.


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 is easy to arrange dhow transport over the narrow channel to Kisiwani.

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