Kilwa Kisiwani: Ruins Of East Africa’s Greatest Empire

Joe Lloyd

Once a burgeoning empire, the biggest and most powerful on the East African Coast, the Tanzanian Kilwa Kisiwani (isle of the fish) now stands in ruins; its labyrinthine pathways, grand palaces and majestic mosques completely abandoned, stripped of their former beauty. Take a walk through Kilwa’s amazing history and discover the incredible wealth that once inhabited its walls.
The Fort | © Gustavgraves/WikiCommons
‘The city comes down to the shore, and is entirely surrounded by a wall and towers, within which there are maybe 12,000 inhabitants. The county all round is very luxurious with many trees and gardens of all sorts of vegetables, citrons, lemons, the best sweet oranges that were ever seen…’
So wrote Gaspar Correia, 16th century Portuguese soldier and historian, about the island of Kilwa. Only a few years before, circa 1502, his countryman Vasco de Gama – the first European to reach India by sea – had forced Kilwa’s Sultan to pay tribute in gold. So much gold, in fact, that some of it can still be seen in Lisbon where it was forged into an ornate pyx for the Jéronimos Monastery. In 1505, a Portuguese force led by Francisco de Almeida built a fortress on the isle, and its prosperous city began a protracted decline. Although recaptured by an Arab prince in 1512, growing Western dominance of the trade routes ignited the island’s wealth, while successive conquests by Omani, French and German forces clipped its power.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Kilwa was virtually uninhabited and almost completely forgotten. Locals and foreigners alike had little interest in the haunted ruins off the Tanzanian coast. Then, in the 1950s, two 16th century chronicles, Arabic and Portuguese, were consulted. Both outlined a dynasty of sultans and British archaeologists excavated the site to find objects that could prove their authenticity. They succeeded, bringing back coins stamped with sultans and dates that matched those found in the manuscripts. Kilwa, now with a verified history unique in East Africa, became a subject of scholarship recognized as the greatest treasure of Swahili maritime history. In 1981, Kilwa Kisiwani – ‘isle of the fish’ – was declared a World Heritage Site.

The Beginnings of an Empire

The Kilwa Sultanate began in the 10th century. Ali ibn al-Hassan was the son of Emir of Shiraz and an Abyssinian slave. Caught in an inheritance battle with his six brothers, Ali fled his homeland with his Persian entourage. He settled on the island, then inhabited by indigenous Bantu people, and began constructing his own city. Legend claims that he bought Kilwa from a local king who exchanged it for enough cloth to encircle the island. The king quickly changed his mind, but Ali had already destroyed the narrow land bridge that connected Kilwa to the mainland, securing it for himself.

Great Mosque
Map of Kilwa

The Abandoned City

Standing on Kilwa Kisiwana, surrounded by the craggy grey remnants of a once-magnificent court, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by a sense of great loss; of the ultimate transience of human achievement. But there is equally something ebullient about the island’s prodigal variety of ruins; the majesty of their architecture and the sensation they impart of a cohesive living community. For a potent dose of this latter feeling head to nearby Songo Mnara, also part of the UNESCO site. Here you’ll find the almost complete remains of a walled town. Maneuver the settlement’s labyrinthine passages, passing through domestic dwelling and public squares. Compared to Kilwa’s romantic, timeworn desolation, Songo Mnara feels like it could have been abandoned yesterday.
For both architectural and historical significance, Kilwa Kisiwani is truly one of the world’s most captivating ensembles of ruins. In June this year, thanks to the work of local and international conservation organizations, the site was deemed sufficiently secure to be removed from UNESCO’s list of endangered heritage sites. To visit Kilwa Kisiwani, travelers should base themselves in Kilwa Masoko, about 300 kilometers south of Dar es Salaam. Here, one must purchase a government permit from the Cultural Center, which allows access to the protected area. It’s also worth hiring a guide to lead you through the island’s knotty pathways and share the history of the individual structures. Then head to the beach and choose a traditional dhow for the one-mile voyage to the island. There can be few arrivals more enchanting than entering the island in the same sort of vessel as the Persians who transformed Kilwa into a gem.

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