From the archives: February 2009

Above: The prayers room inside the extension of the great mosque of Kilwa at Kilwa Kisiwani. It was build as part of the first arabic settlement and nowadays an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Credit Robin Chew

Lying idyllic on the magical blue waters of the Indian Ocean, the tiny island kingdom of Kilwa Kisiwani was once upon a time, rich and grandiose, sophisticated and stunning.  It was unrivalled – a tiny paradise sultanate off the African shore.  Walking through that great kingdom centuries later, it’s not hard to slip into the sultanate of yesteryears for what’s left of its stunning palaces and mosques, still has the power to sway the idyllic.

Great Mosque of Kilwa Kisiwani 11th to18th century Credit: Richard Mortel
Great Mosque of Kilwa Kisiwani 11th to18th century Credit: Richard Mortel

I can see in my mind’s eye, as l stand under the arches of the Great Mosque, now so silent and empty, the great Sultan and his people entering the arched entrance for the Friday prayers.  The thick coral walls, high domes supported by the strong pillars and arches and the beautiful carved windows kept the mosque cool for the faithful as the sun blazed merciless outside.  The dome, under which l stand, reports the Kilwa Chronicle, is thought to be the first true dome on Africa’s east coast. Even the noted Moroccan scholar and sailor, Ibn Battuta who visited Kilwa in 1331, remarked on the splendor of the dome, which was, until the nineteenth century, the largest dome on the East African coast. With the extension in the 15th century, the Great Mosque of Kilwa, made its mark as the largest covered mosque on the east coast of Africa and taking departure from traditional mosques, it had no courtyard.

With the prayers done, the gentry of the time, robed in silks embroidered in gold, would have strolled out and continued with the trade that brought riches beyond imagination to this tiny jewel on the sea.

This was the Kilwa of yesteryears – rich and prosperous.  History dates it from early 4th century when the island was bought by a trader, Ali bin al-Hasan and it prospered as a trading center.  Art and architecture flourished, and literature with the Kilwa Chronicle written.  Only excerpts remain of the lost chronicle now.  By the 12th century, it had become the most powerful city on the East African coast, an island state that was the hub of trade between Africa as far as the south and Asia.  Slaves, ivory, iron, gold, and coconuts exchanged for fine silks and cloth from India and porcelain from China.

This was the Shirazi dynasty and lasted until the early 16th century.  It was so strong a port for international trade, that it minted its own gold coins for ease of exchange and accounting.  Historically, gold coins had been produced centuries earlier in the old dynasty of Aksum in today’s Ethiopia.

In the 14th century, the ruler Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman had started the construction of Husuni Kubwa, the grand palace and was extending the Great Mosque of Kilwa.  In 1502, when the Portuguese, Vasco da Gama who was set to ‘discover’ the sea route to India from Europe, anchored on its shores, he reported to his king about the stunning sultanate with its hundred-room palace.

Time of Decline

800px-Makutani Palace ruins, Kilwa Kisiwani, built by the Omanis in the 18th century
Makutani Palace ruins, Kilwa Kisiwani, built by the Omanis in the 18th century. Credit Richard Mortel

Slowly with the passage of time, the beautiful palaces and mosques fell apart and buried under the shifting sands.  These are the ‘gofuni’ as the local inhabitants call them now in Kiswahili, the national lingo of Tanzania.  It was not until the mid 1950s that excavation began to reveal the forgotten splendour of the past.  Climbing the ruined steps of Husuni Kubwa, the palace that would have housed the noble ladies of the royal house, a carved inlay in the wall catches my eye.  The finely sculpted décor on the coral walls speaks volumes of a grand past.  Through the windows, the royal women would have let their gaze wander through the green gardens stretching to the sea, shaded by the monumental baobab trees.

But with the traders sailing in from far and wide, including Europe, the islanders were struck by bubonic plague towards the end of the 14th century, and then by the Zimba tribe from the mainland who had cannibalistic tastes.  In its weakened state, they were no match for the Portuguese keen to create a stronghold on the East African coast in order to control the trade routes to the East. The Portuguese took control by force and ruled from 1505 to 1512, but were finally disposed off be an Arab.

But in 1598 tragedy struck again.

The cannibalistic Zimba from the mainland took a toll.  The Omani rulers of Zanzibar, having established their sultanate in Zanzibar, took control of Kilwa in 1784 but it never regained its splendour and by the 1840s, it was abandoned.  In the late 18th century, with the flourishing slave trade, it somewhat made a rebound but once the slave trade was abolished, all trade ceased.  With the Scramble for Africa, Kilwa became part of German East Africa from 1886 to 1918.

Ambling in Kilwa Kisiwani

Be prepared for a hot walk.  Take a nice wide brimmed hat or shuka.  Bottled water is available on the island.  If you’re into archaeology, you can spend hours.  If not, simply drift into the aura of the past as you walk in and out of the mosques and palaces like the

Small domed mosque, a few metres away from the Great Mosque.  Built in the mid 15th century, one of the great domes has toppled over.  It was modeled after the Great Mosque just like the Jangwani Mosque.  Both the 15th century mosques had nine domes.

Step into Husuni Kubwa and Husuni Ndogo, visit the royal tombs of the Sultans, and the imposing Guereza fort, which you see as you sail from mainland Kilwa Masoko.  You must buy the permit from Kilwa Masoko at the Antiquity office – but rates can change – however it’s the equivalent of about US$ 2 per person.  Guides are available from Kilwa Masoko.

There are local buses (from Ubongo bus station in Dar es Salaam and costs app Tsh 20000 per person) plying the route and clean inexpensive hotels and very up market ones to stay at Kilwa Masoko.  Local food is cheap and excellent quality.  Take mosquito repellent because of the mossies.

Kilwa Kisiwani and the nearby island of Songo Mnara (two hour sail if the winds are in your favour by a local dau) with their resplendent ruins are World Heritage Sites but also under threat of further destruction from the elements of nature.