Kilwa Kisiwani

Kilwa Kisiwani is located on a small island about 300 km south of Dar es Salaam.  It was occupied from the 9th to 19th century and reached its peak prosperity and influence in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Kilwa Kisiwani was founded in 975 by Hassan ben Ali from Shiraz, Persia.  Its importance as a trading center along with the neighbor Songo Mnara grew through the centuries until they dominated and controlled trade along the East African Coast from Mozambique to Somalia. The most valuable commodities were gold and ivory from inland communities.  They controlled Sofala in Mozambique where the gold from Zimbabwe was shipped to the rest of the world.  Kilwa Kisiwani was described in 1332 by Ibn Battuta, the famous Morocco explorer, as “amongst the most beautiful of cities and elegantly built.”  The repeated migrations and trading voyages of Persians and Arabs beginning in the 10th century led to the dominance of Islam in coastal communities.

Al-Masudi stated in the 10th century that Kilwa was producing food crops such as bananas, durra, yams and coconuts.  There were reports of sugar cane and tamarind.  The Portuguese mentioned finding oranges, lemons, peas, cotton and cattle in Kilwa in the 15th century.  The Great Mosque of Kilwa completed during the reign of Sultan Sulayman al Adil between 1412 and 1442 is considered one of the masterpieces of Swahili architecture.  Another masterpiece is Husuni Kubwa dating from the 14th century which has no parallel and likely served as a model for dwellings of notables in Gedi, Kisimani Mafi and Kilwa.  The Portuguese chronicles described Kilwa Kisiwani as a sophisticated city on pare with those of Portugal at the time.

The arrival of the Portuguese in late 15th century led to the end of the dominance of Kilwa Kisiwani.  Vasco da Gama exacted tribute from the city on one of his voyages in 1502.  Dom Francisco d’Ameida extolled the beauty and wealth of the city and then ransacked it in 1505. By 1513 the Portuguese had destroyed the trading networks of the Indian Ocean that had provided the wealth of Kilwa Kisiwani and its sister city.  Today the extensive ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara are evidence of the power and wealth that existed there centuries ago.

Kilwas Kisiwani is on the north end of the Kilwa Island near the village.
Kilwa Kisiwani from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s atlas Civitates orbis terrarum published in the late 16th century.
Kilwa Kisiwani is 15 minutes by boat from Kilwa Masoko.
The Gereza is an Omanis fortress built in the early 19th century on the site of an older Portuguese fort.
The path to Husuni Kubwa at low tide traversed mangrove forests.
Red mangrove Rhizophora mucronata .
White mangrove Sonneratia alba.

There are 8 species of mangrove on the coast of Tanzania. Mangroves provide many products to the local population. Their main value is in the many ecosystem services including habitat for wildlife, fish and crustaceans and protection to the shore from damage by severe wave action during major storms.

Botanical name Vernacular names
Rhizophora mucronata red mangrove
Ceriops tagal spurred mangrove
Bruguiera gymnorrhiza black mangrove
Avicennia marina grey mangrove
Sonneratia alba white mangrove
Xylocarpus granatum cannonball mangrove
Heritiera littoralis looking-glass mangrove
Lumnitzera racemosa black mangrove
The magnificent ruins of Husuni Kubwa are next to the ruins of Husuni Ndogo which can be seen here as the open space surrounded by a wall to the east. Husuni Kubwa was built by Sultan Al-Husan ibn Sulaiman in the 1320s.
Photo from internet showing private areas including the Octagonal Pool, large Palace Court in the lower left and the public spaces in the upper photo including the Audience Court with steps and square openings in the wall.
Drawing from internet of how Husuni Kubwa may have looked at its peak.
Private Palace Court.
Private Octagonal Pool.
Public Audience Court.
Public Pavilion between the private Domestic Court to the right and public Audience Court to the left.
At present, mud, sticks and coral are used to build walls of houses in the village on the island.
The walk from Husuni Kubwa to the Great Mosque was about 2 km.
Internet photo of the Great Mosque in back and Great House in front. It was the largest mosque in East Africa in its day. The far northern end that has lost its roof was the oldest section built in the 12th century. Sultan Al-Husan ibn Sulaiman made significant additions in the 14th century.
Small Domed Mosque. One dome has fallen to the side.
Some blue decoration remained in a dome.

The enormous Makutani Building was a fortified enclosure, containing the sultan’s palace, dating from the 18th century.
Internet aerial view of Makutani Building.
Forty Sheikhs Cemetery. The tombs for men had a different end design from those for women. Can you guess which are for men and women?
High tide submerged the nearshore and mangrove forest, so we return to our boat along the dry beach sand.

Author: swhallgren

Peace Corps Volunteer Tanzania

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