Kilwa Kisiwani has been inhabited since at least the ninth century A.D. Today it seems isolated and remote, but in the past it was the location of a powerful and prosperous settlement ruled by an independent African Kilwa Sultanate. At the peak of its prosperity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was the wealthiest of the Swahili city-states and controlled the lucrative sea trade routes along a considerable stretch of the East African coast. The fame of this island spread across the ancient world: traders, merchants and scholars travelled from the Middle East, India and Europe to see the great city for themselves. Buffeted by fluctuations in the demand for its goods and vigorous competition in trade over several centuries, its economy later faltered. Now majestic ruins of the once-splendid city are all that remain.
Kilwa’s wealth came from trade. Its location on the coast, with one of the finest harbours in East Africa, allowed it to develop a key role in the extensive commercial networks of the region. Caravans came to Kilwa bearing valuable commodities. From the long and dangerous pathways which snaked westwards into the great African interior, porters emerged weighed down with ivory, resins ambergris, wax, rhinoceros horn, skins and tortoiseshell. Slaves also arrived in their chains and were bought and sold on the island, though the trade in slaves was not substantial until the late eighteenth century. From the inland Zimbabwe plateau far to the south came a rich supply of gold. It was carried to Sofala (now in Mozambique) on the coast, the continued on by sea to Kilwa and the northern ports.
Kilwa acted as a depot for these goods and stored the others it needed for exchange. To the mainland traders, Kilwa supplied the products prized in the interior- cowries’ shells, local cotton fabrics and beads, as well as items from abroad, especially Indian cloth. From the north and north east of Indian Ocean- from Southern Arabia, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and India, wooden dhows sailed southward with products from the Islamic World and Far East. These merchants sought first, from Kilwa bounty, gold and ivory, then purchased from among its other merchandise. Kilwa received Indian fabrics and precious ceramics in return. The island’s long story of alternating rise and decline over the centuries is linked to its ability to dominate this trade.
Kilwa’s early history goes far back in time. The island was settled long before it become involved in the Indian Ocean trade. Travelers from the north who visited East African shores in the Roman period (on the evidence of one first-century trade’s manual, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and several recent archaeological finds) encountered sizable settlements. On Kisiwani itself, late Stone Age and early Iron Age artifacts have been discovered showing the presence of an industrious, indigenous community in the fourth century. Experts have established that, at the beginning of the ninth century, there was a settlement on the island consisting of wattle- and –daub architecture similar to that found in the area today.
It was during the ninth century that Kilwa’s connection with the Indian Ocean trade became significant; by the eleven century, the island was regionally prominent. Indications of Islamic influence begin as this commercial relationship with the outside world developed and as the growing stream of foreign, chiefly Arab, traders and migrants mingled with the island community, sometimes settling. Kilwa’s first sultanate appears to have been found around 1050by a group of Islamic political refugees from Shirazi Persia; coins minted by these rulers linked the town with the islands of Pemba, Mafia and Zanzibar. The earliest standing ruins on Kilwa – principally the first structures of the Great Mosque – also dated back to the eleventh century. The Great Mosque’s early prayer hall was probably associated with this Shirazi element of Kilwa community. On the whole, according to available travelers’ accounts, the coastal settlements mostly held to traditional beliefs until the thirteenth century – the point when Islam really began to take hold. Only then did the cosmopolitan, but fundamentally Muslim, Swahili civilization of today start to emerge.
The town surrounding the mosque grew in political and commercial power. During the first half of the twelfth century, Kilwa secured control of the gold trade from Sofala and became chief power of the coast. Shortly afterwards, the world demand of gold soared to unprecedented levels in Europe as Renaissance city-states flourished, as well as in Asia and the middle East. The travelling merchants of the Indian Ocean became greedy for gold and Kilwa grew fat.
The Mahdali dynasty from Hadramaut, Yemen, ruled the city at this time, having ousted the Shirazis in 1277. For the citizens of their island kingdom, the years from 1300 to 1330 was an era of exceptional wealth. The lifestyle of Kilwa’s elite became luxurious. They developed the taste for fine Persian and Chinese ceramics and expensive Indian fabrics, and wore imported jewellery and beads. Islamic scholars from the Near East came to visit. Royal family members of the Kilwa Sultanate travelled to Mecca and Yemen. These fourteenth- century rulers are the only power on the coast known to have minted gold coins.
Kilwa’s unrivalled prosperity in this period is reflected in its ambitious, monumental architecture. The domed extension built on to the early prayer hall of the Great Mosque by the reigning Sultan, Al-Hassan bin Sulaiman ( who ruled c.1310 – 1335), and his magnificent palace Husuni Kubwa, are unique along the coast. These buildings reflect the influence of the distant regions with which the city traded – Persia, the Indus Delta, Gujerat and the Deccan, Malabar, Oman and Yemen. A fourteenth century Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta, described Kilwa as “ one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world”.
Dependent as it was on fluctuating world markets, Kilwa was nevertheless vulnerable and its time of prosperity was short-lived. In the 1340s the island’s economy was devastated by the sharp fall in the world price of gold, probably exacerbated by an outbreak of the Black Death which ravaged Europe in 1346-1349. This, a virulent form of bubonic plague, had spread to Europe from the East. Following the trade routes with the help of ships’ rats, it then had an impact on the Indian Ocean ports. Husuni Kubwa was abandoned, apparently before it was finished. The island’s Great Mosque (the roof of which had collapsed shortly before) lay in fragments on the ground, unrepaired. Kilwa was clearly shaken. Evidence suggests no new construction was attempted on the island for some time.
The beginning of the fifteenth century heralded Kilwa’s recovery. In the early 1400s, Kilwa began to reassert its control over the ocean’s commerce. The city continued to prosper throughout the century, though its monopoly of trade was increasingly challenged by competition from the northern ports of Mombasa and Malindi.
The level of building activity in this period is again an indication of the health of the island’s economy. A new site, most probably for the Sultan, was developed to the west of the main town at Makutani. The Great Mosque was repaired – its fallen domes reconstructed – and an adjacent residence, now known as the Great House, was built. These and the small domes and Jangwani Mosques are today’s survivors of what was in fact likely to have been a considerable growth in the urban structure. Around this time, a new, finely – built settlement also went up on the nearby island of Songa Mnara, which appears to have been a satellite town. The wealth occupants of these associated settlements are illustrated by the quality of the stonework of their buildings and the remnants of their lives they left behind.
Read more about the history of Kilwa Ruins – Kilwa Kisiwani