Kilwa Kisiwani: A World Heritage in Tanzania
Africa: The East Coast
The East Coast of Africa is dotted with many interesting cities, from East London and Durban in South Africa; Maputo further north in Mozambique; Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, Mombasa in Kenya and, if you are the adventurous kind, there is Mogadishu in Somalia. All the cities have their own unique attractions, the common thread being the fine sandy Indian Ocean beaches, but; hang on a minute. Aren’t you sometimes tired of routine holidays, staying in identikit hotels and having the same leisure activities, holiday after holiday, year after year? Well, you can enjoy the fine weather and rich sandy Indian Ocean beach but with something of a radically different flavour. Let me tell you about Kilwa Kisiwani.
Kilwa Kisiwani: Where?
Three hundred kilometres (190 miles) south of the bustling city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, lies a small island off the East Coast called Kilwa Kisiwani. In Swahili, Kisiwani literally means ‘in the island’. It makes sense. This gem of an island lies three kilometres (1.9 miles) off a mainland area also known as Kilwa.
A bit of history
The history of Kilwa Kisiwani goes back over 1200 years. It was in the 9th century that the local owner of the island sold it to an adventurous Arab trader named Ali bin Al-Hassan. Al-Hassan saw the potential of its ideal location. He started a trading post which grew steadily. Between the 11th and 15th century, Kilwa Kisiwani expanded and grew markedly in importance becoming the largest and most important city in East Africa. It became the most important trading hub in Southern Africa dealing in such commodities as gold and iron from Great Zimbabwe and other part of Southern Africa, ivory and slaves from the mainland as well as textiles, porcelain spices and jewellery from Asia.
The most famous Moroccan Islamic Scholar and world explorer of his time, Ibn Battuta visited the city in the year 1331. In his published writings ‘The Rihla’, Ibn Battuta described Kilwa Kisiwani as "one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world”. The famous Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama also wrote about the beauty of the city in the log of his travels. He was followed by another Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral who also wrote a breathless account of the mesmerising beauty of the city. That may have been its undoing. The Portuguese had heard enough. They attacked and laid siege to the city and eventually conquered it in the early 16th century. By the year 1505 they had full control. They built a garrison aiming to use it as a nerve centre in their bid to control the Indian Ocean trade routes. Over the following years, Kilwa Kisiwani’s fortunes foundered and it fell into a slow unbroken decline. Today, it is a city of ruins. 30 years ago (in 1981), UNESCO declared it a world heritage site.
If the idea of venturing off the beaten path appeals to you, you could struggle to do better than Kilwa Kisiwani. The timeless beauty of the island that captivated the city founder Ali bin Al-Hassan remains as captivating as he found it 12 centuries ago. However, today, you can time travel via the amazing sight of the Kilwa ruins. These include:
- Husuni Kubwa: This huge structure overlooks Kilwa harbour. The early European explorers described this as ‘the largest pre-European building in Equatorial Africa’. It was built by the then ruler Hassanbin Suleiman III as his palace around the year 1270. The ruins remain absolutely impressive to date.
- The Mosque: At its time, it was the largest in East Africa. The domed chambers and massive monolithic pillars still stand today and still look majestic.
- There is a smaller domed mosque which is the best preserved of its kind in the world.
- Mkutini Palace
- Great House
- Gereza fort (Prison): Built by the Portuguese after they conquered the city in the early 16th century.
Old mosque ruins
It is in Tanzania
If you are an established or a putative cultural tourist, pencil in Kilwa Kisiwani. Remember, this is in Tanzania, the land of Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and Zanzibar and a lot of other undiscovered gems.