HISTORY OF KILWA RUINS
Kilwa Kisiwani (literally means ‘isle of the fishes’) is a medieval archeological site, located in present day Tanzania on the eastern coast of Africa, 300 kilometers south of Dar es Salaam. It is situated 3 kilometers off the mainland and represents the sui generis historical centre of the medieval Kilwa Sultanate, which were at its very best in the 13th – 15th centuries, when it was the most important Swahili trading community in the East. In 1955, James Kirkman and Neville Chittick from the British institute begin exploring the area of Kilwa.
In the 8th century, it became the dominant settlement on the Swahili coast, covering an area of one square kilometer. The most important factor which influenced its growth and development were the trade connections with the Arab, Hindu and Chinese world. Its origins are predominantly African, though there are Islamic components incorporated due to interchanging cultures. According to Kilwa Chronicle, the city started to thrive during Shirazi dynasty. Kilwa was famous for exporting ivory, beads, coconut oil, porcelain, spices, aromatic gums, tortoise shell, gold and slaves. The splendor of the city of Kilwa can also be seen in the fact that it had its own coins for roughly 500 years. It was almost destroyed in 1502, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama tried to retake commercial and maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean.
Archeologists have found ceramic artifacts – kitchen wares – in Kilwa Ruins, as well as ceramic vessels which were imported from China and the Arabian Peninsula.
From 2004, Kilwa Kisiwani belongs to the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger, due to rapid crumbling of the archeological heritage which is caused by the rain, erosion and vegetation. For instance, “Palace of the Queens” – the eastern section of Kilwa Kisiwani – is gradually disappearing. Since 2008, Kilwa is placed on Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.
WHAT TO SEE AT KILWA RUINS
PALACE OF HUSUNI KUBWA
The project of conservation is funded by the French and the Japanese governments and the main object of this endowment is the preservation and restoration of island’s treasures, which is considered the best example of Swahili architecture on the eastern African coast. Husuni Kubwa, or the “Great Fort” in English, is a 14th century sultan’s palace erected by Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman in 1310. It is composed by three parts: the first is used for commerce, the second is used as a place to live in, and the third leads down a mosque. Despite it wasn’t abandoned until the mid 19th century, it had not been used since the 14th century.
This mosque probably dates from 10th century, though its two main stages were founded in the 11th or 12th century of coral clay. During the rule of Hasan ibn Sulaiman Abu’l-Mawahib (1310-1333), major architectural constructions were performed: among them, a great dome which was favorably described in the chronicles of Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta in 1331.
Husuni Ndogo means “Little Fort” in English and its purposes still remain unknown among archeologists, though there are indications that it has been built as a fort and used as a mosque during some period of time. It has a shape of a rectangular bulwark and it is situated 80 m to the east of bigger palace. All these buildings are discreetly surrounded by baobab trees.
GETTING TO KILWA RUINS
If Kilwa Kisiwani belongs to your “Must See” list, then you will have to find an accommodation in Kilwa Masoko – a town situated 300 kilometers south of Dar es Salaam – as there is no accommodation offered in Kilwa Kisiwani. In Masoko you can also seize the opportunity to relax on the beach and sunbathe. A government allowance from Cultural Centre is required in order to access to the ruins of Kilwa. If you are staying in Masoko you will need to take a boat through canal in order to get to Kilwa Kisiwani, and many hotels will organize this for you, charging you approximately $30 for a roundtrip.
The accommodations are either budget or up market ones. Mikumi guesthouse is among the cheapest – one night ends up costing ca. $2 – together with New Jika Guest House, which will charge you roughly $5 per night and person. Among up market accommodations there are Kilwa Ruins Lodge, Kilwa Beach Lodge and Lake Maliwe Community Campsite. In these places, one night costs between $50 and $100.
Walking around the town is safe however, it is recommended to travel in groups or get a taxi or tuktuk.
For those who are staying in Dar es Salaam and decide to visit Kilwa Kisiwani by car, there’s good news. From 2013, there is a road network linking Dar es Salaam and Kilwa District. This journey takes between three and four hours.
For those who wish to take plane, there is also a flight option from Dar es Salaam to Kilwa that operates on a daily basis, with departure at 10.30 am and arrival at 11.40 am. It ends up costing $250 per person, though the minimum number of travelers has to be 2. The flight from Kilwa to Dar es Salaam departs at 11.50 and arrives at 13.00 am, and the price and conditions are the same.
And finally, if you opt for public transport, there are buses running daily to Kilwa from Mbagala bus terminal, although the majority of direct lines leave early in the morning – around 6 am. If you prefer to leave later, you can get a coach to Lindi, get off at Nangurukuru and continue to Kilwa with a minibus.
During your stay in Kilwa Masoko, you can also visit Songo Mnara Ruins, which are considered more relevant architecturally than Kisiwani in some aspects. The Songo Mnara is situated only 8 km of Kilwa Kisiwani and belongs to the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage as well.