There is more to see in Tanzania than the animals that can be seen in the wide range of national parks while on your Tanzania Safari, there are some great historical wonders including the little visitied UNESCO World Heritage site in the form of the Kilwa ruins.
The Kilwa Kisiwani ruins mark the site of the port that was once part of the biggest and most powerful empire on the East African Coast. Kilwa Kisiwani ruins tell a story of a time long past featuring palaces and mosques, once impressive and magnificent, now crumbled to ruins.
The island that the Kilwa Kisiwani ruins stand on is now largely uninhabited, only a few local fishermen live on the island, but for the most part, it remains deserted.
The ruins stretch over the whole island and comprise a total of 30 buildings.
Kilwa Kisiwani History
Kilwa Kisiwani in 10th Century
The Kilwa Sultanate began in the 10th century. Ali ibn al-Hassan was once the son of Emir of Shiraz and an Abyssinian slave. Caught in an inheritance fight along with his six brothers, Ali fled his homeland along with his Persian entourage. He settled on the island, then inhabited by the indigenous Bantu, and began constructing his own metropolis.
Legend claims that he purchased Kilwa from a local king, who exchanged it for enough fabric to encircle the island. The king swiftly changed his mind, but Ali had thought ahead and had ensured that the slim land bridge that linked Kilwa to the mainland had been destroyed.
Ali’s Shirazi dynasty dominated until a succession dispute in 1277, after which the allied Mahdali sultans took over. During these first three centuries, a few of the buildings, whose ruins live on, were developed.
Construction on the Great Mosque, the oldest in the region, started in the 1100s and it was extended repeatedly afterwards. With an ornate roof comprised of sixteen domes, supported by an astonishingly problematic method of arches and pillars it is a stunning piece of ancient architecture. The central dome, that no longer exists, was the largest in East Africa up until the 19th century.
The majority of the island’s ruins date from the 14th and early 15th centuries, when the sultanate was at the peak of its power. Kilwa had become a capital of trade on the Indian Ocean, and its wealthier citizens commissioned the construction of lavish homes.
The Great House is thought to have belonged to the sultan, who is said to be buried in one of the four tombs. The Makutini Palace, built in the 15th century was the sultan’s stronghold, the most imposing building on the island, its triangular construction made it almost impregnable to invaders.
The Husuni Kubwa or ‘Queen’s House’ is, quite possibly the most beautiful and striking building that you will come across in Kilwa Kisiwani. Sat on a cliff, it sits about a mile away from the rest of the Kilwa Kisiwani ruins, and is thought to be the biggest pre-colonial building in sub-Saharan Africa. Inside, there are the remains of an 18-domed mosque, an octagonal swimming pool, an array of courtyards and a tiered hall.
Kilwa Kisiwani in 16th Century
“The city comes down to the shore, and is entirely surrounded by a wall and towers, within which there are maybe 12,000 inhabitants. The county all round is very luxurious with many trees and gardens of all sorts of vegetables, citrons, lemons, the best sweet oranges that were ever seen… Gaspar Correia,
In 1502, the conquistadors arrived in Kilwa Kisiwani, at this point in time the city was the most powerful on the East African coast, the empire stretching from the north to south, from Malindi in present-day Kenya to Cape Correntes in Mozambique. They even had control of some of outposts on Madagascar. Kilwa was the essential gateway between Africa and Asia, the Western end of the Indian Ocean trade routes. It had become powerful due to trade with ships introducing porcelain from China, quartz from Arabia and carnalians from India; Gold and ivory arrived from Zimbabwe.
In 1505, the Portuguese took control of the coast of the Indian Ocean, seizing control of the port of Kilwa Kisiwani. Most of the people that lived and were native to the city were murdered by the Portuguese army and the stunning palaces that had stood as a testament to the wealth and glory of the sultanate were replaced by military forts.
Kilwa Kisiwani: Abandoned and Forgotten
At the dawn of the 20th century, Kilwa was almost uninhabited and practically thoroughly forgotten. Locals and foreigners alike had little curiosity within the haunted ruins off the Tanzanian coast. Then, in the 1950s, British archaeologists consulted two 16th century accounts in Arabic and Portuguese that spoke about the sultanate of Kilwa. The papers outlined a dynasty of sultans, and an expedition was commissioned to excavate the port in search of objects that would prove the authenticity of the 16th century documents.
After exploring the ruins, the archaeologists found the proof they need and brought back coins stamped with sultans and dates that matched those discovered in the manuscripts. Kilwa, now had an established historical past, and grew to be an area of scholarship, acknowledged as the greatest treasure of Swahili maritime history. In 1981, Kilwa Kisiwani was declared a World Heritage Site.
Standing in the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani, there is a deep sense of loss that can be felt, the ghosts of the past still swirling around between the crumbling builds that once stood proudly, a beacon of wealth and power, a sultanate built from nothing, left to decay. Kilwa Kisiwani has romantic and time worn feeling to it that leaves you breathless as you explore the ruins.
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