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Kilwa Kisiwani

Medieval Trade Center of Eastern Africa

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Great Mosque at Songo Mnara

Great Mosque at Songo Mnara

Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011
Courtyard of the Palace at Songo Mnara

Courtyard of the Palace at Songo Mnara

Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

On the northern end of the island of Kilwa Kisiwani about 2 kilometers (~1.25 miles) off the coast of Tanzania lies the site of Kilwa (spelled Quiloa in Portuguese), the most important of about thirty-five Swahili Coast trading communities on the Indian Ocean during the 11th through 16th centuries AD.

Kilwa History

The earliest substantial occupation at Kilwa Kisiwani dates to the 7th/8th centuries AD when the town was made up of rectangular wooden dwellings and small iron smelting operations. Imported wares from the Mediterranean were identified among the archaeological levels dated to this period, indicating that Kilwa was already tied into international trade at this time.

Historical documents such as the Kilwa Chronicle report that the city began to thrive under the founding Shirazi dynasty of sultans.

Growth of Kilwa

Kilwa became a large center as early as 1000 AD, when the earliest stone structures were built, covering perhaps as much as 1 square kilometer (about 247 acres). The first substantial building at Kilwa was the Great Mosque, built in the 11th century from coral quarried off the coast, and later greatly expanded. More monumental structures followed, by the fourteenth century including the palace of Husuni Kubwa. Kilwa became a major trade center from the 1100s to the early 1500s, rising to its first importance under the rule of the Shirazi sultan Ali ibn al-Hasan.

About 1300, the Mahdali dynasty took over control of Kilwa, and a building program reached its peak in the 1320s during the reign of Al-Hassan ibn Sulaiman.

In its heyday, Kilwa was one of the principal ports of trade on the Indian Ocean, trading gold, ivory, iron, and slaves from interior Africa including Mwene Mutabe south of the Zambezi River; imported goods including cloth and jewelry from India; and porcelain from China. The archaeological excavations at Kilwa recovered the most Chinese goods of any Swahili town, including a profusion of Chinese coins. The first gold coins struck south of the Sahara after the decline at Aksum were minted at Kilwa, presumably for facilitating international trade. One of them was found at the Mwene Mutabe site of Great Zimbabwe.

Kilwa and Ibn Battuta

The famous Moroccan trader Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa in 1331 during the Mahdali dynasty, when he stayed at the court of al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman Abu'l-Mawahib [ruled 1310-1333]. It was during this period that the major architectural constructions were made, including elaborations of the Great Mosque and the construction of the palace complex of Husuni Kubwa and the market of Husuni Ndogo.

The prosperity of the port city remained intact until the last decades of the 14th century, when turmoil over the ravages of the Black Death took its toll on international trade. By the early decades of the 15th century, new stone houses and mosques were being built up in Kilwa. In 1500, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral visited Kilwa, and reported seeing houses made of coral stone, including the ruler's 100-room palace, of Islamic Middle Eastern design.

The dominance of the Swahili coastal towns over maritime trade ended with the arrival of the Portuguese, who reoriented international trade towards western Europe and the Mediterranean.

Archaeological Studies at Kilwa

Archaeologists became interested in Kilwa because of two 16th century histories about the site, including the Kilwa Chronicle. Excavators in the 1950s included James Kirkman and Neville Chittick, from the British Institute in Eastern Africa.

Archaeological investigations at the site began in earnest in 1955, and the site and its sister port Songo Mnara were named UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Swahili Culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Chami FA. 2009. Kilwa and the Swahili Towns: Reflections from an archaeological perspective. In: Larsen K, editor. Knowledge, Renewal and Religion: Repositioning and changing ideological and material circumstances among the Swahili on the East African coast. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitututet.

Elkiss TH. 1973. Kilwa Kisiwani: The Rise of an East African City-State. African Studies Review 16(1):119-130.

Phillipson D. 2005. African Archaeology. London: Cambridge University Press.

Pollard E. 2011. Safeguarding Swahili trade in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: a unique navigational complex in south-east Tanzania. World Archaeology 43(3):458-477.

Sutton JEG. 2002. The southern Swahili harbour and town on Kilwa Island, 800-1800 AD: A chronology of booms and slumps.: Uppsala University.

Wynne-Jones S. 2007. Creating urban communities at Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, AD 800-1300. Antiquity 81:368-380.

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