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Kilwa Sultanate

Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara [now in Tanzania] were Swahili trading cities and their prosperity was based on control of Indian Ocean trade with Arabia, India and China, particularly between the 13th and 16th centuries, when gold and ivory from the hinterland was traded for silver, carnelians, perfumes, Persian faience and Chinese porcelain. Kilwa Kisiwani minted its own currency in the 11th to 14th centuries. Located on two islands close to each other just off the Tanzanian coast about 300km south of Dar es Salaam are the remains of two port cites, Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara. The larger, Kilwa Kisiwani, was occupied from the 9th to the 19th century and reached its peak of prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries.

During its heyday in the 13th to 15th century, trade with Sofala in Mozambique, India to the east, and Arabia to the north propelled Kilwa’s fortunes to unbelievable heights. The sultanate of Kilwa is reputed to have been founded about A,d, 975 by Ali ibn Hasan, a Persian prince from Shiraz, upon the site of the ancient Greek colony of Rhapta. The new state, at first confined to the town of Kilwa, extended its influence along the coast from Zanzibar to Sofala. Towards the end of the 17th century it fell under the dominion of the imams of Muscat, and on the separation in 1856 of their Arabian and African possessions became subject to the sultan of Zanzibar. With the rest of the southern part of the sultan's continental dominions Kilwa was acquired by Germany in 1890.

Kilwa was a place of much greater importance than Zanzibar, and was the seat of government of independent sultans of the Shirazi dynasty, the last of whom held the land until he was seized by Seyyid Sa'ed, and deported to Muscat, when the tribe was dispersed. There are two Kilwas (Quiloa), one on the mainland — Kilwa Kivinje; the other, the ancient city Kilwa Kisiwani, on an island. Kilwa Kisiwani was once the center of trade along the entire East African coast and the driving force behind the complex networks of trade caravans and dhow expeditions that encouraged the Swahili to thrive and prosper The remains of two great East African ports admired by early European explorers are situated on two small islands near the coast. From the 13th to the 16th century, the merchants of Kilwa dealt in gold, silver, pearls, perfumes, Arabian crockery, Persian earthenware and Chinese porcelain; much of the trade in the Indian Ocean thus passed through their hands.

Kilwa Kisiwani, 18 miles to the south of the modern town, possesses a deep harbour sheltered from all winds by projecting coral reefs. The island on which it is built is separated from the mainland by a shallow and narrow channel. The ruins of the city include massive walls and bastions, remains of a palace and of two large mosques, of which the domed roofs are in fair preservation, besides several Arab forts. The new quarter contains a customs house and a few Arab buildings. On the island of Songa Manara, at the southern end of Kilwa Bay, hidden in dense vegetation, are the ruins of another city, unknown to history. Fragments of palaces and mosques in carved limestone exist, and on the beach are the remains of a lighthouse. Chinese coins and pieces of porcelain have been found on the sea-shore, washed up from the reefs.

In 1331-1332, the great traveler, Ibn Battouta made a stop here. Ibn Battuta, when setting foot in Kilwa, wrote that it was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and he had seen Tangiers, Constantine, Alexandria, Cairo, Jerusalem and many more! Kilwa grew to be a substantial city and the leading commercial warehouse on the southern half of the Swahili coast. It was the gateway for an intensive exchange of goods between Africa and the rest of the world. Chinese porcelain has been found as far inland as Zimbabwe, and an African giraffe was one brought to China as a gift to the Emperor. Kilwa became the most powerful city on the East African coast in the 15th century, and was successively coveted by the Portuguese, the Arabs and the rulers of Oman.

The island of Kilwa Kisiwani is located in the south of Tanzania, a short boat ride from the mainland. It was once a thriving seaport; from the eleventh century the sultans of Kilwa grew rich from control of the gold trade. Gold was mined at Great Zimbabwe far off in the interior, and carried by caravan and then by boat to Fatimid Cairo, passing through Kilwa on its way north. Kilwa grew in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and is mentioned by several early chroniclers. The most significant standing ruins from this period are the Great Mosque and the Palace at Husuni Kubwa. The palace was unrivaled in East Africa for its architectural sophistication and splendor. Founded in the fourteenth century, the Great Mosque was, up until the sixteenth century, the largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1498, the Portuguese arrived in East Africa and quickly asserted control over the region’s trade. Once the Portuguese established a fort on Kilwa Kisiwani the decline of the two islands began. In 1502 Kilwa submitted to Vasco da Gama, but the sultan neglecting to pay the tribute imposed upon him, the city in 1505 was occupied by the Portuguese. They built a fort there; the first erected by them on the east coast of Africa. Fighting ensued between the Arabs and the Portuguese, the city was destroyed; and in 1512 the Portuguese, whose ranks had been decimated by fever, temporarily abandoned the place.

Subsequently Kilwa became one of the chief centres of the slave trade. Late in the 18th century, the French attempted to form a slave depot on the island, which led to its occupation by Zanzibar. In 1873 the British government finally undertook to put down the East African slave-trade. Sir Bartle Frere was chosen for the work, and went gone to Zanzibar with a war steamer, and clothed with the fullest powers. The facts of the Zanzibar slave-trade were easily told. The Sultan of Zanzibar owned not only Zanzibar and the adjacent islets, but also Kilwa, on the coast. From Kilwa some 20,000 or 30,000 slaves were annually shipped to the island. Of these some 1000, or 2000 at the outside, were wanted in Zanzibar itself. The rest were exported to Muscat, where they found a ready sale.

England had a treaty by which she allowed the Sultan of Zanzibar to import as many slaves as he liked into his own dominions, provided that he on his part will not allow any export trade to go on between Zanzibar and other countries. If an English cruiser came across a slave dow with a cargo consigned from Kilwa to Zanzibar it can not touch her. But if the dhow is bound from Zanzibar for Muscat she is carrying on a contraband trade, and was liable to seizure.

This miserable compromise worked as might be supposed. Of every hundred slaves shipped from Kilwa to Zanzibar, some ninety are meant to be smuggled to Muscat. Kilwa was supplied by the captures of slaves in the interior. Dr. Livingstone said that for one slave who reaches Kilwa alive, at least ten are killed upon the road. Kilwa is almost at the southern border of the Zanzibar dominion. Hither the slave caravans arrive from the interior.

The Arabs go into the interior and bribe one of the heathen chiefs, who falls on some hostile village, sets it on fire, and carries off the inhabitants. Whole districts are systematically hunted for slaves. In intestine fights and in the burning of villages thousands of adults are killed in order that the children may be captured. The vast and rich country from Lake Nyassa southward has been depopulated in this way. The circle of devastation widens inland yearly. It has reached points five hundred miles from the coast, and over this distance, occupying three months of time, the march of death goes on—the road being strewn with the bones of slaves that have been killed or abandoned in the terrible journey. At Kilwa the remnants of the dismal caravans are packed like herrings on Arab slave dows to be transported to Zanzibar.

The remains of Kilwa Kisiwani cover much of the island with many parts of the city still unexcavated. The substantial standing ruins, built of coral and lime mortar, include the Great Mosque constructed in the 11th century and considerably enlarged in the 13th century, and roofed entirely with domes and vaults, some decorated with embedded Chinese porcelain; the palace Husuni Kubwa built between c1310 and 1333 with its large octagonal bathing pool; Husuni Ndogo, numerous mosques, the Gereza (prison) constructed on the ruins of the Portuguese fort and an entire urban complex with houses, public squares, burial grounds, etc.

The ruins of Songo Mnara, at the northern end of the island, consist of the remains of five mosques, a palace complex, and some thirty-three domestic dwellings constructed of coral stones and wood within enclosing walls. The islands of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara bear exceptional testimony to the expansion of Swahili coastal culture, the lslamisation of East Africa and the extraordinarily extensive and prosperous Indian Ocean trade from the medieval period up to the modern era.

Along the southern coast of Tanzania, the ancient ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani give themselves slowly to the encroaching jungle and the relentless cycles of the tide. Once the very epicentre of Swahili culture and civilization, all that is left of Kilwa Kisiwani are the old building blocks of the town — fire baked limestone, coral blocks, and a few shattered tiles. Among other attractions, the remains of lush coconuts and old trees witnesses the habitation for many years ago.

The World Heritage Committee meeting in Doha (Qatar) 17 June 2014 found that management and safeguarding of the Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Ruins of Songo Mnara in the United Republic of Tanzania have improved to the point where the site can be removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger. The site was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2004, because of deterioration and decay leading to the collapse of the historical and archaeological structures for which the property was inscribed.

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Page last modified: 06-12-2016 14:29:23 ZULU