The ancient city of Kilwa is located in the South of Tanzania, and there are two islands in the Kilwa occupalico, Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara, today, surrounded by dense mangrove.
In their heyday, Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara were cosmopolitan centers. Nowadays there is a village on each of the islands, and most people in those villages make their living from fishing or from subsistence farming. But, at one time, it was probably the most powerful city-state in the whole of East Africa. There were a series of city-states. These were trading centers that dotted the Swahili coast, down the east coast of Africa. Swahili means, in Arabic, ¨people of the coast¨. The Swahili civilization occupied coastal East Africa from around beginning of the 9th century through until the 17th/18th century. Indeed, descendants of the Swahili still live along the coast of East Africa.
By the mid-14th century, the Sultan of Kilwa had asserted his power over all of the city-states, and the source of his power, and of his wealth, was really control over the gold trade.
We can see evidences of that wealth if we look, for instance, at the Great Palace on Kilwa, and we can see here evidences of gardens, a pool, most famously, both the private residence and the commercial activities what was the source of wealth for this culture.
The Great Palace is known in Kiswahili as Husuni Kubwa, and it was built by Sultan Al-Hassan bin Sulaiman. It has been described as an eminent art-historian, as the earliest surviving major building on the coast od East Africa, south of Somalia, and, by far, the largest and most sophisticated.
The palace consists of two main areas: there is a public area and a private area. In the public area, is a very large courtyard with a number of storerooms, and that area would have been used for trade goods taken by the Sultan. There is an intermediary space, which is an audience hall, or diwan, which consists of a sunken courtyard with a series of steep steps where people coming to see the sultan would have sat and faced him.
The private part of the building, built around a bathing pool, is open to the view across the harbor, and the Sultan would have bathed inside this pool whilst watching the sunset over mainland Africa.
But soon enough this wealth attracted he Portuguese, and in 1498, the first Portuguese ship sailed up the coast of East Africa. They came to Africa in search of gold, and they found it at Kilwa. In 1505, the Portuguese had already established a garrison of soldiers on Kilwa. The best evidence that represented this occupation, is a fort which dominates the view from the sea. It was really quite a substanctial defensive building situated on the edge of the harbor. They remained a very powerful presence in the Indian Ocean, but they were replaced by the Omanis, by the Sultan of Oman, up in the Persian Gulf. After the Portuguese arrived, they increasingly came into conflict with the Omanis, and so, in the late 1730, they launched a systematic attempt to kick them out of East Africa forever.
At this point, Kilwa experienced a kind of an economic boom, under the Omani. The Omani loved the East African coast so much that they relocated their capital to the coast of Africa, and there was a significant building campaign in Kilwa, as well. Probably the most extravagant example is the Makutani Palace, an Omani palace.
Kilwa´s source of wealth was clearly gold, but it also transformed over time. This would have included ivory, spices and enslaved peoples. But as time progressed, enslaved peoples made up a larger and larger percentage of trade and of the wealth of the city. Kilwa became, in the mid-19th century, the major trans-shipment point from mainland Africa to the principle slave market on Zanzibar. So, the Makutani Palace consists of a building within a building. The palace is really at the center, and that would have been the residential area, But that sits within a much larger walled stockade used to store trade goods but also, most likely, would have been used to imprison enslaved peoples before they were shipped north to Zanzibar.
We have the indigenous Swahili culture building on this island with the Portuguese asserting their influence, and then the Makutani Palace, this expression of Omani control, this layering history:
- Great Mosque (Swahili) began 11th century
- Fort (Portuguese), 1505
- Makutani Palace (Omani), 18th century
And that´s what is so remarkable about Kilwa Kisiwani and its sister-island Songo Mnara. It really represents a slice through over 800 years of East African culture, starting from the early 10th century Swahili occupation right up until the early 20th century, when it became the capital of colonial German East Africa.
What´s remarkable is that extraordinary structures from each of these periods of occupation still stand on those two islands. The ruins of the settlement, together with those of nearby Songo Mnara, are among the most significant groups of Swahili buildings on the East African coast and a Unesco World Heritage site.