The Kilwa chronicles


Intrepid travellers with an interest in African history, grab your maps: Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson is about to introduce you to the joy of Kilwa.

On the southern reaches of Tanzania’s Swahili Coast, 300km south of Dar es Salaam and far from the famous national parks, Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro, that attract tourists from across the globe, lie the settlements of Kilwa: Kilwa Masoko (the modern town) and the historically fascinating ruins at Kilwa Kisiwani, Kilwa Kivinje and Songo Mnara.

Kilwa Kisiwani’s commercial history dates as far back as the 9th century. The original African people who lived here were ruled over by a sultan, but traders from Arab countries and Persia brought their influence, and Islam, and no doubt intermarried with the local women.

Kisiwani’s golden days, from 1100-1500, saw trade flourish; Chinese fleets, on their way to India, brought porcelain to exchange for gold, copper, iron, timber and, importantly, ivory. Ibn Battuta, the inveterate traveller, wrote in 1331 that “Kilwa is one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world”. However, in 1505, the Portuguese sacked Kilwa, bringing its halcyon days to an end.

The city enjoyed a brief revival between 1770 and 1790 through its heavy involvement in the slave trade, when a demand for slaves saw it rise again. But in the early 1840s the last sultan was deported to Oman, and from then Kilwa’s decline was inevitable. Its commercial value ceased with the closing of the harbour and maritime trade moved to Kilwa Kivinje.

Today, Kilwa Kisiwani is the main attraction of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, its ruins better maintained than those on Sanje Majoma and Sanje ya Kati, thanks in part to assistance from the World Monuments Fund.

By the time we arrived, at about 4pm, Kilwa Kisiwani was deserted and I was the only guest in the sultan’s domain. My imagination was in overdrive as I explored the magnificent 18th-century Makutani Palace, where traces of red paintwork are still evident in the sultan’s bedroom. The main watchtower commands a superb view of the sea, and an Omani canon lies half buried within the palace walls. The Persian 15th-century mosque, known as the Small Domed Mosque, remains one of Kilwa’s best-preserved structures.

Near the tombs of the sultans grows a great baobab tree, and when we visited lovely creamy-white flowers littered the ground beneath its spreading branches. Each tomb is markedly different: for instance, stone phallic symbols denote the resting place of a strong man.

The 16th-century Portuguese fort, the magnificent Gereza, stands right at the water’s edge. The Great Mosque is highly impressive, with its arches and pillars. Outside, there are railway tracks and a wheelbarrow, supposedly used by the late eminent archaeologist Neville Chittick (1923-1984), who was highly instrumental in revealing Kilwa’s history, described in his book Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast.

In order to reach another building, the Husuni Kubwa, we boarded a dhow and motored slowly through a channel in the mangroves. This clifftop palace is 14th-century Persian, according to my guide, and incorporates stars – not crosses – in the stonework design. Here, among other features, are royal apartments and a bathing pool, as well as a spacious audience chamber and a large, cavernous well.

Sunset was fast approaching when I clambered on board the dhow to return to the lodge. I watched the light fade, leaving the great silent stones shrouded in darkness. Kilwa Kisiwani had exceeded my expectations; it had set in motion flights of fancy winging me back through the centuries to the city’s rich and opulent glory days of yore.

For the third act in the Kilwa chronicles, we visited Kilwa Kivinje – Kilwa of the Casuarinas – on our way back to Dar es Salaam by car. Although Kilwa Kivinje does not have the allure of Kisiwani, it should be visited nonetheless as it reflects its later history. It was during the 19th century that Kilwa emerged as the fulcrum of the southern slave trade, with thousands brought to the port on the caravan route from Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi).

Although the slave trade officially came to an end in 1873, it is probable that it continued here until the 1880s. In 1886, the Germans took over the town, making it their administrative centre. Their headquarters, the German Boma, is the best surviving example of their architecture but is very much in a state of disrepair – though it once must have been an impressive edifice. The shapes of once lovely arches are still visible, but unless something is done soon the whole structure will fall apart. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I looked at the peeling paint, what the characteristically organised Germans, now long dead, would have thought about this sorry state of affairs.

I wandered down to the harbour to watch colourfully-clad women foraging in the water for little shells, which they would crack open and consume the contents. I explored some of the town, discovering old buildings with decorated wooden doors and windows, but with rubbish-filled courtyards where vegetation and tree roots bisected the crumbling masonry.

Inside one of the houses I came across a thriving furniture-making business in full swing, the boss happy to demonstrate his planing skills. It was easy to see the coral used to construct the ceiling, but the wooden mangrove poles had rotted away.

I also visited the abandoned and run-down cemetery, baking in the glare of the sun. One headstone lay on the ground and its inscription was still legible. I wondered what that man had done in Kilwa Kivinje, where he’d lived, and if he had any descendants still living.

One cannot visit Kilwa without also exploring the stone town of Songo Mnara. The island, of the same name, takes over an hour to reach by dhow but is well worth the discomfort of the journey. On arrival we waded ashore to a fishing village where a lady of immense girth was cooking coconut rice which she fed to a scrawny cat. We sloshed along a wet sandy track through the mangroves before suddenly coming upon the wonderful and atmostpheric 15th-century Swahili settlement, set in a lovely grove of tall trees.

I was entranced by the joys spread before me; and I had it all to myself. There were mosques to marvel at, one with a particularly attractive and decorated mihrab. Also, a majestic sultan’s palace, divided into two parts (one for each of his two wives), brimful of niches and nooks, glorious arched doorways, and his office, with its ornamental ceiling inlaid with bright glass balls from China.

Here too were splendid ruins of coral rag stone houses built for the local people, and a parade ground flanked by soldiers’ quarters. Songo Mnara is truly impressive and special.

Quiloa, the old name for Kilwa, was all I’d hoped for… and more. As a Portuguese account of the attack on Kilwa in 1505, written by Joăo de Barros, states: “From our ships, the fine houses, terraces, and minarets, with the palms and trees in the orchards, made the city look so beautiful that our men were eager to land and overcome the pride of this barbarian king.”

Yes, I can agree with all Barros says about the city, now brought to life and vibrant in my imagination. But I wouldn’t call the king a barbarian – rather, a civilised man of sophisticated and excellent taste!

All images by Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson