Kilwa Kisiwani

Kilwa Kisiwani

Kilwa Kisiwani is an island, national historic site, and hamlet community located in the township of Kilwa Masoko, the district seat of Kilwa District in the Tanzanian region of Lindi Region in southern Tanzania. Kilwa Kisiwani is the largest of the nine hamlets in the town Kilwa Masoko and is also the least populated hamlet in the township with less than 1,000 residents.

At its peak Kilwa hosted over 10,000 inhabitants in the Middle Ages. Since 1981 the entire island of Kilwa Kisiwani has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site along with the nearby ruins of Songo Mnara. Despite its significant historic reputation, Kilwa Kisiwani is still home to a small and resilient community of native residents that have inhabited the island for centuries. Kilwa Kisiwani is one the seven World Heritage Site located in Tanzania.


Kilwa Kisiwani Island lies exactly at 9 degrees south of the equator. The island is 23 km (14 mi) in circumference with the total land area is 12 km2 (4.6 sq mi). On the west part of the Island is the Mavuji River estuary. On the south part of the Island lies the Sagarungu sound and to the east lies the Indian Ocean.
Residents of Kilwa Kisiwani dancing for overseas visitors.
The island is located with the Kilwa Masoko township authority. The main economic activities on the island are Cultural tourism, fishing and subsistence agriculture. Economic growth is limited due to limited accessibility to the island. The island has no rivers thus the main source for water is wells. Many of the island’s freshwater wells have been used for over a millennia. The island is served by small boats to and from the port at Kilwa Masoko. The island’s only electricity is solar based and low capacity. There are no roads on the island thus most transport is on foot or by motorcycle.

Also to protect the historic integrity of the Island, non-island residents are strictly prohibited to visit the island without a visitors permit from the tourist information center in downtown Kilwa Masoko. Much of the historical artifacts and buildings on the island are yet to be unearthed.
Historical Significance of Kilwa Island
Kilwa Kisiwani is also an archaeological Swahili city-state site located along the Swahili Coast on the Kilwa Archipelago. It was occupied by possibly Mwera people from across the mainland from at least the 8th century CE and eventually became one of the most powerful Swahili settlements along the East African coast. Historically, it was the center of the Kilwa Sultanate, a medieval Swahili sultanate whose authority at its height in the 13th-15th centuries stretched the entire length of the Swahili Coast. The seasonal wind reversals would affect trade circulations.

In 1331CE, Moroccan traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa and described it as one of the beautiful cities in the world. Trade connections with the Arabian Peninsula as well as India and China influenced the growth and development of Kilwa, and, though there are Islamic words and customs that have been adapted to the culture, the origins are African. Many of the Swahili settlements showed complex layouts that reflected social relations between groups, however at Kilwa, there are many questions still left unanswered about the town’s layout after the Portuguese burnt it to the ground in July 1505.
The Swahili cemeteries were located on the edge of the town, which was common for the Swahili region, and large, open spaces were likely used for social gatherings. An important city for trade, around the 13th century there were increased fortifications and a greater flow of goods. For these to take place, there would need to be a form of political administration overseeing the city, controlling the movement of goods. Much of the trade networks was with the Arabian peninsula. Kilwa Kisiwani reached its highest point in wealth and commerce between 13th and 15th centuries CE.


At first, most of the focus was placed on the archaeology of Kilwa’s ports and harbors, however, more and more emphasis is being placed on Kilwa’s hinterlands. Ceramic artifacts are plentiful at the site and can be divided into two groups: regional and coastal. All of the ceramics with regional distribution were locally produced, but the area of distribution is limited. These unglazed ceramics were referred to as Kitchen Wares, though their uses were not necessarily just as cooking vessels. All of the varieties of locally produced pottery found in the region were also uncovered at the site of Kilwa itself.

Preservation of the site

In 2004, Kilwa Kisiwani was inscribed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. There is a serious rapid deterioration of the archaeological and monumental heritage of these two islands due to various agents like erosion and vegetation. The eastern section of the Palace of Husuni Kubwa, for example, is progressively disappearing. The damage to the soil caused by rainwater wash is accentuating the risks of the collapse of the remaining structures on the edge of the cliff. The vegetation that proliferates on the cliff has limited the progression of the rain-wash effect but causes the break-up of the masonry structures. The World Monuments Fund included Kilwa on its 2008 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, and since 2008 has been supporting conservation work on various buildings. In 2014 it was removed from the list

Great Mosque

The Great Mosque of Kilwa is a congregational mosque on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, in Tanzania. It was likely founded in the tenth century, but the two major stages of construction date to the 12th or twelfth and thirteenth century, respectively. It is one of the earliest surviving mosques on the Swahili Coast.
The smaller northern prayer hall dates to the first phase of construction. It contained a total of 16 bays supported by nine pillars, which were originally carved from coral but later replaced by timber. The structure was entirely roofed, and was perhaps one of the first mosques in the area to have been built without a courtyard.
In the early fourteenth century, Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman, who also built the nearby Palace of Husuni Kubwa, added a southern extension which included a great dome. This dome was described by Ibn Battuta after he visited Kilwa in 1331. You can view a 3D model of the Great Mosque

Palace of Husuni Kubwa

Husuni Kubwa (the “Great Palace”), situated outside the town, was an early 14th-century sultan’s palace and emporium. Other defining features include causeways and platforms at the entrance of the Harbour made from blocks of reef and coral nearly a meter high. These act as breakwaters, allowing mangroves to grow which is one of the ways the breakwater can be spotted from a distance. Some parts of the causeway are made from the bedrock, but usually the bedrock was used as a base. Coral stone was used to build up the causeways with sand and lime being used to cement the cobbles together. Some of the stones were left loose
The Palace of Husuni Kubwa is another prominent structure in Kilwa. The majority of the palace was erected in the 14th century by Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman, who also built an extension to the nearby Great Mosque of Kilwa, although portions may date back to the 13th century. for unknown reasons, the palace was inhabited only for a brief period of time, and abandoned before its completion.
In true Swahili architecture style the structure was built out of coral stone on a high bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean. It consists of three major elements: a south court, used primarily for commerce; a residential complex including over one hundred individual rooms; and a wide stairway leading down to a mosque on the beach.

Husuni Ndogo

Husuni Ndogo (“Little Palace”) is built from coral rubble and limestone mortar. The rectangular enclosure wall surrounds the complex and at each corner stands a tower. The foundations extend two meters below ground level. It appears to have been built as a fort, but the exact purposes and uses are somewhat unknown. There is some evidence that it, for at least a time, was used as a mosque. Architecturally, it appears to be different from other buildings along the coast, resembling buildings constructed under the Caliphs of the Umayyad at around 661-750 CE. However, whether or not the structure is related or even dates to the Arabic buildings remains uncertain, though it seems unlikely.