Kilwa Kisiwani

Off the southern coast of present-day Tanzania lies the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, which, at its peak from the 13th to 15th century CE, ruled over the rest of the Swahili Coast and dominated Indian Ocean trade.

Kilwa started as a small trade hub in the 8th century and quickly began to flourish. Extensive immigration and intermarriage among the Bantu communities, and later, with Arab immigrants, made Kilwa Kisiwani simultaneously both a melting pot and ethnically indistinguishable from the mainland. Swahili is the result of the cultural and lingual intermingling here and along the rest of the East African coast.

Kilwa minted its own currency and traded with Arabia, India and China, and naturally, Mogadishu became Kilwa’s main rival. Among Kilwa’s main exports were spices, coconut oil, gold, iron, ivory, tortoiseshell, other animal products, slaves and aromatic gums, while imports included beads, textiles, jewelry, earthenware and porcelain. Cotton was also processed and used in the area, for clothes and ship sails.

The Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa around 1331 CE and described it as “one of the finest and most beautifully built towns”. He was impressed by the coral stone architecture and indoor plumbing, and especially by the city-planning, which he believed to be the key to Kilwa’s success. This meticulous city-planning brought order amidst the normal city chaos of numerous houses, markets, public squares, places of worship, palaces, burial grounds, etc.

By the 15th century, Kilwa’s rule extended over the city-states of Malindi, Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Mafia, Comoros, Sofala and numerous other smaller cities along this 3,000 km stretch of coastline in East and Southeast Africa. The growing presence of the Portuguese in the 16th century marked the beginning of Kilwa’s decline. Today, Kilwa Kisiwani and nearby stonetown Songo Mnara are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

By Rahim Mawji

(Image: Sola Rey; Vintage Maps)

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