Also known as Kilwa Kisiwani (Kilwa on the Island). Situated on a small island at the mouth of an estuary on the coast of Tanzania about 250km south of Dar es Salaam, Kilwa was once a rich and powerful trading hub controlling the east coast of Africa as far south as Sofala in modern-day Mozambique. The glory days have long since passed and now it's little more than a village; but many of its medieval structures remain and the island was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981.

Occupation of the island dates back at least as far as the 9th century AD but it first began to flourish in the 11th century with the establishment of a settlement by one Ali bin al-Hasan (spelling may vary); copper coins bearing his name are apparently still regularly found in the sand of Kilwa's beaches. It has been suggested that Ali bin al-Hasan was from Shiraz in Persia, and that he, with his six sons, fled south to escape conflicts over the naming of a rightful Caliph, or successor, to the prophet Mohammed. Certainly Kilwa had strong links with the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the more northern Swahili coast, including Mafia, Zanzibar, Pemba, Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and other settlements.

The first foundation of Kilwa's wealth was gold: gold mined further south around Great Zimbabwe was transported overland to Sofala, shipped to Kilwa (along with the copper for Ali bin al-Hasan's coins) and thence to the Gulf and Europe, where demand grew rapidly during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Historian JEG Sutton notes that, in Europe, "with the growth of population alongside the rise of industry and commerce... together with the expanding demand for spices and other Oriental products and the corresponding development of banking and credit systems, the trend towards a gold standard proved irreversible". So, thanks to the princes of Florence and their like, Kilwa boomed.

The great ruler al-Hasan bin Sulaiman presided over this party in the fourteenth century, leaving behind Kilwa's main architectural treasures: the palace of Husuni Kubwa, never wholly completed, and an expanded Great Mosque. He was famed abroad as Abu al-Mawahib, the Father of Gifts and minted more copper coins of his own for later generations of archaeologists and treasure hunters to discover. It was around this time that the great traveller Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa, describing it as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Kilwa's fortunes dipped after this -- Europe's Black Death and the accompanying economic depression probably played a role -- but revived in the 15th century, when many of the existing wooden houses described by Ibn Battuta were replaced by stone and coral structures.

Many of those were destroyed in their turn by the Portuguese on their rampage around the coast of Africa in the 16th century. Although these explorers were eloquent in their praise of the city's fine dwellings and prosperous merchants, and lovingly catalogued its riches -- ivory, perfumes, clothes of silk and cotton, amber, musk and pearls -- it all added up to just one thing: loot.

In 1502 Vasco da Gama extracted from the sultan a promise to pay 1,500 ounces of gold each year as tribute to the Portuguese king; in 1505 Dom Francisco d'Almeida followed threats with action when the sultan proved reluctant to pay. Hans Mayr, who accompanied d'Almeida's fleet, describes the sack of Kilwa with admirable economy:

"At dawn on Thursday, 24 July, the vigil of the feast of St. James the Apostle, all went in their boats to the shore. The first to land was the Grand-Captain, and he was followed by the others. They went straight to the royal palace, and on the way only those Moors who did not fight were granted their lives..... As soon as the town had been taken without opposition (?), the Vicar-General and some of the Franciscan fathers came ashore carrying two crosses in procession and singing the Te Deum. They went to the palace, and there the cross was put down and the Grand-Captain prayed. Then everyone started to plunder the town of all its merchandise and provisions."
Kilwa never truly recovered -- in fact none of the once-great ports of the Swahili Coast really survived the opening up of the new sea route to India. Its economy did experience one more revival, though, for an ugly reason: in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, when the demand for slaves to work the sugar plantations of the New World was at its peak, Kilwa did well. During the early 19th century the port was moved to Kilwa Kivinje on the mainland, the terminus of the southern slave route from Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi). It is said that 20,000 slaves a year were shipped out from Kilwa Kivinje as late as the 1860s.

All long gone: today Kilwa is a village with some nice ruins for tourists to visit. It has some good beaches.

With thanks to, the Modern History Sourcebook, UNESCO, JEG Sutton, the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Tanzania Tourist Board.

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