Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania

A conversation with Stephen Battle, World Monuments Fund and Steven Zucker, Smarthistory about the history and architecture of Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] I’m speaking with Stephen Battle, who’s Program Director for Sub-Saharan Africa for the World Monuments Fund, and we’re talking about the ancient city of Kilwa.

Stephen Battle: [0:15] Kilwa is located in the south of Tanzania. In fact, there are two islands in the Kilwa Archipelago, Kilwa Kiswani and Songo Mnara, today surrounded by dense mangrove.

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] It’s hard to reimagine what this landscape must have looked like when these ports were in their heyday. These were cosmopolitan centers.

Stephen: [0:36] Nowadays, it’s a very poor part of the world. There’s a village on each of the islands. 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.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] There were a series of city-states. These were trading centers that dotted the Swahili coast down the east coast of Africa.

Stephen: [1:01] The word 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.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] This is an indigenous culture, but one that readily absorbed influences from the entire Indian Ocean region.

Stephen: [1:28] The Swahili were traders, they were merchants. They traded all across the Indian Ocean, north to the Gulf region, east to India, and as far away as China.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] We can see that probably most clearly in the fact that this is an Islamic culture. For instance, in the mosque we see embedded in the wall a bowl from China, celadon ceramics, and so we see evidence of this cosmopolitan environment.

Stephen: [1:54] The Swahili was really a collection of city-states dotted along the East African coast. Each had a certain degree of autonomy with its own sultan, but by the mid-14th century, the Sultan of Kilwa had asserted his power over all of the city-states. The source of his power and of his wealth was really control over the gold trade.

[2:18] Gold was mined in what is today Zimbabwe and brought on foot to the coast in what is today northern Mozambique, loaded onto dhows — sailing ships — and then transported north, ending up in the marketplaces of Fatimid, Cairo.

[2:35] The Sultan of Kilwa levied a customs duty on all of that exported gold passing through the waters that he controlled and thereby grew fabulously wealthy.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] We can see evidence of that wealth if we look, for instance, at the Great Palace on Kilwa. We can see here evidence of gardens, a pool most famously, both the private residence and the commercial activities that was the source of wealth for this culture.

Stephen: [3:01] The Great Palace is known in Kiswahili as Husuni Kubwa, and it was built by Sultan Al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman. It has been described by an eminent art historian, Peter Garlake, as the earliest surviving major building on the coast of East Africa south of Somalia, and by far the largest and most sophisticated.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] When you look at photographs it’s a little bit difficult I think to reconstruct what the palace might have looked like, in part because what we see are these large, extremely rough blocks of coral. It’s important to imagine that they were smoothed and that many of these surfaces were, in fact, painted.

Stephen: [3:39] The palace consists of two main areas. There’s a public area and a private area. In the public area, there is a very large courtyard with a number of storerooms, and that area would have been used for trade goods taken by the sultan.

[3:53] There’s 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. Then you get to the private part of the building, built around a bathing pool, open to the view across the harbor.

[4:16] The sultan would have bathed inside this pool whilst watching the sun set over mainland Africa.

Dr. Zucker: [4:21] I find it so interesting, this more public mercantile space of the diwan. A traveler given an audience, and the kinds of cross-cultural opportunities…but soon enough, this wealth would attract the Portuguese.

Stephen: [4:33] In 1498, the first Portuguese ship sailed up the coast of East Africa. Portuguese had come to Africa in search of gold and they found it at Kilwa. In 1505, the Portuguese established a garrison of soldiers on Kilwa.

[4:51] You have to remember that the Swahili were really a mercantile people. They had great seafaring skills but had no experience of sea warfare, and could not match in any way the firepower of the Portuguese.

Dr. Zucker: [5:05] The best physical evidence we have that represents this occupation is a fort which dominates the view from the sea.

Stephen: [5:12] Remarkably, contemporary Portuguese accounts say that the fort was built in 16 days. That’s a little difficult to credit. But it’s clear when you examine the building that it was based on an existing house.

[5:26] It seems again from looking at contemporary accounts that the Portuguese demolished a number of other houses in close proximity and used the materials taken from those demolished houses to build up the fort.

[5:39] It seems by the time the Portuguese garrison left in 1512, it was really quite a substantial defensive building, situated on the edge of the harbor.

Dr. Zucker: [5:49] The Portuguese would remain a very powerful presence in the Indian Ocean, but they would be replaced by the Omanis, by the Sultan of Oman, up in the Persian Gulf.

Stephen: [5:59] The Omani Arabs had been trading up and down the East African coast for centuries. After the Portuguese arrived, they increasingly came into conflict with the Omanis.

[6:11] In the late 17th, early 18th century, they launched a systematic attempt to kick the Portuguese out of East Africa forever.

Dr. Zucker: [6:21] It’s at this point that Kilwa experiences a resurgence, a kind of economic boom under the Omani. The Omani loved the East African coast so much that they would relocate their capital to the coast of Africa.

[6:34] There would be a significant building campaign in Kilwa as well, and probably the most extravagant example is an Omani palace.

Stephen: [6:42] The foundations of this palace, the so-called Makutani Palace, were built by one of the earliest Swahili sultans.

[6:50] When the Omanis finally gained complete control over Kilwa and the rest of the East African coast, they expanded and greatly added to the Makutani Palace and created the structure that you see today.

Dr. Zucker: [7:02] Kilwa’s source of wealth was clearly gold, but it also transformed over time. This would have included ivory and enslaved peoples. As time progressed, enslaved peoples made a larger and larger percentage of trade and of the wealth of the city.

Stephen: [7:18] Kilwa became, in the mid-19th century, the major transshipment point from mainland Africa to the principal slave market on Zanzibar.

[7:29] The Makutani Palace consists of a building within a building; the palace is really at the center. That would have been the residential area. 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.

Dr. Zucker: [7:52] 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 of history, and now all of it is in ruins. World Monuments Fund is stepping in.

Stephen: [8:09] That’s what’s 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, the Swahili occupation, right up until the early 20th century, when it became the capital of colonial German East Africa.

[8:31] What’s remarkable is that extraordinary structures from each of these periods of occupation still stand on those two islands.

[8:37] [music]

Cite this page as: Stephen Battle and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania," in Smarthistory, September 14, 2018, accessed June 21, 2024,