Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania
“…we sailed on to the city of Kulwa, a large city on the seacoast, most of whose inhabitants are Zinj, jet black in color…….The city of Kulwa is one of the finest and most substantially built towns; all the buildings are of wood, and the houses are roofed with dis reeds. The rains there are frequent. Its people engage in jihad because they are on a common mainland with the heathen Zinj people and contiguous to them, and they are for the most part upright and Shafi’ites in rite.”
Ibn Battuta refers to this city as being on the mainland and perhaps it was at that time but today its full name is ‘Kilwa Kisiwani’ which means Kilwa the Island, and you need a small dhow to get to it. There are another two Kilwas; Kilwa Masoko, meaning Kilwa the market, a rather dreary jumping-off point for Kilwa Kisiwani, and Kilwa Kivinje meaning Kilwa of the Casuarinas, the ubiquitous coastal tree of these parts which has a small cone a bit like a fir tree. Kilwa Kisiwani is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for which special permission is needed to visit, which I tried to do on-line. This was a waste of time as the only time one gets a reply from this august body is a computer-generated email saying they are out of the office. Fortunately I soon realized I could obtain the necessary permission through the local hotel. I almost didn’t get there at all as I flew from Zanzibar via Dar-es-Salaam and nobody seemed to be quite sure which plane I should take. The flight on Coastal Aviation only runs when there are a sufficient number of people and fortunately that day there were, although we offloaded most of them en route on the oddly-named Mafia Island.
Teensy little 5-seater plane that took us back from Kilwa.
Impossible as it is to believe, Kilwa was once one of the most important trading ports of the Indian Ocean. Its rise to power began under the Shirazi dynasties of the 11th and 12th centuries and by the time of Ibn Battuta’s visit in 1331, the ruling Sultan, Hasan ibn Sulaiman Abu'l-Mawahib, had built what was then the largest single stone building south of the Sahara. The first gold coins struck south of Ethiopia are said to have been minted in Kilwa, to facilitate what was already a burgeoning international trade. Today Kilwa is a forgotten island settlement of about eight hundred souls with a collection of solidly-built stone huts with thatched roofs, some interesting Omani-built 18th and 19th century ruins, a 15th century mosque, a Great Mosque with an old part Ibn Battuta would have seen, and some 14th century Persian-built ruins further down the island.
Kilwa's strategic importance grew when gold that was mined in present-day Zimbabwe was portered to the coast then shipped to Persia, Arabia and India. To the south the town of Sofala in present-day Mozambique, was the most southerly of the Swahili towns but eventually it came under Kilwa’s control, until both fell to the Portuguese in the 16th century. Around 1780 the Omani Arabs managed to wrest back control from the Portuguese, and Kilwa’s second incarnation as a trading port began – this time as a slaving port sending captured slaves to the clove plantations of French-controlled Mauritius, Reunion and the Comoros Islands. By the 19th century the British and Germans dominated the coast and Kilwa once again fell into obscurity.
The 21st century port of Kilwa.
A lovely Italian couple of honeymooners and a very good guide called Ahmed were my traveling companions to Kilwa on a dhow, the MV Christopher, which took some time to arrange since we were told we needed a motor ‘just in case’. In the end we did not use it but the winds can be fickle. The first thing you see on the approach to Kilwa is the Omani-built fort - the Portuguese had all but destroyed Kilwa and other coastal settlements in the 16th century in a mission supported by the Portuguese King to establish Catholicism in place of Islam, but their impact on the culture was minimal and they never succeeded except perhaps to rile the local people against Christians which led to jihads against the Christian Ethiopians.
Kilwa Great Mosque
When the Omanis regained control, the first thing they did was build or re-build defensive forts. A nearby 15th century Mosque with half-shelldomes is in remarkably good shape, as is the Great Mosque, a small portion of which dates to the 13th century. (A plaque outside the mosquenotes that Ibn Battuta passed through Kilwa.)
"Its sultan at the period of my entry into it was Abu'l Muzaffar Hasan who was called also by the appellation of Abu'l Mawahib, on account of the multitude of his gifts and acts of generosity. He used to engage frequently in expeditions to the land of the Zinj people, raiding them and taking booty, and he would set aside the fifth part of it to devote to the objects prescribed for it in the Book of God Most High. This sultan is a man of great humility; he sits with poor brethren, and eats with them, and greatly respects men of religion and noble descent."
Ibn Battuta's comments regards setting aside the fifth portion refer to the Quran, sura 8, verse 42 ; "whatsoever you take in booty, the fifth of it belongs to God, the Apostle, the relative, the orphans, the poor and the traveler." Ibn Battuta did very well out of this injunction and was almost always very well looked after. Nowadays not so much, at least not for the traveler - perhaps there are just too many of us although not in Kilwa....