The Kingdom of Kilwa Kisiwani: A Former African Economic Powerhouse

By Michelle

Off the coast of the East African country of Tanzania is an island you may have never heard of. In the Kilwa District of southern Tanzania lies the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani, an island that we now refer to as an economic powerhouse on the Swahili Coast. In this blog, we will explore the uniqueness of the Kingdom of Kilwa Kisiwani.

Kilwa Kisiwani is believed by historians to have been a settlement as early as the 4th century. In its prime, it was an extremely important location. It was a principal port amongst coastal trading cities along the Swahili Coast, which was the coastal strip of land which stretched from Somalia in the North to Mozambique in the South. It was made up of East African cities such as Kilwa (Tanzania), Mombasa (Kenya), and Sofala (Mozambique).  Because Kilwa Kisiwani was a principal port, it became a hub of trade and commerce. 

The Kingdom of Kilwa Kisiwani’s uniqueness is from the general agreement that it was the product of a mixture of African, Arabian, and Persian cultures. It is even sometimes referred to as an Afro-Arabian dynasty! Locals of the island even began incorporating Arabic and Person words into their language of Swahili, and Arabian and Persian customs and influences are reflected in the art, architecture, and religion (Islam) of wider Swahili culture.

In the 8th century, the expansion of Swahili culture on the African coast meant increased economic activity, particularly within trade. Small-time Swahili traders saw possibilities for larger trading operations which would have the potential to bring them wealth and fortune. Over time, goods such as ivory, tortoise shell, clay, and timber were traded with other communities and foreign traders, while Kilwa Kisiwani imported cotton, ceramics, silk, and even Chinese porcelain, hinted by the discovery of Chinese ceramics on the island. 

The expansion of Swahili culture on the African coast also meant that ideas were exchanged, developed and considered with others of different backgrounds and cultures within the kingdom. Kilwa Kisiwani, and the Swahili Coast in general, had great links with the Islamic world. Muslim traders flowing in and out of the region interacting with Kilwa traders allowed the Kingdom of Kilwa to adopt Islam as one of its religions.

Islam became a major religion on the island, commemorated by the construction of the Great Mosque of Kilwa. Construction likely began around the 10th century, and coral stone was incorporated into its construction. The Great Mosque of Kilwa was referenced by Ibn Battuta (sometimes spelt Battouta), the renowned traveller, in his recounting of his travels to the kingdom in 1331. Today, the mosque is regarded as the earliest remaining mosque on the East African coast. Another testament to the Islamic influence, the kingdom also adopted a sultanate and had sultans, Muslim sovereign leaders. Kilwa Kisiwani, despite having this ruling system, was still multi-religious like many African kingdoms.

Coral was used, uniquely, to build a lot of the island’s structures and architecture. This allowed the island kingdom to have unique and defining coral stone architecture. Kilwa Kisiwani even minted its own currency in the 11th to 14th centuries, evidence of its economic prosperity. Portuguese occupation on the island in the 16th century signalled the start of the kingdom’s decline.

Kilwa Kisiwani was abandoned by the mid-19th century, and the ruins are available to visit and explore today. A short boat ride away from mainland Tanzania, the ruins are a UNESCO protected World Heritage site and have been since 1981. Kilwa Kisiwani, like many African kingdoms, has not received the attention that it deserves. A mixture of African, Arabian and Persian cultures, a once-thriving sultanate, and a trade and commerce hub all on the East African coast make it a unique and interesting kingdom to look at.

Today, Many parts of the island are still unexcavated, and we look forward to what future excavations will reveal about this once illustrious, prosperous African kingdom.

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