Gold, Ivory & Slaves
As early as 800 AD, Kilwa Kisiwani was a vibrant city bustling with activity. It gained its reputation and wealth by trading heavily in gold, ivory, textiles, jewelry, spices and slaves. For centuries it had the distinction of being known as the most famous trading post in all of East Africa.
Kilwa Kisiwani is located on a small island off the coast of Tanzania. Between the 11th and 15th centuries BC, it was the most important urban center in the Indian Ocean and traders from all over the region flocked to it. Under the command of many different rulers, the city was able to establish trade with places as close as southern Africa and as far away as Asia.
With its lofty ambitions, long run of success and an unparalleled allure that drew overseas visitors, Kilwa Kisiwani was truly a city of power.
Rise to Power
A limited number of ancient ruins seem to indicate that Kilwa Kisiwani was a vast and highly functional urban center as early as the 8th century. Historians know for a fact that it was between the 9th and 12th centuries when Kilwa began its tactful and uncompromising rise to power.
It was during this period that the city was taken over by a powerful dynasty from Iran, who subsequently proclaimed themselves as the sultans of Kilwa. The first sultan was Ali bin al-Hasan, a hands-on leader who initiated a number of new trade routes and policies for the city. He was also determined to build the biggest and best city he possibly could and with that in mind, initiated the construction of elaborate mosques and other architectural wonders. One mosque he had built contained a personal prayer room just for him. The room was housed under an enormous and elaborately decorated dome. Researchers today know that it is the largest dome ever built on the East African coast. Numerous sultans who came after al-Hasan contributed to the city with their own commissioning of buildings and mosques. They would also construct forts designed to protect valuables and keep out the many intruders who wanted a piece of what they had. Most forts had impenetrably high walls and many had only one entrance for extra safety.
It was such practices that allowed Kilwa to not only build its incredible wealth, but also retain it for long periods of time.
If there was one thing Kilwa Kisiwani was known for above all others, it was its legendary wealth. It amassed fortunes from ivory and other goods, but its main source of wealth was gold.
The enterprising sultans of Kilwa had numerous mining operations in the area of the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe. From there, the gold would be taken to the costal region that is today known as Beira, in present day Mozambique. Once loaded on to ships, it would be transported to Kilwa where the city’s mint would melt it and press it into coins, jewelry and other valuables. Kilwa had the distinction of being the first location to mint gold coins for international trade after the decline of Aksum Empire, located in present day Ethiopia. Foreign dignitaries would visit the city and marvel at its construction, beauty and wealth. It has even been mentioned in famous literary works including Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Kilwa’s prosperity was alive and well until the end of the 14th century when the occurrence of the Black Death, a deadly outbreak of disease likely caused by black rats, ravaged the city. There was an attempt to revive the city in the 15th century, but this proved unsuccessful due to the arrival of Portuguese invaders.
Decline of Importance
Upon the arrival of the Portuguese invaders led by explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, Kilwa’s prosperity rapidly declined.
When Cabral reported back to the leaders of Portugal that he had found a city of incredibly beautiful mosques and homes made of coral stones, not to mention a wide array of other riches, the Portuguese sent their troops and took over the island. At first their intention was only to threaten to attack the city, unless a tribute was paid to them. But soon they realized that the trade route in the Indian Ocean was way too lucrative to pass up, so in 1505 they took control of the entire city. They constructed a large fortress on the coast, known as Gereza, so they could defend themselves from foreign invaders. Nowadays, the word, Gereza means, “prison” in Swahili. Even with their strong military efforts, they were unable to hold onto their power long. A group of Arab mercenary soldiers had been eyeing a takeover and when the opportunity presented itself in 1515, they attacked the Portuguese and won in a bloody battle, taking control of the city. By this point, trade had almost completely ended and the once wealthy city was dried up.
From then on, Kilwa was all but forgotten for 300 years until the Germans occupied it from 1886 up until World War I. Only in the 1950’s did the world take notice of Kilwa again, with serious archaeological studies taking place there.
World Heritage Site
In an effort to preserve the beauty of Kilwa Kisiwani, UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site in 1981. Today, many tourists take advantage of the fact that the city is only a two-hour road trip from Dar es Salaam and quick boat ride from many local tourist ports. They visit the multi-generation architecture and ruins and bask in the beauty and sunlight of the Swahili Coast.