All texts on History by Karen Moon, author of the book «Kilwa Kisiwani, Ancient Port City of the East African Coast» published in 2005. Texts selected by Revocatus Bugumba and Paul Aloyce Nyelo, Kilwa Antiquities Office


Kilwa's early history goes far back in time. The island was settled long before it became involved in the Indian Ocean trade. Travellers from the north who visited the East African shores in the Roman period encountered sizable settlements.
It was during the ninth century that Kilwa's connection with the Indian Ocean trade became significant. By the eleventh century it was one of the most prominent settlements of the East African coast.


Indications of Islamic influence began as the town’s commercial relationship with the outside world developed and as the growing stream of foreign, chiefly Arab, traders and migrants mingled with the island community, sometimes settling. Kilwa's first Sultanate appears to have been founded around 1050 by a group of Islamic political refugees from Shiraz in Persia. Coins minted by these rulers link the town with the islands of Pemba, Mafia and Zanzibar.


According to available traveller's accounts, the coastal settlements mostly held to traditional beliefs until the thirteenth century - the point when Islam really began to take hold.
Only then did the cosmopolitan, but fundamentally Muslim, Swahili civilization of today start to emerge.The town surrounding the great mosque grew in political and commercial power. During the first half of the twelfth century, Kilwa secured control of the gold trade from Sofala and became the chief power of the coast.Shortly afterwards, the world demand for gold soared to unprecedented levels in Europe as Renaissance city states flourished, as well as in Asia and the Middle East. And Kilwa grew fat.


For the citizens of their island kingdom, the years from 1300 to 1330 was an era of exceptional wealth. The lifestyle of Kilwa's elite became luxurious. They developed a taste for fine Persian and Chinese ceramics and expensive Indian fabrics, and wore imported jewellery and beads. Islamic scholars from the near east came to visit. These fourteenth century rulers are the only power on the coast known to have minted gold coins.
Dependant as it was on fluctuating world markets, Kilwa was nevertheless vulnerable and its time of prosperity was short lived. In the 1350s the island's economy was devastated by a sharp fall in the world price of gold.
The beginning of the fifteenth century heralded Kilwa's recovery. The island began to reassert its control over the ocean's commerce and continued to prosper throughout the century, though its monopoly of trade was increasingly challenged by competition from the northern ports of Mombasa and Malindi. Around this time, a new, finely-built settlement was erected on the nearby island of Songo Mnara.


At the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the first significant contingent of Portuguese arrived, this island city state appears to have had between 5,000 and 10,000 inhabitants.
Kilwa's inhabitants were in any case a mercantile, not a military people. Outclassed by the Portuguese firepower, they were quickly routed. The aim of the Portuguese was to grasp control of the Ocean's trade routes and take Sofala for its own. Kilwa was left in ruins. A fort was quickly constructed and a company of soldiers left inside to keep the island subdued. The Portuguese presence on Kilwa Island lasted only till 1512, but their disruption to the established patterns of trade in the region was more permanent. They were dominant in the Indian Ocean trade for nearly two hundred years.
A growing challenge to Portuguese dominance emerged during the seventeenth century in the form of a new dynasty of rulers from Oman. The Omani expulsion of the Portuguese from Indian Ocean waters allowed for the renewal of former commercial relationships. Kilwa, once more independent, slowly began to re-establish its position.
However, no significant recovery came for the island until the late eighteenth century, this time as a result of the lucrative sale of slaves to both Omani and French traders.
At this time, Kilwa’s sultanate gained sufficient economic confidence to initiate a new building programme. But despite the seeming promise of a new golden age, the revival in Kilwa's fortunes was brief. In 1784, the Omanis moved in and subjugated the island. In 1840, the last Sultan of Kilwa was deported to Oman.
Still further demoralization awaited the island as the German presence in East Africa grew. In 1890, Kilwa was once again subordinated to a colonial power. The German's choice of Kilwa Kivinje for its district headquarters was the island's last dishonour, removing even the residual influence it had on local affairs.




The profusion of birds in Kilwa District is such that bird watching is possible everywhere: on the islands, in the mangrove, on the mainland, even in Masoko town. Walking in the landscape and observing the great variety of bird species with your eyes and ears is a great experience.


Did you know ?
Thanks to its tropical climate, Kilwa is blessed with a wide range of trees that are very beneficial for the population. Trees are also a strong element in the landscape and some offer the ingredients for treating common aches. Mganga is the man who practices medicine from plants, trees and spices.



Dhows are traditional Arab sailing vessels with one or more trapezoidal sails. They were primarily used to carry items along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, India and East Africa. The term "dhow“ does not stand for only one type of ship but for a whole family of vessels ranging from small boats with just one mast to cargo ships that can carry over 200 tons. Large dhows can have crews of approximately thirty people. The small dhows linking Kilwa-Masoko to Kilwa Kisiwani have crews of one or two people only.
Kilwa economy being traditionally based on trade and fishing, the production of boats is of the greatest importance.
Construction sites are located on the beach, next to the fishermen villages and often under the shadow of a big tree. Boats are entirely handmade and the knowledge is transmitted while practicing. The whole process takes between three months and one year, depending on the size of the boat.


Kilwa region, bordered by the Indian Ocean, offers a rich habitat for various fish species thanks to the coral barriers and the protection of the mangrove. Mangrove is a perfect breeding area for fish. Fishermen exploit the entire seaside: the mangrove itself, the coral barriers and the open sea. Kilwa fishermen use quite different techniques: Bamboo cages, gates systems, line fishing, net fishing, harpoon or rod. Dynamite fishing is a threat for the sustainability of the industry.
The main fish found in Kilwa are: Black spot sweetlips, Yellowfin tuna, Dash-dot goatfish, Blackspot emperor, Indian lionfish, Sailfish and Indian mackerel.
Fishing is done during night and also in the morning. Boats usually arrive at midday. A portion of their catch is bought by tradesmen who export it by truck inland. The rest is either sold fresh in the fishing villages, after being fried, dried or smoked.



With the leaves of palm trees, artisans make all kinds of baskets. At their homes, women weave mats out of shrub leaves (mikeka) first dried, then coloured, braided and finally sewn together. These mats are traditionally used to wrap corpses for funerals, but they are commonly used for praying, as floor carpets or to decorate the walls.
Also from shrub leaves they produce ropes (kambas) used on building sites to join pieces together, to package goods in the market, or to produce home items such as lamps.


Teka trees are usedor door and window frames. Sometimes these timbers are beautifully carved in a Swahili traditional style, inspired by the Indian and Arabic tradition.


Pottery is another traditional craft mainly dedicated to kitchen utensils such as cooking pots of all sizes, well adapted to charcoal stoves, jars to keep water fresh or small ritual cups.


We can find all kinds of embroidery works in Swahili clothes, but the most popular is the kofia, an Arabic embroidered hat worn by men. The needles used are made out of porcupine bones.


There are 35 salt producers in Kilwa, who employ hundreds of people and produce 500 tons of salt per producer and season. This salt is sold to retailers based in Dar-es-Salaam, who process it before selling it in Tanzania and neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda and Congo.
Salt farms are located at sea level. A canal supplies the fresh seawater, which is pre-heated to a temperature of 21-23 °C in a pond before being sent to the final production basins. The basins are prepared from May to June: the bottoms are cleaned and the borders consolidated.
The production season starts in June and can last up to November, when the first rains arrive.
Men collect the salt meanwhile women transfer it inside baskets and carry it on their heads to the salt sheds. These sheds are covered with makuti (coconut tree shingles) allowing air circulate and ensuring a good conservation of the salt.

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