Kilwa Kisiwani was the name of a city-state located on an island just off the southern coast of today’s Tanzania. Between the thirteenth- and the fifteenth-centuries CE a Muslim sultanate was established here. Kilwa was famous for its fort which served as a place of trade but also as a residence for the sultan. It had over one hundred individual rooms, reception halls, wide staircases and an octagonal swimming pool. Kilwa’s other main attraction was its mosque, constructed entirely out of coral stone.
Kilwa Kisiwani was just one of many trading ports along Africa’s east coast, but for a while it was the most powerful. In the fifteenth-century the sultanate controlled Malindi, Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Comoro and Sofala, as well as ports on the island of Madagascar. Ibn Battuta, who visited Kilwa Kisiwani in 1331, was highly impressed with the way the city was laid out and with the generosity, humility and religiosity of its ruler. [Read more: “Ibn Battuta, the greatest traveler of all time“] He also describes how the sultan went on raids to capture slaves in the interior of Africa.
By the time of Ibn Battuta’s visit, Kilwa had already been engaged commerce for some thousand years. A Greek manual for merchants, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, compiled in the first century CE, mentions the ports along the eastern coast of Africa as excellent places to buy ivory and tortoise shell. Coins minted in Kilwa have been found in Great Zimbabwe, Oman and even Australia. [Read more: “Great Zimbabwe“] During excavations in the sultan’s palace, a small flask from the Yuan dynasty was discovered together with many shards of Chinese pottery. [Read more: “Dividing it all up“]
Kilwa was a cosmopolitan place where African cultures mixed with the cultures of traders coming from across the sea. The people of Oman always had a strong presence. Yet the sultanate of Kilwa Kisiwani itself was founded by a group of explorers coming from the city of Shiraz in today’s Iran. They established themselves as a ruling class and imposed their own culture and values on the community. Kilwa was captured by the Portuguese in 1505, but recaptured by the Omanis in the 1690s. Today only ruins are left of the once powerful sultanate.
15 Minute History, “Indian Ocean Trade”
History of the World in 100 Objects: “Kilwa pot sherds”