"The city comes down to the shore, and is entirely surrounded by a wall and towers, within which there are maybe 12,000 inhabitants. The county all round is very luxurious with many trees and gardens of all sorts of vegetables, citrons, lemons, the best sweet oranges that were ever seen…" -16th Century Portuguese Soldier
Historical Description Edit
"For centuries, the eastern coast of Africa was home to a number of mercantile city-states. The greatest of these was the island sultanate of Kilwa in modern Tanzania. These coastal cities linked inland African kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe to the wealthy lands that ringed the Indian Ocean, including Arabia, Persia, India, and Southeast Asia. They grew rich exporting ivory, spices, gold, and other goods, including slaves.
When the Portuguese arrived, their desire to control Indian Ocean trade drove them to destory the unprepared African city-states. They were ultimately rebuilt and regained some of their prosperity over the next centuries, but never entirely recovered from the destruction. The grand stone ruins of Kilwa are now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site."
The Kilwa Sultanate began in the 10th century. Ali ibn al-Hassan was the son of Emir of Shiraz and an Abyssinian slave. Caught in an inheritance battle with his six brothers, Ali fled his homeland with his Persian entourage. He settled on the island, then inhabited by indigenous Bantu people, and began constructing his own city. Legend claims that he bought Kilwa from a local king who exchanged it for enough cloth to encircle the island. The king quickly changed his mind, but Ali had already destroyed the narrow land bridge that
connected Kilwa to the mainland, securing it for himself. Ali’s Shirazi dynasty ruled until the 1277 succession crisis, after which the related Mahdali sultans took over. During these first three centuries several of the buildings (whose ruins survive) were built. The Great Mosque, the oldest extant in the region, was begun in the 1100s and expanded repeatedly afterwards. It has an ornate roof with 16 domes, supported by an astonishingly complex system of arches and pillars. The central dome, now lost, was the largest in East Africa until the 19th century. When the great Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited in 1331, he was struck by the mosque’s splendor and described the city as ‘fine and substantially built.’ Smaller mosques are scattered across Kilwa, each with their own distinct features. The Jangwani Mosque has distinctive water-holders set into its walls to allow worshipers to purify themselves for prayer, while a nameless small mosque – perhaps the city’s most pristine surviving structure – is attached to what is believed to be a madrasa. When
the conquistadors arrived in 1502, the city was the most powerful on the East African coast — with an empire stretching north to south from Malindi in present-day Kenya to Cape Correntes in Mozambique. Its sultans even controlled outposts on Madagascar. Commerce made it mighty; ships brought in porcelain from China, quartz from Arabia and carnalians from India. Gold and ivory came from Great Zimbabwe in the interior. Spices and perfume were in the air, and pearls, pottery and tortoise shell in the market. Kilwa was the principal
gateway between Africa and Asia, the Western end of the Indian Ocean trading routes. Standing on Kilwa Kisiwana, surrounded by the craggy grey remnants of a once-magnificent court, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by a sense of great loss; of the ultimate transience of human achievement. But there is equally something ebullient about the island’s prodigal variety of ruins; the majesty of their architecture and the sensation they impart of a cohesive living community. For a potent dose of this latter feeling head to nearby Songo Mnara, also part of the UNESCO site. Here you’ll find the almost complete remains of a walled town. Maneuver the settlement’s labyrinthine passages, passing through domestic dwelling and public squares. Compared to Kilwa’s romantic, timeworn desolation, Songo Mnara feels like it could have been abandoned yesterday.
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