Everything To Know About Kilwa Kisiwani Ruins

Everything To Know About Kilwa Kisiwani Ruins: The Ancient Port City Of East Africa. The southern Tanzanian island of Kilwa Kisiwani, which is only accessible by boat from the mainland, once had a thriving seaport. Oman Sultans and Persian traders were the first people to live there from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries. Then, starting in the eleventh century, the Kilwa sultans grew wealthy by controlling the gold trade. In the past, it served as the Kilwa Sultanate’s capital. A medieval sultanate whose power peaked between the 13th and 15th centuries. The entire Swahili Coast was covered by it

Kilwa Kisiwani Highlights

  • Built by the medieval sultanate
  • The Great Mosque, founded in the 14th century
  • Sultan palace
  • Portuguese fortress built in 1505

Facts about Kilwa Kisiwani

  • In southern Tanzania
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1981
  • Listed on World Monuments Watch since 1996
  • Restauration done by WMF

Kilwa Kisiwani, a tiny island in southern Tanzania that is only 3 kilometers from the mainland, is home to some of the earliest artifacts from the significant history that has shaped the region’s coastline for more than a thousand years. Its ruins, together with those of nearby Songo Mnara Island, have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They represent a genuine architectural and archaeological treasure, a historical record that is now in ruins but is attempting to be revived thanks to the goodwill of its residents, skilled maintainers, and the tales of its illustrious past.

Kilwa Kisiwani, which was established by Arab traders between the ninth and eleventh centuries, reached its apex during the Persian Shirazi period, between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and became one of the most prosperous trading ports between Africa, the Middle East, and the Indies, particularly for the gold trade.

 The Omani sultans who ruled Zanzibar, the center of trade, eventually interfered with Portuguese rule, forcing it to fall under French, German, and British military control. Fort Gereza, still an impressive structure that welcomes visitors to the beach, was taken over by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Today, Kilwa is a peaceful little island with Swahili culture that can be reached by a brief boat ride. It is home to about a thousand people who make a living by fishing and gathering coral stones during low tide.

 The only remnants of its former splendor are the architectural remnants from various eras, some of the oldest in East Africa, and extraordinary historical testimonies that recall the refinement and opulence with which the city was built, even though they are currently in ruins and partially covered by vegetation.

The palaces and monuments of old were constructed using the same method, and the Kilwa homes are still entirely made of coral stone bricks and lime produced by fusing dead coral. The oldest mosque in East Africa first appeared here in the 11th century and was later enlarged in the 13th, when it took on its current appearance with its magnificent barrel-vaulted roofs. With the wealth they acquired through trade, the merchants, sheiks, and sultans constructed lavish and unique palaces with priceless finishes and Chinese porcelain, like the magnificent and imposing Husuni Kubwa Palace, which has an opulent octagonal pool in its courtyard. Both the ancient well and the cemetery, with its numerous sheikh and sultan tombs, are still in use and provide Kilwa’s residents with their daily supply of drinking water.

The ruins of the elaborate homes constructed on Songo Mnara Island in the late Middle Ages, which are now in alarming decay and were listed as an endangered heritage site by UNESCO in 2004, serve as proof that it was just as wealthy and powerful as Kilwa Kisiwani.

However, while Kilwa and Songo Mnara prospered primarily from their monopoly on the gold trade, further north, a much more depressing but lucrative trade enriched the Arab businessmen who ruled the port of Bagamoyo, the center of the slave trade. In caravans headed for the eastern markets of the Arabian Peninsula and Persia, thousands of prisoners from the hinterland of Africa passed through this area. The earliest evidence of an Arab presence dates to the 13th century. The Portuguese gained control of the outpost in the 16th century, and it was not until the Omani sultanates took control in the 18th century that the trade in slaves, ivory, and salt began to flourish. The city’s name, which in Swahili means “lay down your heart,” has ties to the slave trade.

Today, it is difficult to imagine that this sleepy seaside town, which for a brief period served as the colonial capital under German control, with its lovely beaches and natural attractions and its craftsmen who specialize in making dhows, would have had such a sad past if it weren’t for the numerous reminders it has left behind, architectural records that are inseparable from the historical memory of these places.


The two most significant remaining structures from this era are the Great Mosque and the Palace in Husuni Kubwa. The palace’s architectural grandeur and sophistication were unmatched in East Africa. The Great Mosque was built in the fourteenth century and held the title of largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa up until the sixteenth century. Sultan al-Hasan ibn Suleiman, the sultan of Kilwa Kisiwani, constructed the Great Mosque of Kilwa. It was East Africa’s largest mosque of its kind. The mosque contains two mosques, both of which were built from coral stone and limestone materials. Because of this, the architecture was able to withstand all types of weather for many years. In 1505, the Portuguese constructed a fort here.

Everything To Know About Kilwa Kisiwani Ruins
Kilwa Kisiwani Ruins


Masoko Pwani

Idyllic, untainted, calm, and tidy. The lovely palm-lined coast of the Indian Ocean is called Masoko Pwani. The beach at Masoko Pwani is 5 kilometers northeast of Kilwa Masoko. By bicycle or Tuk-tuks (Bajaji in Swahili) from Kilwa Masoko is the most effective way to accomplish this. The fish for Kilwa Masoko is traded in this vibrant area, especially toward the end of the afternoon.

Songo Mnara

8 kilometers to the south of Kilwa Kisiwani is the island that is home to the port city of Songo Mnara, also known as the twin island. Both islands have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and because of their lengthy histories and Swahili cultural legacies, they are a fusion of African and Arab cultures. On the northern side of the island, Songo Mnara is home to the ruins of five mosques, a palace complex, and about thirty-three coral stone and wood-walled houses.

Kipatimu caves

Kipatimu Caves are a rare sight. Amazing limestone formations that nature has sculpted over the ages and in a variety of hues. Humans have lived there for thousands of years, long before they began to construct houses above ground.

These caves served as early humans’ homes as well as a haven for locals (Matumbi) during the infamous tribal wars against Germans that shook southern Tanzania over a century ago. The miles-long, connected caves can accommodate thousands (4000–5000) of people. The topsoil has a dense natural forest covering it.

Millions of bats now live in these caves during the day, along with snakes and other nocturnal creatures. However, these caves (Nang’oma Cave and the larger Lihimalyao Cave) are highly recommended as underground miracles.

Kilwa Kivinje

In the early 1800s, the sleepy town of Kilwa Kivinje became the destination of the southern slave caravan. Wide and sandy, Kilwa Kivinje’s mainland port is still a great place for wooden boats to land. By 1850, Kivinje had expanded into a community of 12–15,000 people, many of them wealthy families of Indian descent, and had become the main hub for the slave trade in the area. Kilwa Kivinje was chosen as the administrative hub for Germany toward the end of the 19th century. Kilwa Kivinje’s brief heyday ended with the end of the slave trade and German defeats in the war. With an intriguing blend of German colonial and Omani Arab architecture, Kilwa Kivinje is now a small, atmospheric village with a Swahili village feel.


The Indian Ocean is where Lindi is situated. Lindi was once the property of the Sultan of Zanzibar and served as the destination for slave caravans traveling from Lake Nyasa. The region’s most significant city at the time was Lindi. Lindi is now a bustling and enjoyable place to explore. The tiny but active dhow harbor, the exquisitely carved doors, and some ruins from its prosperous past are just a few of the attractions.

Other things to do around Kilwa include:

  • Exploring Selous Game Reserve
  • Explore Mikumi National Park.
  • Kilwa Masoko
  • Touring Kilwa Kivinje

Kilwa would be visited by anyone with an interest in East African history. There are a ton more things here that are hidden. If you go to Kilwa, perhaps you’ll be the first to discover something new. So, if you happen to be in or near Kilwa, give these fun things I’ve mentioned a try. You won’t be let down; instead, you’ll experience the greatest satisfaction possible!

book a trip