The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kilwa Kiswani & Songo Mnara are found on 2 adjoining, small islands situated just off the coast of the town of Kilwa Masoko in South-Eastern Tanzania.
Kilwa became important as a prosperous trading and commercial centre that connected the Indian Ocean littoral to Africa’s interior. During its reign as East Africa’s premier trading station, Kilwa traded in items as diverse as Arabian crockery, Persian earthenware and Chinese porcelain. Kilwa has been habited since the beginning of the 9th century and reached its commercial peak in the 13th and 14th century.
Between 1331-1332, the great Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, made a stop here and described Kilwa as one of the most beautiful cities of the known world. Kilwa Kiswani became an important town due to its control of the gold trade from Sofala in Mozambique.
The city grew and became more important until the Portuguese explorer; Vasco de Gama nearly destroyed Kilwa in 1502, hoping to gain commercial and maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean for the Portuguese. Kilwa however then grew rapidly, like Zanzibar did at the time due to the slave trade and in the late 18th century came under the control of the Sultan of Oman.
The ruins found on the island now include the vestiges of the great mosque, constructed in the 12th century of coral clay, the remains of the palace built by Sultan Al Hasan in 1310 and numerous smaller mosques from the 12th and 14th century.
From the Portuguese era the ruins of a fortress and an entire urban complex with houses and public areas remain. The archaeological artefacts found at the site bare testimony to the commercial and consequently cultural exchanges of which Kilwa was the theater.
Songo Mnara was a Swahili stone town, dominated by the well-preserved remains of more than 40 large domestic room-blocks, five mosques, and numerous tombs. Room blocks wrap around and enclose an open, central area of the site where tombs, a walled cemetery and a small mosque are located.
Compared to the 800-year occupation of nearby Kilwa, the relatively short, 200-year occupation of Songo Mnara makes it an ideal candidate to examine household and public spaces from a discrete period in time.
Kilwa Kiswani and the neighbouring ruins of Songo Mnara are two archaeological sites of prime importance to the understanding of the Swahili culture and the Islamization of the east coast of Africa. It was for these reasons that the ruins were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1981. They have since been ignored until a joint French / Japanese company are began restoration and exploration work on the ruins in 2003.
“The island of Kilwa Kisiwani is only 2km away from Kilwa Masoko harbour, just outside of the town.
You can travel by a motorised ferry or traditional dhow, check with your guide which you will use and bear in ind that if the wind is wrong the dhow trip can take up to an hour.
Guides based in Kilwa or through your hotel will be able to organise permits and transport.
Please remember to bring a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water as it can be a long trip to visit all the various sites.
Finally please tell your friends about these ruins, further funding to save them will only come with increased visitor numbers.”