Kilwa Kisiwani: Medieval Trade Center of Eastern Africa

Medieval Trade Center of Eastern Africa

Gereza Fort, Kilwa Ruins, Kilwa Kisiwani
Gereza fort, Kilwa Ruins, Kilwa Kisiwani, south coast. Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

On the northern end of the island of Kilwa Kisiwani about 2 kilometers (~1.25 miles) off the coast of Tanzania lies the site of Kilwa (spelled Quiloa in Portuguese), the most important of about thirty-five Swahili Coast trading communities on the Indian Ocean during the 11th through 16th centuries AD.

Kilwa History

The earliest substantial occupation at Kilwa Kisiwani dates to the 7th/8th centuries AD when the town was made up of rectangular wooden dwellings and small iron smelting operations.

Imported wares from the Mediterranean were identified among the archaeological levels dated to this period, indicating that Kilwa was already tied into international trade at this time.

Historical documents such as the Kilwa Chronicle report that the city began to thrive under the founding Shirazi dynasty of sultans.

Growth of Kilwa

Kilwa became a large center as early as 1000 AD, when the earliest stone structures were built, covering perhaps as much as 1 square kilometer (about 247 acres). The first substantial building at Kilwa was the Great Mosque, built in the 11th century from coral quarried off the coast, and later greatly expanded. More monumental structures followed, by the fourteenth century including the palace of Husuni Kubwa. Kilwa became a major trade center from the 1100s to the early 1500s, rising to its first importance under the rule of the Shirazi sultan Ali ibn al-Hasan.

About 1300, the Mahdali dynasty took over control of Kilwa, and a building program reached its peak in the 1320s during the reign of Al-Hassan ibn Sulaiman.

In its heyday, Kilwa was one of the principal ports of trade on the Indian Ocean, trading gold, ivory, iron, and slaves from interior Africa including Mwene Mutabe south of the Zambezi River; imported goods including cloth and jewelry from India; and porcelain from China.

The archaeological excavations at Kilwa recovered the most Chinese goods of any Swahili town, including a profusion of Chinese coins. The first gold coins struck south of the Sahara after the decline at Aksum were minted at Kilwa, presumably for facilitating international trade. One of them was found at the Mwene Mutabe site of Great Zimbabwe.

Kilwa and Ibn Battuta

The famous Moroccan trader Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa in 1331 during the Mahdali dynasty, when he stayed at the court of al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman Abu'l-Mawahib [ruled 1310-1333]. It was during this period that the major architectural constructions were made, including elaborations of the Great Mosque and the construction of the palace complex of Husuni Kubwa and the market of Husuni Ndogo.

The prosperity of the port city remained intact until the last decades of the 14th-century ​when turmoil over the ravages of the Black Death took its toll on international trade. By the early decades of the 15th century, new stone houses and mosques were being built up in Kilwa. In 1500, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral visited Kilwa and reported seeing houses made of coral stone, including the ruler's 100-room palace, of Islamic Middle Eastern design.

The dominance of the Swahili coastal towns over maritime trade ended with the arrival of the Portuguese, who reoriented international trade towards western Europe and the Mediterranean.

Archaeological Studies at Kilwa

Archaeologists became interested in Kilwa because of two 16th century histories about the site, including the Kilwa Chronicle. Excavators in the 1950s included James Kirkman and Neville Chittick, from the British Institute in Eastern Africa.

Archaeological investigations at the site began in earnest in 1955, and the site and its sister port Songo Mnara were named UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.


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