Katy Fentress sets out to find out more about Swahili culture and its rich history by heading to Tanzania and visiting the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani, once the epicentre of the vibrant East African coastal trade.
Photos: Katy Fentress
It’s low tide as Hassan, the boatman, manoeuvres our taxi dhow up onto the shallows. The Portuguese fort that I had been photographing as we approached the island dominates the small beach in an otherwise unassuming harbour. I wade through the ankle-deep water and up some steps to the outskirts of a village. A plaque painted with a Tanzanian flag indicates there is a foundational school some hundred metres to our left.
We wander over to the fort and stand underneath what looks like a giant version of an intricately carved Lamu door. The mid morning glare stings my eyes as I squint up from underneath the brim of my straw hat to study the fine floral lattice work which frames the looming entrance. Jamila, our guide, is explaining that the Gereza Fort was erected after the Portuguese seized control of the Swahili coastal trade routes and is one of the last in a series of great forts and palaces built on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, at one point the most powerful city-state in the whole of East Africa.
Located directly opposite the town of Kilwa Masoko, 300km to the south of Dar es Salaam, Kilwa Kisiwani is one of two islands that were the epicentre of a once bustling cosmopolitan trading hub. Kilwa Kisiwani and its neighbouring Songo Mnara, are today quiet places, inhabited by small communities, which survive on fishing and subsistence farming. During the Middle Ages, however, this vibrant Swahili city-state came to dominate commerce up and down the East African coast, due to a favourable geographical positioning at the intersection of trade routes of gold and ivory from Zimbabwe, beads and textiles from India, ceramics from China and Persia and slaves captured as far as Lake Malawi.
Jamila narrates how the fort is the symbol of two successive colonisations of the Swahili coast, once an interconnecting network of urban trading centres which were inhabited as early as the first century CE. The first colonisers were the Portuguese around 1500 and then the Omanis, who in the late 1600s liberated the sultans and their cities from the European invaders, only to then take on the mantle of occupying rulers themselves.
A few hundred metres from the fort we see ruins peppered to either side of us. Jamila points out a small cemetery, some merchant houses and the “Malindi mosque”. I later learn that the city state of Malindi was one of Kilwa’s great rivals during the 1400s. With every step, we feel ourselves going back in time.
“Here you can see the Great Mosque that was built with coral blocks by the Shirazi sultans one thousand years ago,” Jamila tells us. The mosque, with its sixteen domes, seems like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Jamila waits patiently as I clamber around to try to get a good shot of a towering ficus which has long outgrown its host, its gnarl of roots threaten to tear the walls of the ancient building apart.
Inside the mosque, the morning light pours sideways through the colonnades, the bulbous domes and tear drop arches stand sensuously in the saturated light. Close by the Omani palace, relatively new in the grand scheme of the island, is an ode to space and luxurious living. I stand in the middle of what would have been the palace’s huge garden, bird song fills the air. We press on, there’s one more site to visit.
Built in the early 1300s the Husuni Kubwa was once a sprawling palace replete with spacious courtyards for merchants to ply their wares, a public hearing hall for audiences with the sultan and in the private quarters, a hexagonal swimming pool that looked out onto the sea. I walk around in the unforgiving midday heat with just enough energy to marvel at the thick coral walls, at the remains of large domes and sunken rooms where I can imagine angry men shaking their fists at each other has they discuss the matters of the day. Exhausted, after covering almost three kilometres walking around ruins, we make our way down a long flight of stairs to the mangroves and then through to the expecting boat.
Situated in one of Tanzania’s less frequented areas, Kilwa and Songo Mnara aren’t exactly the cheapest holiday destinations, unless you are keen to take the Mashallah bus or are self-driving. The trip takes about five hours depending on how bad traffic leaving Dar es Salaam is.
We stayed at the delightful Kilwa Dreams Beach Resort where the owner Gladys and her staff made us feel instantly at home and treated us to some excellent seafood. The bandas were painted red and decorated with images of sea life, while on the inside they were simple, clean, lit with lights powered by solar panels on the roof, with nice seating areas, well maintained mosquito nets and hot water coming from a solar heater outside. For those used to Kenyan prices it felt a bit on the expensive side but this is probably due to the low levels of tourism in the area which means it is costly to keep hospitality facilities running all year round.
Our friends in Dar es Salaam also recommended checking out the Slow Leopard, a recently opened lodge on the Jimbiza beach which seems popular with the backpacking crowd.
Visits to Songo Mnara and Kilwa Kisiwani should ideally take place over two days. Songo Mnara is 12 kilometres from the mainland so remember to bring a book as the internet reception dies a few kilometres out. Kilwa Kisiwani is just a fifteen minute boat ride from the harbour at Kilwa Masoko and should definitely be the second of the two places you visit. The Kilwa Information Centre, situated at the main market in Kilwa Masoko, is your go to place for arranging for a guide and paying the entrance fees at the antiquities office down the road. All in all we ended up paying 70$ for the Kilwa trip and $140 for the Songo Mnara trip (for two people) which seemed steep but was confirmed by the Lonely Planet as being the correct amount.
For more information on organising a trip you can call the Kilwa Information Office on +255715463029 or visit their website www. kilwatourism.com
Bandas at Kilwa Dreams cost $90 a night, can accomodate up to three people and can be reserved through their website
www.kilwadreams.com or by phoning Gladys, the owner, on +255 784 585 330