When you think of visiting an old historical UNESCO World Heritage Site located on a Tanzanian island, what comes to mind?
What if I told you that there is another place in Tanzania that fits the exact same description—a place with a history that goes back further than Stone Town and which, at its height, was of even greater global importance?
It’s true, I tell you. That place, Kilwa, is what I would like to tell you about today.
As a Tanzanian, I was very surprised to learn that such a civilization had existed in my country and that I was only hearing about it for the first time in my mid-teens.
I lived in the Côte d’Ivoire, at the time, so didn’t pursue it much further.
Instead, I internalized that the ruins of Kilwa were still standing today and made a mental note to find out more one day, when I was older and in Tanzania.
He’d had such a great time there that he suggested we go back together so I could experience it for myself. So we did.
Before I go on and tell you about my experience of Kilwa, perhaps I should begin by telling you about the ancient Kilwa Sultinate so that you understand what all the fuss is about.
What was the Kilwa Sultanate?
What had brought him to Kilwa, and who he was with when he got there, is subject to much debate. Suffice it to say that the prince was looking for a new place to settle down and stay.
Within a few hundred years, the Kilwa Sultanate was the most important power on the Swahili Coast with its authority stretching as far north as Malindi in Kenya and as far south as Sofala in Mozambique, with trading posts across the Mozambique Channel in Madagascar.
What was Kilwa trading?
“The city of Kilwa is amongst the most beautiful of cities and elegantly built."
Of the people of Kilwa, the scholar wrote:
“The majority of its inhabitants are Zanj, jet black in color, and with tattoo marks on their faces."
Although the origin story of the Kilwa Sultanate involved foreign princes, the civilization that arose therafter was truly an African one.
Now that you know about the history of Kilwa, perhaps a more relevant question for you today is…
What is there to see in present-day Kilwa?
To answer that question, let me first clarify: today, ‘Kilwa’ can refer to any of three places: Kilwa Kisiwani (the ‘island of Kilwa’), Kilwa Masoko (‘Kilwa of the markets’), and Kilwa Kivinje (‘Kilwa of the Casuarina trees’).
Luckily, all three Kilwas are located close to each other in the present-day district of Kilwa, on the southern coast of Tanzania.
The center of the Kilwa Sultinate was located on Kilwa Kisiwani, the island of Kilwa, so this is the Kilwa of greatest interest to most travelers to the region.
Kilwa Kisiwani, the Island of Kilwa
On the island of Kilwa, you can see ruins that include what used to be the largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa until the 16th century, a palace that featured 100 rooms and an 80,000-liter octagonal bathing pool, a big fort, and lots more.
To see these ruins also involves sailing across the beautiful blue waters of the Kilwa Kisiwani Harbour from Kilwa Masoko on the mainland.
The Songo Mnara ruins lay out a plan of a 15th-century walled Swahili stone town and give a good idea of the physical arrangement of what such a town looked like.
View this post on Instagram
The Kilwa Sultanate was a medieval Sultanate whose authority at its height stretched all along the Swahili (East African) Coast. This picture was taken as I sailed to Kilwa Kisiwani, the Island of Kilwa (and center of the Kilwa Sultanate) from Kilwa Masoko (mainland Kilwa), looking back at Kilwa Pakaya Hotel, where I was staying. Can you see the boat from my last instagram picture on the shore? 🙂
View this post on Instagram
This house, now in ruins, found on the Island of Kilwa, was built by Neville Chittick, a British archaeologist who pioneered the study and conservation of the ancient settlement of Kilwa. He used this house as a base when he worked there. Chittick was Tanzania's first Conservator of Antiquities. He led teams of researchers in training and excavation programs in Kilwa from 1958 to 1965. He helped to develop a strong tradition of archeological study in Tanzania.
Kilwa Masoko, the Present-Day Town of Kilwa
Kilwa Masoko (‘Kilwa of the markets’), as its name suggests, is the present-day town of Kilwa.
There is not much of historical interest in Kilwa Masoko, but this is where you’ll likely have to stay when you are visiting Kilwa because there is no commercial accommodation on the island of Kilwa itself.
Once the slave trade was abolished, Kilwa Kivinje became a colonial German garrison town to suppress an anti-colonial rebellion known as the Maji Maji Uprising.
The ruins of Kilwa Kivinje are of touristic interest because of the mix of Omani and German architecture left behind by the town’s previous inhabitants, as well as historical sites related to the Maji Maji uprising.
The remains of many of the buildings in Kilwa Kivinje are not in very good condition, though, and do not form part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To get an idea of what you can expect to find in Kilwa Kivinje, watch this short video.
Now that you know what there is to see in Kilwa and why it is of any importance, let’s turn to the logistics of visiting Kilwa.
Where exactly is Kilwa?
How do you get to Kilwa Masoko?
Personally, I drove there and it was an easy 6-hour drive over good tarmac road. (If you are interested in renting a car from Dar es Salam for this journey, check out available car rentals here.)
There are daily buses and minibuses, and you can expect to pay approximately 13,000 Tanzanian shillings for the journey.
Buses depart in the morning between 5:30 a.m. and noon.
I would recommend that you buy your ticket the day before you travel (though you do not have to). For a safe and comfortable bus, travel with Swahili Bus.
Flying to Kilwa
Kilwa Masoko is served by an airstrip that is 2 km north of the town.
You can find out more about prices and flight schedules to and from Kilwa on Coastal Aviation’s website.
Once in Kilwa Masoko, how do you get to Kilwa Kisiwani?
The easiest way to visit the Kilwa ruins is to organize the excursion through your hotel (that’s what I did).
Alternatively, you could organize this yourself.
To do so, first, you would need to get a permit to visit the ruins from the Antiquities Division in Kilwa Masoko (a permit for the day costs Tsh. 2,000 for Tanzanians & Tanzanian residents and Tsh. 27,000 for foreigners).
Once you’ve got your permit, you then need to organize transportation to either or both islands.
To do this, head to Kilwa Masoko port.
There you’ll be able to hire a boat to take you to any of the nearby islands.
You can expect to pay Tsh. 15,000-20,000 for a return trip to Kilwa Kisiwani on a dhow (a local sailboat), and about Tsh. 35,000 for a motorboat.
The prices to Songo Mnara should be about double that.
Although the ruins of Kilwa are well documented in both English and Swahili, it is still a good idea to get a guide to take you from one historical site to another and give you interesting tidbits all the while. A guide should cost Tsh. 15,000-20,000 per group.
If you do opt to organize your excursions yourself, note that the Antiquities Division is a government office and opens only on weekdays between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
How does one get to Kilwa Kivinje?
You can easily catch a public minibus, known in Tanzania as a dala-dala, to get there.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Kilwa
Although my main aim in visiting Kilwa was to see the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani, I was also pleasantly surprised to discover a very calm and relaxing water environment which would be a pleasure to visit in and of itself, even without the historical ruins.
You can go snorkeling and diving in Kilwa just like you can at most oceanside destinations in Tanzania, but what I personally appreciated about being Oceanside in Kilwa was the low level of tourist traffic—which is a very real phenomenon in Tanzania!
Will you be visiting Kilwa any time soon? If you have been to Kilwa before, is there anything else you would like to share with would-be travelers there? If so, let me know by leaving me a comment below.
Until the next time,
P.S. Are you a blogger or website owner who would like to earn more revenue through display ads on your site? If so, check out this free Google-certified service that helps you to do just that!
P.P.S. Do you have a product, service, establishment, or event that you would like to spread the word about online? If so, this is how I can help you do that.
P.P.P.S. Enjoyed this post? If so, why not subscribe to my blog to get an alert whenever I publish a new post? You can subscribe by email here. Do you think others would be interested in learning about the ruins of Kilwa? If so, why not share this post with your friends and followers on social media? Last but not least, you are welcome to refer to this post on your own website but, if you do, please remember to link back here. Thank you! 🙂
Photo Credit: UNESCO