Songo Mnara

Exploring the Ruins of Kilwa

When you think of visiting an old historical UNESCO World Heritage Site located on a Tanzanian island, what comes to mind?

I am pretty sure…Stone Town, Zanzibar!

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.

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I first heard of the Kilwa Sultinate, many years ago in 10th grade African history class.

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.

The perfect opportunity presented itself not too long ago, when a man I was seeing told me about an amazing solo trip he had taken to Kilwa a couple of months before we started dating.

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?

In the 10th century, according to legend, a Shirazi prince (from present-day Iran) arrived on an island off the southern coast of present-day Tanzania.

He was the son of the Emir of Shiraz and an Abyssinian enslaved woman (Abyssinia was part of present-day Ethiopia), and the island he landed on was Kilwa Kisiwani, or the island of Kilwa.

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.

He reportedly bought the island of Kilwa from the local authorities for an amount of cloth equal to the circumference of the island, and the rest is, quite literally, history.

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.

Kilwa controlled the Indian Ocean trade between Africa, Arabia, and India.

What was Kilwa trading?

From the interior of Africa, Kilwa traded gold, iron, ivory & other animal products, as well as people in the form of slaves.

From Asia, the trade involved beads, textiles, jewelry, porcelain, and spices.

In 1331, Ibn Battuta, the well-travelled Moroccan scholar visited Kilwa. Of it, he wrote:

“The city of Kilwa is amongst the most beautiful of cities and elegantly built."

To put his praise in context, Ibn Battuta’s travels spanned as far as North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and China.

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

Kilwa Kisiwani, along with an island 8 kilometers away, Songo Mnara, is the home of a UNESCO world heritage site known as “The Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Ruins of Songo Mnara".

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 ruins of Songo Mnara are less grand than those at Kilwa Kiswani but are still of historical interest because of the extent of the ruins.

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.

To give you an idea of what there is to see in Kilwa, here are some pictures I shared on Instagram after my trip there.

So now that you know about Kilwa Kisiwani, what are Kilwa Masoko and Kilwa Kivinje?

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.

While I was in Kilwa, I stayed at the Kilwa Pakaya Hotel (and recommend it highly). You can find a selection of accommodation in Kilwa Masoko here, or check out the deals below.

Kilwa Kivinje

Kilwa Kivinje, located 25 km north of Kilwa Masoko, is a slow sleepy town whose claim to fame is that it became the main slave trade hub after the fall of Kilwa Kisiwani.

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?

Kilwa Masoko, which is where you most likely want to head to when you are visiting Kilwa, is located on Tanzania’s southern coast, in the region of Lindi, approximately 300 km south of Dar es Salaam.

Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara are each located 2 km and 15 km from Kilwa Masoko, respectively, across Kilwa Masoko Bay. See the map below for a clearer picture.

map of the three Kilwas

How do you get to Kilwa Masoko?

To get to Kilwa Masoko, you can drive from Dar es Salaam or get there by plane or bus.

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.)

Buses from Dar es Salaam to Kilwa depart from the Rangi Tatu bus stand in the neighbourhood of Mbagala.

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.

Coastal Aviation flies between Kilwa and Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, or Mafia Island, as long as there are at least 4 passengers travelling (or equivalent seats sold).

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?

Kilwa Kivinje is only a 20-minute drive from Kilwa Masoko, and no permit is needed to visit the historical sites there.

You can easily catch a public minibus, known in Tanzania as a dala-dala, to get there.

Alternatively, you can organize a tour through a Kilwa tour operator such as Kilwa Islands Tour. Then again, you can also just inquire at your hotel!

Final Thoughts on Visiting Kilwa

I personally enjoyed visiting Kilwa very much, and just like Lushoto, I wonder why more people, especially those already in Tanzania, do not visit 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,

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Photo Credit: UNESCO

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