Long before Stone Town...
The ruins of the great mosque of Kisiwani loom out of the water as we set course across the open ocean. This must be the site that greeted Ibn Battouta the Moroccon explorer in 1331 when he visited these ruins and inspired him to deem this city the most beautiful he had ever visited. Kisiwani as is the nature of ruins, is a shadow of its former self, but this ancient city we are charting a course for hosts a fascinating story that encapsulates Arabic influence on this region and the development of modern Swahili culture.
For many people, a trip to the ancient region of Kilwa wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Kilwa Kisiwani. The ruins of Kisiwani are a UNESCO World Heritage site and draw history buffs from all around the world as they pay homage to what was once the seat of the most powerful sultanate on the East African Coast. At the height of its power between the 13th and 16th century much of the trade of the Indian ocean passed through this port. Amongst the most common items traded included silver, perfumes and Chinese porcelain, such was the influence of this trading port that during the 13th and 14th centuries Kisiwani even minted it’s own currency.
Nowadays a trip to this ancient port takes place in an afternoon on the Slow Leopard’s Bakora, fitted with an outboard motor and stocked with cold drinks and snorkelling equipment. This afternoon though all attention is on our local Kilwa Tourism guide who is extolling the virtues of this once glorious city. Our guide Dullah is a local of Kisiwani, local people continue to live and work on Kisiwani, mainly supporting themselves through fishing and subsistence farming. As we moor off and clamber aboard the island we find ourselves in the presence of Husuni Kubwa (the great palace) with its infinity pool (no longer functioning sadly) several bathing rooms and mosque.
Our guide Dullah is well practiced in his art, he answers any questions we have and explains the various architectural intricacies that we would undoubtedly have missed. What is perhaps most fascinating are the restoration efforts, UNESCO provides money for the maintenance of these sites as long as they are done in a manner which aligns with their original construction. Dullah talks us through a number of recent restoration efforts as we walk through the island exploring the scattered ruins.
A fierce afternoon sun is beating down and we are glad we have put this trip off until the late afternoon. Upon finishing the tour which took about 2.5 hours we board our boat back to Jimbiza beach, not before jumping off the side and cooling off a little. For many of us our understanding of the interaction between Islamic and Swahili culture is limited to what we picked up on our Stone Town city tours when we first arrived in Tanzania. Today we have learnt that long before Stone Town became the dominant trading post on this coastline the city of Kisiwani was the centre of this rich and complex relationship.
Kisiwani is described as a living ruin, throughout the walk we were met with young madras students reading out loud from their Koran's in amongst the ruins. Remarkably however we had seen no other tourists on our trip to the island, lending the experience an aura of authenticity and a sense of a genuine cultural experience. Tired, sunburnt and heads reeling from names we can’t fully remember we crack a beer and begin our slow cruise back, stopping only to take a few shots of the fort as it recedes into the distance.
For booking ruins trips to Kilwa Kisiwani get in contact with the Slow Leopard team at their Kilwa hostel. Trips can be organised on the spot for that very day and generally cost around 30-35 dollars boat trip and guide costs. There is an additional cost paid directly to your guide which covers the permit fee (28 000 TSH for Non-residents). Remember to bring a copy of your passport or photo for your permit, your guide will take down this information before the trip.