Kilwa – meaning ‘Place of Fish’ – is the collective name given to three different areas on the Tanzanian coast: Kilwa Kisiwani, Kilwa Kivinje and Kilwa Masoko. Visitors come here to explore UNESCO-listed ruins that tell the story of centuries of coastal history.
Kilwa isn’t located on the usual tourist route, so the quality of accommodation isn’t as high, and apart from visiting the ruins there isn’t a great deal to do. However, travellers who want to learn a little more about the colourful history of this area will find it an adventurous addition to an off-beat itinerary.
Kilwa Kisiwani is an abandoned city filled with crumbling mosques, remnants of once glorious palaces, and ancient tombs. Said to be one of the most important-surviving relicts of the Islamic-influenced Swahili maritime trade, it’s quite rightly the main attraction for visitors to the area. The island can be reached by a short boat ride, and explored with a private guide for around US$50, including the entrance fee (which the guide will buy on your behalf from the Department of Antiquities). The trip takes at least half a day, or a full day if you want to combine it with Songo Mnara (see below).
According to local historians, the island was settled in the 11th century by Ali bin Al-Hasan of Persia, who ruled over the island for 40 years. The dynasty he founded was credited with having established Kilwa as a significant trade centre. Over the next two centuries, various successors ruled and were overthrown, but they built impressive coral-stone houses and lavish mosques – the remains of which can still be seen today.
When the Portuguese took over the coastline in 1505 they assumed control of Kilwa Kisiwani. They murdered the majority of the residents and replaced the Arab palaces with forts. Today, a small number of local fishermen live on the island, but for the most part it is deserted.
Kilwa Kivinje – a small town on the mainland – was once the southern centre of the slave trade with up to 20,000 slaves passing through annually and, consequently, it was very wealthy. Outlawed in 1873, the slave trade is still thought to have continued in Kilwa Kivinje until 1880. Afterwards, the Germans took over the town and used it as an administrative centre, but following the end of World War II the town gradually lost importance and today it is a small port. Travellers can visit the big fort with a cannon leftover from World War I, an old German market hall, as well as an attractive beach where you can watch the local fishermen. Very few people visit the area, so it provides an authentic insight into Tanzanian life.
The most modern of the three ‘Kilwas’, Kilwa Masoko is where most people base themselves to visit the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani. There is little of historical interest here, but Jimbizi Beach – where Kimbilio Hotel is situated – is pleasant enough for a day or two.