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The city of Kilwa
Garden Cities: Rise and Fall


Swahili mosques and tombs before the 18th century had a style quite unique to the Swahili and independent of Arabia. Doors of houses were, and still are, ornately carved. There was a very large population of craftsmen, working in wood, stone and metal. The ruling classes (the Sultan, his family, and government officials) lived in large houses, some several stories high. Their plates were porcelain and came from China.


One of the greatest cities was  Kilwa. Situated on an island very close to the mainland, Kilwa had by the 13th century broken the hold that Mogadishu had on the gold trade. By the 14th century it was the most powerful city on the coast. The Moroccan scholar and writer, Ibn Battuta, describes the Sultan of Kilwa being both gracious and kind. He also describes him making regular raids into the interior and looting the settlements of people there. Kilwa is now in ruins.

Early Times
"Of the original people who built Kilwa Kisiwani, the first were of the Mtakata tribe, the second the people of Jasi from the Mranga tribe. Then came Mrimba and his people. This Mrimba was of the Machinga tribe and he settled at Kisiwani."
Oral tradition.
16th Century
"The city comes down to the shore, and is entirely surrounded by a wall and towers, within which there are maybe 12,000 inhabitants. The country all round is very luxurious with many trees and gardens of all sorts of vegetables, citrons, lemons, and the best sweet oranges that were ever seen… The streets of the city are very narrow, as the houses are very high, of three and four stories, and one can run along the tops of them upon the terraces… and in the port there were many ships. A moor ruled over this city, who did not possess more country than the city itself."
Gaspar Correa describing Vasco da Gama's arrival in Kilwa.
17th Century
"The woods are full of orange, lemon, citron, palm trees and of a large variety of good fruit trees. The islands grow millet, rice, and have large groves of sugarcane, but the islanders do not know what to do with it."
Franciscan friar, Gaspar de Santo Berndino account on visiting in 1606.
18th Century
"We the King of Kilwa, Sultan Hasan son of Sultan Ibrahim son of Sultan Yusuf the Shirazi of Kilwa, give our word to M. Morice, a French National, that we will give him a thousand slaves annually at twenty piastres each and that he shall give the King a present of two piastres for each slaves. No other but he shall be allowed to trade for slaves…"
Slave treaty between French trader and Sultan of Kilwa, dated 1776.
19th Century
"the town of Quiloa [Kilwa], [was] once a place of great importance, and the capital of an extensive kingdom, but is now a petty village. The greatness of Quiloa…was irrecoverably gone. The very touch of the Portuguese was death. It drooped never to recover…

Like other cities then on this coast, said to be flourishing and populous, it sunk from civilization, wealth and power into insignificance, poverty and barbarism."
James Prior, surgeon on the frigate Nisus, visiting Kilwa as part of a hydrographical survey of the western Indian Ocean.

All excerpts from East African Coast, Selected Documents.


The Portuguese came on the scene in 1498 when they sailed round the southern tip of Africa and went north up the East African coast. Just five years later, they began a relentless campaign to subjugate local rulers and take control of the trade in gold, textiles, spices and ivory. They did an immense amount of damage to some of these cities, pounding them with their guns to force their Sultans to give tributes to the King of Portugal. The first place to be attacked was Zanzibar in 1503; two years later Kilwa and Mombasa were attacked and looted.

"Then everyone started to plunder the town and to search the houses, forcing open the doors with axes and iron bars…A large quantity of rich silk and gold embroidered clothes was seized, and carpets also; one of these was without equal for beauty, was sent to the King of Portugal together with many other valuables."
Eye witness account of the sack of Mombasa by Francisco d'Almeida and Hans Mayr. Taken from East African, Coast, Selected Documents.

Mombasa suffered the greatest damage as its Sultan refused to give in to the Portuguese. In 1599, the Portuguese completed their largest fortress in Mombasa, Fort Jesus, which still stands today.