The Kilwa Sultanate began in the 10th century. Ali ibn al-Hassan was once the son of Emir of Shiraz and an Abyssinian slave. Caught in an inheritance fight along with his six brothers, Ali fled his homeland along with his Persian entourage. He settled on the island, then inhabited by the indigenous Bantu, and began constructing his own metropolis.
Legend claims that he purchased Kilwa from a local king, who exchanged it for enough fabric to encircle the island. The king swiftly changed his mind, but Ali had thought ahead and had ensured that the slim land bridge that linked Kilwa to the mainland had been destroyed.
Ali’s Shirazi dynasty dominated until a succession dispute in 1277, after which the allied Mahdali sultans took over. During these first three centuries, a few of the buildings, whose ruins live on, were developed.
Construction on the Great Mosque, the oldest in the region, started in the 1100s and it was extended repeatedly afterwards. With an ornate roof comprised of sixteen domes, supported by an astonishingly problematic method of arches and pillars it is a stunning piece of ancient architecture. The central dome, that no longer exists, was the largest in East Africa up until the 19th century.
The majority of the island’s ruins date from the 14th and early 15th centuries, when the sultanate was at the peak of its power. Kilwa had become a capital of trade on the Indian Ocean, and its wealthier citizens commissioned the construction of lavish homes.
The Great House is thought to have belonged to the sultan, who is said to be buried in one of the four tombs. The Makutini Palace, built in the 15th century was the sultan’s stronghold, the most imposing building on the island, its triangular construction made it almost impregnable to invaders.
The Husuni Kubwa or ‘Queen’s House’ is, quite possibly the most beautiful and striking building that you will come across in Kilwa Kisiwani. Sat on a cliff, it sits about a mile away from the rest of the Kilwa Kisiwani ruins, and is thought to be the biggest pre-colonial building in sub-Saharan Africa. Inside, there are the remains of an 18-domed mosque, an octagonal swimming pool, an array of courtyards and a tiered hall.