Kilwa and its ancient and powerful sultanate

This article is also available in: Italiano

The Sultanate of Kilwa was among the greatest naval powers in the Middle East and Africa, yet today only ruins remain

The words of Ibn Battuta

“Kilwa is located in a very rainy area and is a beautiful and well-built city, with all the wooden houses and the roofs in dis [giunco][rush]. The inhabitants, mostly of the Shafiite rite, honest and virtuous, are engaged in a jihad because their territory is adjacent to that of the wicked Zanj. ”

Ibn Battuta

The legendary origin of Kilwa

According to tradition, the first nucleus of Kilwa was founded by Ali ibn al Hassan Shirazi, son of the emir of Shiraz Hassan and of an Abyssinian slave. Precisely because of his birth, his stepbrothers’ inheritance was stolen and for this he was forced to flee to Africa, going to Mogadishu. The Somali city, however, did not welcome the fugitive, who in a short time was forced to take refuge even further south, going to the southern coasts of today’s Tanzania. Here the prince found Kilwa, at the time an island connected to the mainland by a very thin strip of land, and fell madly in love with it.


He managed to deal with the Bantu king of the time, Almuli, who sold him how much land he could occupy with colored cloth. Ali obviously used the ancient trick of cutting the fabric into very fine threads, which gave him the right to a huge piece of land, attracting criticism from the king. The latter tried to escape the promise given but, as soon as he arrived in front of Kilwa, he realized that the prince had had a moat dug, separating it forever from the mainland and giving life to his legend.

The lords of the sea

These “mythical” births served to legitimize the rulers of the island, who appeared as familiar to the locals and as princes of rank to foreigners, favoring their rapid expansion. In a very short time, in fact, Kilwa managed to become even more powerful and important than Mogadishu, attracting merchants from every corner of the world. The local economy prospered to such an extent that, within a few years, the sultanate the city also occupied the nearby island of Mafia, giving way to unprecedented expansion.


In the 12th century they came to conquer Sofala, a key place for the gold and ivory trade, then also taking cities such as: Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Mozambique, becoming de facto masters of the whole so-called “Swahili coast“. At that time Kilwa became so powerful and wealthy that he could afford the luxury of not producing his own food resources, going to buy any food from his Bantu neighbors, except for coconut.

The decline of the sultanate

As history teaches, the arrival of great powers comes with great tensions and internal strife, which also happened in the case of Kilwa. At the end of the 15th century, in fact, there were continuous internal unrest between the ruling family and other noble clans, which greatly weakened the country when the Portuguese arrived. The latter initially came with a collaboration agreement, which was refused, laying the foundations for a great military confrontation. The Lusitanians had long been planning to take over the coasts of Tanzania and Mozambique, the refusal did nothing but speed up their attack which materialized in 1505 with the arrival of Francisco Almeida, who quickly occupied the port of Kilwa.


Lisbon then installed a trusted man here, but he was quickly killed, giving way to ever stronger and more powerful political unrest. With the growth of the latter, the city was first sacked, but was freed in 1512 by an Arab mercenary. However, the looting forever altered its course of history, so much so that in 1784 it was conquered by the Sultanate of Oman and later by the French. With their arrival, however, the city was completely abandoned, so much so that today only ruins remain.

Follow us on our facebook page, Spotify, YouTube,Twitter and Instagram, or on our Telegram channel. Any like, sharing or support is welcome and helps us to dedicate ourselves more and more to our passion: telling the Middle East ..

Leave a Reply