Kilwa Kisiwani Begins Economic and Historical Decline

Kilwa Kisiwani, once the most powerful and lucrative center of East Africa’s oceanic trade, began an economic and historical decline probably caused by the Black Death in many parts of the world and a regression of gold reserves and value.

Summary of Event

Kilwa Kisiwani (or, simply, Kilwa) ranks among the greatest and most famous ports on the Swahili coast. According to the Kilwa Chronicles (c. 1550), in the ninth century a coastal east African inhabitant of the area that came to be known as Kilwa exchanged the island with ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan for some luxury items. Al-Ḥasan was a wealthy trader who claimed to be from Persia and was the celebrated founder of the Shirazi Dynasty Shirazi Dynasty . [kw]Kilwa Kisiwani Begins Economic and Historical Decline (1333)
[kw]Kisiwani Begins Economic and Historical Decline, Kilwa (1333)
Kilwa Kisiwani
Africa;1333: Kilwa Kisiwani Begins Economic and Historical Decline[2760]
Economics;1333: Kilwa Kisiwani Begins Economic and Historical Decline[2760]
Trade and commerce;1333: Kilwa Kisiwani Begins Economic and Historical Decline[2760]
ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan
Abū al-Mawāhib al-Ḥasan bin Sulaimān
Dād bin al-Ḥasan

Al-Ḥasan and his descendants built a large mosque in Kilwa fostering the growth of a Muslim community. Ḥasan and his ministers also established trade Trade;Kilwa Kisiwani
Africa;trade links with many nearby empires, including Great Zimbabwe in southeastern Africa and reaching as far as eastern Asia. Kilwa became exceptionally wealthy through the trade of iron, gold, and ivory in exchange for spices, jewelry, and textiles from India, China, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, and the Mediterranean region.

By the fourteenth century under Abū al-Mawāhib Abū al-Mawāhib al-Hasan bin Salaimān of the Mahdali Dynasty Mahdali Dynasty , Kilwa became the dominant trade city in the East African coastal region that stretched southward to what is now called Mozambique and northward to Somalia. Kilwa’s geographical location made it a safe harbor on which to land, and its location was strategically close to several important resources such as gold mines and even elephants, all of which contributed to the city’s unprecedented wealth in the early fourteenth century.

Kilwa became known to the outside world through documents recorded in several legendary visits. The first published account of a visit, in 1331, was from the celebrated Muslim explorer Ibn Baṭṭūṭah Ibn Baṭṭūṭah , sometimes described as the Marco Polo of Islam because of his extensive explorations. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was amazed by the great wealth and beauty of Kilwa. He commented particularly on the stone carvings and tapestries found in the homes of the wealthy. It was during Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s visit from the western Sahara to East Africa’s coast that Abū al-Mawāhib Abū al-Mawāhib , known as the giver of gifts, was in power. Within two years of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s visit, Dād bin al-Ḥasan Dā՚ūd bin al-Ḥasan , al-Mawāhib’s brother, came to power.

During the reign of Dād, Kilwa’s commercial economy went through a period of serious decline. Building projects such as the Husuni Kubwa palace were abandoned and maintenance of the central mosque, for Friday prayers, fell into decline, indicating that the political leadership could no longer afford opulent living.

Scholars list several reasons for Kilwa’s economic decline. The gold Gold;trade in trade from the south seems to have slipped out of Kilwa’s control and, simultaneously, international markets declined with the Black Death Black Death . The Black Death affected large parts of Europe and Asia, which caused disruptions in commercial exchange at the international level. Furthermore, without total domination of gold transfer from Zimbabwe and Sofala to the outside world, Kilwa’s wealth was greatly diminished during Dād’s reign.

Dād lived closer to the population than did his predecessors because of Kilwa’s decline in wealth. Yet despite his close connection with the people, Dād was memorialized as less than generous in comparison with his brother, likely because the economic downturn affected how the population of Kilwa viewed Dād. Under Dād, international circumstances created the decline in demand for gold, which had reached unparalleled levels in the history of the Kilwa city-state under the leadership of al-Mawāhib. The wealth of Kilwa was shared with the impoverished, the foreign, and all those in need. By the time of Dād’s reign, Kilwa’s commercial importance had contracted dramatically; Kilwa shifted from a leading site of trade to a remote spot on the coast.


By the early fifteenth century, Kilwa experienced a resurgent period of extensive, but modest, building. In particular, homes and small mosques were fashioned from stone and coral rag (a mixture of coral and lime to create a sturdy cement). The early fifteenth century saw the construction of what is known today as “typical traditional” Swahili stone houses. The homes of the early 1400’s served as ideal models among coastal east Africans in Kilwa and farther up and down the coast. Architecture;Africa

Commercial development brought great wealth to Kilwa in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but by the late fifteenth century, the commercial base and networks of Kilwa brought the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvars Cabral (1467 or 1468-1520) to Kilwa, which marked a new era of political pressure for the city. Cabral was amazed by the beautiful houses made of coral. The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) also visited the city and left with stories of beauty and riches. These men carried their reports home. Soon thereafter, the Portuguese took Kilwa by force, gaining complete control of the island by 1505. They intended to take complete control of Indian Ocean trade through this campaign.

Kilwa has been described as the “best built” settlement and “the pearl of Africa.” The two most important structures of Dād’s era are Husuni Kubwa and Husuni Ndogo, both of which remained unfinished as a result of the declining economy faced by Dād in the fourteenth century. Despite the fact that these structures were never completed, the vision that the building of these structures represents stands as a testament to Kilwa’s earlier thriving economy and culture.

Further Reading

  • Bahn, Paul G. Lost Cities. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1997. A book about various great cities around the world that have declined or become extinct. Contains a section on Kilwa in its greater splendor.
  • Chittick, Neville. Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast. Nairobi, Kenya: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1974. An archaeological perspective on the material culture and history of Kilwa’s trade, as well as the Islamic influence along the Swahili coast. Includes maps and floor plans of important buildings.
  • Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. The Medieval History of the Coast of Tanganyika with Special Reference to Recent Archaeological Discoveries. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1962. Recounts the medieval history of Kilwa and includes genealogical charts with names of ruling families.
  • Ibn Baṭṭūṭah. Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa. Translated and edited by H. A. R. Gibb. 4 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1958-2000. This careful, amply annotated translation is by far the most important English-language source of information on the man and his milieu. Gibb’s introduction and notes offer useful historical background.
  • Pouwels, Randall L. “The East African Coast, c. 780-1900 C.E.” In The History of Islam in Africa, edited by Nehemia Levzion and Randall Pouwels. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. Details the Islamic history of coastal east Africa. Covers the history of commerce, architecture, and culture on the Swahili coast and discusses important dates, persons, and events in Swahili history. Includes maps of Kilwa and photos of Kilwa’s Great Mosque.
  • Sutton, John. A Thousand Years of East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1990. Archaeology of east Africa, with a discussion of Kilwa. This book pays particular attention to the history of architecture and religion in Kilwa and its Great Mosque.