Trading Center of Kilwa Kisiwani Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After its founding by ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan, Kilwa Kisiwani became the dominant trading center of the Indian Ocean and East African coastal regions. It was supported by a safe and economically strategic geographical location close to abundant natural resources such as gold and was the main endpoint for trade products ready for export from the interior of Africa.

Summary of Event

Although the exact date for the founding of Kilwa Kisiwani (or, simply, Kilwa) by ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan remains unknown, scholars of the region accept the twelfth century as a likely time frame in which Kilwa became established as a dominant center in Indian Ocean trade economies. [kw]Trading Center of Kilwa Kisiwani Founded (12th century) [kw]Kilwa Kisiwani Founded, Trading Center of (12th century) Kilwa Kisiwani Trade;Africa Africa;12th cent.: Trading Center of Kilwa Kisiwani Founded[1790] Economics;12th cent.: Trading Center of Kilwa Kisiwani Founded[1790] Trade and commerce;12th cent.: Trading Center of Kilwa Kisiwani Founded[1790] ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan

According to the first chapter of the Kilwa Chronicles (c. 1550), which recounts the history of Kilwa from its beginnings until first contact with the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century, ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan ՙAlī bin al-Ḥasan acquired political control of the city by providing a local Swahili chieftain with lengths of colored cloth.

Much legend surrounds the personage of al-Ḥasan and his origins. Popular perceptions hold that he was from a royal family from Shīrāz in Persia. According to most accounts, al-Ḥasan and six of his brothers were ordered to leave Persia by their father after he had a dream of a rat eating through a city wall that he interpreted as the ruin of his family unless they fled Persia. Sailing from Persia, al-Ḥasan landed on the African continent and eventually purchased Kilwa in the twelfth century, while his remaining six brothers established other cities in the same manner in eastern Africa. Whether these oral accounts are exact representations of the course of events in al-Ḥasan’s life is debated, but it is accepted that al-Ḥasan was an actual person who existed and ruled in Kilwa.

Al-Ḥasan established Kilwa as one of the premier trading cities on the East African coast. The wealth of the city rested on the trade of primarily ivory and gold. To the south of Kilwa was the state of Great Zimbabwe Great Zimbabwe , which had vast amounts of gold attractive to outsiders. The gold Gold;Africa that was mined in the area of Great Zimbabwe was taken from the interior to the coast to the city of Sofala from which it was sent northward to Kilwa. Once it reached Kilwa, the gold was sent to other parts of the world, specifically to the governments and elites of Europe and the Middle East via sailing ships. Kilwa also exported slaves. although they were never as important economically as gold and ivory. Of secondary importance to the sea route was a land route that stretched from the coast of the continent nearest the island of Kilwa down to Lake Nyasa with its terminus at Great Zimbabwe. Slavery;Africa Africa;slavery

In exchange for gold, ivory, and slaves, Kilwa received textiles, jewelry, spices, and some of the gold that came from Great Zimbabwe. By the thirteenth century, all of the wealth that the city accumulated made Kilwa the most powerful city on the East African Coast. It was during Kilwa’s golden years that a Moroccan traveler Travel by land;Ibn Baṭṭūṭah[Ibn Battutah] and writer, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah Ibn Baṭṭūṭah , visited and was so impressed by the city that he considered it one of the most beautiful he had ever seen. So enormous was the wealth of Kilwa when Baṭṭūṭah visited in 1331, it became the first urban center in sub-Saharan Africa to mint and issue coins.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the coffers of Kilwa were so full that the city undertook a major renovation of the Great Mosque, its most holy Islamic place of worship. Additions were made to the mosque that increased it to four times its original size. Although major additions or renovations were never again undertaken, the mosque remained the dominant focal point of everyday life in Kilwa until the eventual decline of the city beginning in the sixteenth century.

Like most wealthy cities and societies throughout history, the wealth of Kilwa found its way into the hands of a small percentage of the population. The wealthy citizens of Kilwa could afford large and majestic stone houses, while the vast majority of Kilwa’s citizens had homes of wood, earth, and thatch. Buildings made from materials of the earth degrade and require continual repair. On average a commoner’s house in Kilwa was completely rebuilt every ten years. Thus the architecture of Kilwa reveals a picture of the social stratification of the urban center during its height of its wealth and power. Architecture;Africa Africa;architecture


The island and city of Kilwa became an urban center and port of economic and political empowerment during the twelfth century. The city was crucial to the gold, ivory, and textile trade because of its location, which allowed Kilwa to have close connections with the Indian Ocean world. Kilwa’s ability to dominate another nearby city, Sofala, afforded it great wealth as it controlled an excess of gold resources. Kilwa was also able to trade with China, which exported glass beads and Chinese porcelain to the western Indian Ocean.

The merchants involved in the Kilwa trade, foreign and internal, made large profits off the high value of the imports. The city of Kilwa worked to bring goods from the interior of the continent out to the coast to ship to other nearby countries. This caused the interior countries to rely heavily on Kilwa for their own trading. Kilwa took advantage of this reliance and imposed and demanded high customs duties and large taxes on the gold trade, becoming not only wealthy but also autonomous in the process. Taxation;Africa Africa;taxation

Kilwa was also involved in the lucrative spice trade. Spices were very important to the region, mainly because they helped preserve foods, and included cloves, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and saffron. The Portuguese sought to control the spice trade along the Swahili coast in order to circumvent and undermine the Asian domination of this trade to Europe, leading to Kilwa’s decline in the sixteenth century. The once-thriving trade center is now a small village.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chittick, Neville. Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast. Nairobi, Kenya: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1974. A historical reference book that recounts the history of Kilwa’s trade as well as the Islamic influence within the area. Also displays maps and floor plans of particular and important buildings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliver, Roland, and J. D. Fage. The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A historical account of African civilizations from about 1050 to about 1600.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, Michael N. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998. A discussion of the major economic, social, and religious interchanges that took place on the Swahili coast and how Portugal’s intrusion affected that interchange.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutton, John. A Thousand Years of East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1990. A discussion of Kilwa’s history, with special attention paid to religion in Kilwa and the Great Mosque.

Categories: History