Africa's Marketplace

Kilwa Kisiwani, located on the southern coast of today’s Tanzania, is a prime example of how city-states in Africa developed and became wealthy while maintaining sovereignty. These city-states served as a gateway for trade between the East African coast and the broader world. However, global currents did not drown out local custom.

At its zenith, Kilwa was a flourishing cultural, political, and commercial hub showcasing all that East Africa had to offer, but it was not alone. A number of other city-states spanned Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, including Lamu, Mafia, and Zanzibar. These city-states formed the Swahili civilization and controlled the East African coast from the 9th to18th century.


The socialization that took place between diverse traders, ranging from as far as Egypt and Persia, and indigenous communities, coalesced over time into the unique Swahili culture and language, giving the region its moniker of the “Swahili Coast.” These Swahili city-states were proximate both culturally and geographically, sharing a lingua franca and a religion. Arab merchants introduced Islam to the region, where it was willingly adopted over time. A unified Swahili kingdom was never formed and the city-states maintained their autonomy, though at times a single sultan would rule more than one city-state.

Kilwa, 1572
O. Mustafin
National Museum of Tanzania

Hand-drawn map from the middle ages of the 12 km2 island of Kilwa Kiswani.

By the 12th century, Kilwa was one of the bigger and more prosperous city-states in the region. The culture in Kilwa, like most East African city-states, was cosmopolitan, with the people speaking Swahili, practicing Islam, and trading with Arabs and Persians.

Great Mosque of Kilwa Kisiwani
Richard Mortel

The ruins of the Great Mosque of Kilwa on the Swahili Coast (modern Tanzania). Constructed during the reign of al Hasan ibn Suleiman (r. 1320-1333 CE).

Kilwa is home to the Great Mosque of Kilwa. This Mosque is one of the earliest surviving mosques on the east African coast. Likely built between 1131 and 1170, the mosque is in the same architectural style as many of the other buildings built in the area at the time. Notably, it was one of the first mosques that was built without a courtyard, and was unusually large for its time. The mosque was expanded and renovated in the hundred or so years after its initial construction, but in 1331 it was struck by an earthquake that caused most of the building to collapse. Now, the mosque is an archeological site, and was documented with 3D laser scanning technology between 2005 and 2009.


Before becoming city-states, East African agglomerations started off as fishing and agricultural communities. Eventually, merchants from neighboring villages started to exchange goods, these centers of exchange became wealthier, and gradually expanded into towns and cities. The city-states were sovereign, each with its own ruler and with complete control over the commercial activities within its territories. They controlled trade routes between the interior of Africa and the Indian Ocean, and ventured further afield to trade their wares in Persia, India, China, and Arabia.

The Swahili city-states were constantly vying for dominance over lucrative regional trade routes. Such jurisdictional competition resulted in not only the occasional outbreak of violence, but also in the imposition of a kind of market discipline over merchants. Kilwa was shaped over time by its heavy reliance on Indian Ocean trade as its main economic engine, selling ivory, gold, and slaves from deep in the continent’s interior, while importing glass, silk, and porcelain.


For most of its history, Kilwa was governed as an independent city-state that coexisted peacefully with its neighboring cities. Kilwa had its own sultan and royal family, as well as an elite class made up of religious, political, and military officials.

At its height in the 15th century, the sultans of Kilwa had expansionist ambitions; they started gaining political control over other Swahili cities like Mvita (Mombasa), Zanzibar, and even places across the Mozambique Channel in Madagascar. With the Mozambique Channel captured, Kilwa then turned to gaining control over gold mining in Zimbabwe, giving the city a secure and prosperous position.

governance changes

The historical record is scant on precisely how Kilwa was governed, but it is believed that each Swahili city was governed by a single ruler, titled as Sultan, who would nominate his successor. Additionally, the monarch was likely assisted by a council of advisors and judges, who came from Kilwa’s class of powerful, wealthy merchants. These merchants were often of mixed Arab-African ancestry and monopolized roles of political and religious leadership. Unfortunately for the people of Kilwa, though their institutions were enough to make them wealthy, they were not enough to protect them from the envy that wealth generates.

Cameron Wocke

In 1505 the portuguese port known as Gerezani was built by the soldiers of the army of the Viceroy of Portuguese India, Francisco de Almeida, to control the spice trade and secure their monopoly. The ruins stand to this day on the  islands’ northern coast.

Just as gold, silver, and wealth drove the Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors across Latin America, so too did Kilwa’s wealth attract the Portuguese, who took control of the city-state after besieging it in the 16th century. After it was abandoned by the Portuguese, it fell into the hands of the Omani rulers in 1698, which marked the beginning of the end for Kilwa. It went into decline and was abandoned by 1840 and was incorporated into the German Tanganyika in 1886.


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