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HISTORIC SITES OF KILWA
Lindi Region, Tanzania
The island of Kilwa Kisiwani is located in the south of Tanzania, a short boat ride from the mainland. It was once a thriving seaport; from the 11th century the sultans of Kilwa grew rich from control of the gold trade. Gold was mined at Great Zimbabwe far off in the interior, and carried by caravan and then by boat to Fatimid Cairo, passing through Kilwa on its way north. Kilwa grew in the 13th and 14th centuries and is mentioned by several early chroniclers. The most significant standing ruins from this period are the Great Mosque and the Palace at Husuni Kubwa. The Palace is unrivaled in East Africa for its architectural sophistication and splendor. Founded in the 14th century, the Great Mosque was, up until the 16th century, the largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1498, the Portuguese arrived in East Africa and quickly asserted control over the region’s trade. They built a fort at the edge of the town, which was completed in 1505.
HOW WE HELPED
Kilwa Fort was ravaged by the elements and threatened by rising sea levels. The fort was placed on WMF’s first Watch list in 1996; the historic sites on the island were placed on the 2008 Watch. In 2008 WMF began conservation work at the fort that will concentrate on stabilizing walls and preventing further deterioration of the structure. In addition, conservators will strengthen the building’s resilience to the effects of local climate conditions. One corner of the fort is lapped by the sea at high tide; recent cutting of mangrove forests has increased the erosive force of storm tides and the project will include replanting mangroves and shoring up coastal defenses. Training local craftspeople will be an important component of the project, developing skills and providing a source of income in the village.
In the summer of 2011, Kilwa and nearby Songo Mnara were awarded a grant from the U.S. State Department's Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. The $700,000 grant will go toward urgent conservation work on the surviving buildings and ruins, marine restoration to help allay coastal erosion, a sustainable management plan, and improving the living conditions of the inhabitants of the island.
WHY IT MATTERS
Kilwa Kisiwani is one of the most significant historic sites along the Swahili coast of East Africa. and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, together with its sister island of Songo Mnara. The standing ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani represent a slice through East African history, from the high point of the Swahili civilization through decline under Portuguese control to annexation by the Omani Empire based in Zanzibar. Structures survive from all of these periods, making Kilwa Kisiwani one of the foremost built-heritage sites in East Africa. Cultural tourism is an increasingly important source of income for the people of Kilwa Kisiwani and their neighbors on the mainland. Investment has already been made in improving visitor infrastructure on the island. Ongoing conservation projects at the fort and other structures will ensure that the site continues to play a significant role in the local economy.
World Monuments Fund and the U.S. State Department
Overseen by the U.S. Department of State, The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation supports the conservation of cultural sites in more than 120 developing countries around the world. By taking a leading role in preserving cultural legacies, the program illustrates America’s deep and enduring respect for the diversity embodied in our shared global heritage.World Monuments Fund has been fortunate to work closely with the State Department on several recent projects, highlighted in this brief video.
Conservation at Kilwa
The island of Kilwa Kisiwani is located in a large bay on the coast of southern Tanzania, a six-hour drive from the capital, Dar es Salaam. Reachable only by boat from the small mainland town of Kilwa Masoko, the island is home to extensive ruins dating from three different periods of occupation. The earliest standing ruins are from the eleventh century, when the first Sultanate was established at Kilwa by a Persian prince. Two important structures dating from this era still stand. The first is the Great Mosque, which was built in the fourteenth century and was once the largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa. The other is the palace at Husuni Kubwa, built between 1315 and 1330 and renowned for its spectacular pools and courtyards.
World Monuments Fund and UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Over the course of World Monuments Fund’s forty-seven-year history, many of our projects have been at UNESCO World Heritage sites. Our engagement has ranged from catalytic support, helping local groups prepare site for World Heritage inscription, to conservation work at sites already on the list. World Heritage cultural sites reflect the achievements of communities over time and this vast array of special places recognizes that our planets is filled with extraordinary sites that range from the humble and obscure to the grand and famous.