Blog Post

New Door at Kilwa Kisiwani Marks Completion of Preservation Project

The installation of a new carved door marks the completion of preservation work at the Portuguese gereza, or fort, at Kilwa Kisiwani in southern Tanzania. The project commenced in late 2009 with a grant from WMF’s Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Preserve Our Heritage. Preservation of the superstructure of the gereza was completed within 24 months, using materials such as lime, sand, and coral-limestone sourced from the local area, and employing a workforce of skilled craftspeople drawn from nearby towns and villages. But manufacture of the new door proved a more challenging proposition.

Replacing an original with a replica is not normally an option in a preservation project, but in this instance the condition of the original timber door, which dates from early nineteenth century, left little choice. The fort was originally built by the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century right on the edge of the shoreline, the better to dominate the thriving Swahili port of that era. In the early eighteenth century, the Omani Arabs, with their capital at Zanzibar, finally defeated the Portuguese in East Africa, and it was the Omanis who later extended the fort and installed the new door. Richard Burton visited Kilwa Kisiwani in 1859, before his epic journey to discover the source of the Nile, and left a description of the fort. According to him the decaying inscription on the lintel at the top of the door bore the date 23 Muharram, AH 1231, or December 25, 1815. Strandes, who visited the town several years earlier, read the date as 23 Muharram, AH 1222 or April 2, 1807. What is clear is that the door is ancient, perhaps the second-oldest in East Africa, and by the mid-nineteenth century was already starting to decay.

At high tide the base of the most forward tower of the fort is submerged by the sea, and erosion of the building’s foundations and surrounding coastline is one of the most serious threats to the site. Two hundred years of salt-laden wind have had a disastrous effect on the hardwood from which the door is made. Most of the structure has already disappeared, bleached of its natural resins by the sun and sea spray, and eaten away from the inside by rot and insects. In addition to this, practitioners of local medicine occasionally removed small segments of wood from the door to use in manufacture of traditional aphrodisiacs (Dawa ya Mapenzi). Repairing the door in situ was no longer feasible, and in any event would not solve the problem of exposure to the elements and human interference. Reluctantly the decision was made by the Antiquities Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism to ask WMF to remove the original door for preservation at the National Museum in Dar-es-Salaam, and to replace it with a replica.

The decision to replace the door was made easier by the survival of sufficient information to make creation of a near-perfect replica possible. A section of original door post was still in place, providing a guide for recreating the carving around the door, a typical feature of doors from the region. In addition, research in archives turned up a number of photographs of the door taken in the 1930s and 1960s, and these clearly showed the style and wording of the original inscription at the top of the door. The project architect, Pierre Blanchard, used this information to make full-size drawings for the carpenter to follow. Logging of hardwood is no longer permitted in Tanzania, and special permission had to be obtained from the government to log a single tree from a forest in the far south of the country from which the new door could be made. Timber carving has gone through a renaissance in Tanzania over the past 20 years, and the commission for the new door was given to one of the leading practitioners of the craft in Dar-es-Salaam.

The result of this effort is plain to see. The new door is both a masterpiece of wood-carving and a significant step in the sustainable preservation of one of East Africa’s most significant historic structures.

Benefit for the Community

The standing ruins at Kilwa Kisiwani, a World Heritage Site, of which the Portuguese gereza is just one element, are surrounded by a modern village. Decisions the inhabitants take every day have a direct bearing on its survival. In this respect, ensuring that the inhabitants of Kilwa Kisiwani, most of whom live on very low incomes even by Tanzanian standards, benefit from the heritage in their midst is essential.

At the commencement of the project, a village meeting was convened by the Antiquities Division to introduce the project, and ask the inhabitants to decide how to spend a percentage of project funds set aside for the village. Their unanimous decision was to re-roof two classrooms at the village school that had previously leaked so much they had become unusable during the rains. Of the total grant of $95,000, over $7,000 was spent on the school. In addition, most of the skilled and unskilled labor force employed for the project is from the Kilwa area. A further $34,000 was injected into the local economy through salaries. Almost all materials were sourced locally, and when combined with salary payments, this means that considerably more than 50% of the total project budget was injected into the local economy at Kilwa. In total, over 75% of the total project budget was spent in Tanzania.