Monday, January 2, 2017

The Ruins of East Africa’s Greatest Empire

Map picture

Historically Kilwa Kisiwani was home to the Kilwa Sultanate. This medieval Sultanate reached the height of its authority in the 13th to 15th centuries A.D., and stretched the entire length of the Swahili coast. The ruins have today not only been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also in 2008, they were placed on the list of the world’s 100 Most Endangered Sites. One of the individuals on our expedition team is apparently noted for literally having written the book on this part of the world, and to use his words: “Kilwa Kisiwani is without question the most important archaeological site in all of Eastern Africa.”

I hope I may be forgiven for admitting that I never even heard of the place! So in spite of the heat and the fact that our tour was in the late afternoon sun, I was determined to go ashore.

Our ship was able to anchor in the river close to the pier where we would land. At the time we arrived, it was low tide. Even though the local pilot was not able to reach our ship because his boat was disabled, our excellent Captain took upon himself the responsibility for navigating our vessel in the shallow waters so that we could see this amazing site. The trip ashore was quick and smooth, but upon arrival I realized that because of the tremendous tidal flows in this area of Africa, I needed to climb roughly 20 stairs in order to reach the top. The stairs were narrow and some were slimy, however my hat is off to the expedition team who managed to get me to the top safely. Once there I found myself probably 300 feet from shore and before me stretched a long concrete jetty at the end of which was a steep climb to the top of the nearby hillside – roughly 300 feet above the water. As you may imagine by the time I reached the top of the stairs, I was already hot, soaked, and winded.

Once there I was greeted with local musicians performing a dance to the beat of rhythmic African music. Scattered about were a large number of children, along with some adults, all of whom were extremely friendly and somewhat shy. The native language was Swahili, but they did respond to a smile and the words “hello.” They also responded to “Jumbo,” which in Swahili is the same thing as hello. Once assembled we set off on a walk around the local village to reach the giant ruins themselves. Here we were able to visit the great Mosque, which is the oldest standing Mosque on the East African coast. It once had 16 domed and vaulted bays, however some of them have fallen over time, but many still remain all these centuries later. We also were able to visit the Palace of Husuni Kubwa, which was largely constructed in the 14th century. Nearby stands “Husuni Ndogo,” or what is known as the “Little Fort.” This is a rectangular enclosure where on each corner stands a watchtower.

I think at this point it would be best served if I directed you to the photographs of this amazing location. The sheer size and beauty of many of the structures left me breathless. Sadly, the site appears to have no protection, and even the sign declaring it a World Heritage Site was so faded that it could barely be read. There is a native village nearby, and their animals used the abandoned ruins as their pasture. Even so if you look closely at the domes within the great Mosque you could see the remnants of the ceramic tiles that once covered the interior of this massive structure. You can only marvel at what this must’ve look like at the height of this culture.

I am truly going to try and get the photographs online this afternoon. Today will be our last day on board the ship. Tomorrow morning we begin the long trek home which will involve a two day journey. I have a feeling that we are going to be in for a temperature shock, but regardless it always feels good to go home.

I do hope that everyone has enjoyed my musings, and I want to thank all of you who have been so gracious in your responses and encouragement. So I guess what I should say is, “That’s it for now!”


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