Numerous ceramic fragments found at the site of Kilwa Kisiwani on the eastern coast of Africa

Located on a small island off the coast of Tanzania in east Africa, the ruins of the great trading city of Kilwa Kisiwani can be found. Thriving from roughly 900 – 1400 CE, the maritime traders of eastern Africa advanced the process of ship building and were able to make longer and larger voyages throughout the Indian Ocean. In the picture at right, these seemingly useless sherds of broken pottery show the great extent of the trade networks created by the merchants of Kilwa Kisiwani. The blue and light green (jade) shards were crafted in China; the deep green and white pieces were the products of Iran and Oman; the simple brown pot is the everyday vessel used by inland African tribes to transport water and food products to the island villages. On face value, there items hold little value. However, the history they tell and the great connections they share gives them a place within the British Museum.

Technical EvaluationEdit

The pottery fragments found within the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani are greatly varied and come from numerous time periods and cultures. The green wares coming from the Middle East were imported during the beginnings of Kilwa’s rise to prominence, roughly around 900 CE [See Chittick vol. II, 302]. These pots and vessels were made with a soft buff instead of a strict glaze. They were also fired in much cooler kilns compared to ceramics found within other cultures. The deep green was a result from being fired in a cooler kiln, allowing the glaze and dye to stay more think throughout the piece. Later, these cultures produced a much cheaper white version that was used heavily for exportation. This was the most prominant form of imported pottery found on the island of Kilwa.

As ship building began to expand and advance, it was possible for merchants in Africa to reach the far-off lands of eastern Asia. The first appearance of Chinese pottery is of the Ch’ing-pai style . It was made with a fine white paste and ranged in hue from pale blue to white. A few decades later, celadon is seen to be imported to Kilwa Kisiwani as well [See Chittick vol. II, 309]. This pottery technique was developed during the Five Dynasties Period (907-960 CE). Celadon is made using a “jade-like” glaze and is often simplistic, yet very distinctive, in style. Celadon requires a lengthy process to make it successfully. First, clay is crushed into a fine powder and sifted to eliminate all impurities. Next, the clay is submerged in water and formed into a ball, which is then crafted into the desired shape and style. After it has been air dried, the pottery is placed bisque fired at approximately 800 degrees Celsius. Next, a glaze is added to make the piece more water resistant and to add aestetic appeal. Finally, the pottery is bakes again, but this time at a temperature of precisely 1200 degrees Celsius. Despite its difficult process of production, celadon quickly became prominant in all corners of Eurasia.

The last form of pottery found within the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani was crafted locally. So locally, in fact, that it shares little structurally with deeper African pottery. These pots were never glazed or finished, yet had dramatic and artistic designs along the upper edges. No kilns have been found, leading archaeologists to believe that these pots were simply baked in the sun until hard enough to be used. Also, the pots and vases were formed using hand-spun wheels, something that the cultures of China and the Middle East had ceased using hundreds of years earlier and replaced with foot-spun pottery wheels. These pots, though simple, were vital to survival on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani. There are no fresh water springs or rivers on the small island, forcing the importation of drinkable water from inland tribes onto the island. It was the contents of these simple pots that allowed the great merchants of Kilwa to survive and prosper [See Chittick vol. II, 317].

Local Historical ContextEdit

The history of Kilwa Kisiwani is a story of a quick and unexpected rise to power, followed closely by a dramatic fall. From roughly 200 – 600 CE, the island of Kilwa was not ruled by a specific family, and in many instances appeared to have no ruler at all [See Pollard, Inter-Tidal]. These people survived off the land they owned, growing little more than was needed to survive. While cultures throughout the world were advancing in technology, the island of Kilwa stayed relatively stagnant. There is no sign of lamp light, cloth-making was completely done by hand, and shells were still used regularly as tools and utensils [See Chittick vol. I, 235]. However, the process of working iron was discovered and local trade networks were beginning to form between the African continent [See Horton].


An early Portuguese rendition of the city of Kilwa Kisiwani

In the early 800s, an Arabian trader, Ali bin Al-Hasan, discovered the island and offered to purchase the town, all surrounding land, and its inhabitants. His family became the ruling elites of the town, creating the Shiraz dynasty. From the 11th century until the 15th century, they ruled over Kilwa with skill and precision, crafting the small island village into a major trading center along the east African coast [See Chittick vol. I, 242]. Al-Hasan and his family, however, brought more to the island than just skillful leadership. Coins were minted, yet only in small amounts of copper. While these could be used for small purchases of cloth or food, large purchases were still made using the traditional system of bartering. Domesticated animals were grown in larger numbers and we traded with inland African cities. Most importantly was the integration of Islam into the culture of Kilwa Kisiwani, shown more prominently by the creating of a great mosque within the city’s center. In general, the wealth of the population was greatly increased, as shown by the numerous buildings made of stone and wood. During this time, trade with India, China, and the Middle East peaked and flourished. They would trade slaves, gold, ivory, and iron for textiles, spices, and crafted items unavailable in Africa [See Pollard, The Maritime Landscape].

At the peak of Kilwa’s power, the ruling family claimed ownership of Mozambique, Tanzania, Comoro, Zanzibar, and numerous smaller states along the eastern coast. However, this small empire was soon interrupted by the Portuguese.

In the early 1500s, Vasco da Gama forced the trading centers along the African coast to pay tribute to Portugal. However, Kilwa never paid this tribute because it was soon invaded by another Portuguese man. Francisco de Almeida was unimpressed with the city of Kilwa and easily persuaded the king to abandon the city. After gaining the city, Francisco and his army entered the heart of the town and destroyed the great mosque. In its place, they erected a fortified government center [See Axelson ]. After this period, the great trading city of Kilwa Kisiwani went into a state of disarray. No government actively ruled over this once great and wealthy island and the trade networks that it forged went unused for many years [See Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani ].

World-Historical SignificanceEdit

What began as a simple village off the coast of eastern Africa was quickly transformed into one of the largest

The extent of Kilwa's trade networks

trading centers in the world. While in size it was easily dwarfed by more powerful empires, its vast amounts of ships and trade connections quickly put Kilwa on the map for power. They controlled the Indian Ocean, extending influences throughout the Middle East, India, and China. Eventually, their trade vessels entered the Mediterranean Sean and traveled along the southeastern Asian islands and the southern coast of Africa. These trade networks helped link cultures that were separated by large amounts of land and water. Some of the cultures had not had any form of contact with one another.

While Kilwa is known mainly for its vast trade networks, the exchange of ideas was also quite prominent within its culture. As Arabs began to enter the island for trade and Chinese and Indian merchants began to appear more regularly, a distinct culture formed on the banks of Kilwa Kisiwani. Commonly referred to as Swahili, this culture is primarily Muslim, with roots in African tribal ceremonies and with some influence from Asian practices [See Horton ]. While the great trade routes and connections formed by these early traders have long since disappeared, this culture has survived and grown.

Kilwa also helped to spread the African culture around the world. First, the African slave trade was greatly augmented by the efforts of Kilwa. Thousands of men, women, and children were taken from inland Tanzania and Mozambique and sold to Arabian and Chinese merchants. These people would then begin to work as deck hands on the ships or within large trade cities throughout the Indian trade networks. Also, African people were able to travel the world in ways that were previously unattainable. With this great exchange of people and ideas from all corners of the known world, cultures began to grow and expand at an unprecedented level.

Suggested BibliographyEdit

Chittick, Neville. Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast. Vol. I. Nairobi, Kenya: The British Institute of Eastern Africa, 1974. Print.

Chittick, Neville. Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast. Vol. II. Nairobi, Kenya: The British Institute of Eastern Africa, 1974. Print.

Pollard, Edward John. “Inter-Tidal Causeways and Platforms of the 13th- to 16th-Century City-State of Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37.1 (2008): 98-114. Print.

Pollard, Edward John. “The Maritime Landscape of Kilwa Kisiwani and Its Region, Tanzania, 11th to 15th Century AD.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 27.3 (2008): 265-280. Print.

Axelson, E. “The Voyage and Acts of Dom Francisco.” Modern History Sourcebook. Web. 10 Apr. 2011. <‌halsall/‌mod/‌1505mayr.html>.

“Britannica Online Encyclopedia.” Vasco da Gama (Portuguese Navigator). Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <‌EBchecked/‌topic/‌224711/‌Vasco-da-Gama>.

Ceramics and Celadon. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <‌experience/‌ceramics/‌ceramics.html>.

Ch’ing-pai Wares. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <‌art-of-asia/‌ceramics/‌early-chinese-ceramics-ching-pai.cfm>.

“Five Dynasties.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <‌EBchecked/‌topic/‌208994/‌Five-Dynasties>.

“Francisco de Almedia (Viceroy of India).” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <‌EBchecked/‌topic/‌16779/‌Francisco-de-Almeida>.

Horton, Mark. Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania. Web. 10 Apr. 2011. <‌action/‌showCompilationPage?doi=10.5555%2FAL.CH.COMPILATION.HERITAGE-SITE.KILWA+KISIWANI&fullDesc=>.

“Kilwa Pot Sherds.” The British Museum. Web. 9 Apr. 2011. <‌explore/‌highlights/‌highlight_objects/‌asia/‌k/‌kilwa_pot_sherds.aspx>.

“Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Ruins of Songo Mnara.” World Heritage Convention. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <‌en/‌list/‌144>.

“Swahili Language and Culture.” Swahili History. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <‌hassan/‌swahili_history.html>.