East Africa Travel
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Africa Travel Newsletters > Swahili Coast Historical Sites
1. Exploring Historical Sites Along East Africa's Swahili Coast
Dotted around the East African coast are numerous places that offer insight into the culture and lifestyle of a bygone era. Most of the main historic sites, dating as early as 200 AD, are situated along the extensive Swahili Indian Ocean coast that consists of Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar archipelago. These include, among others, Kilwa Kisiwani, Bagamoyo and Mikindani in Tanzania; Stone Town in Zanzibar, and Lamu, Fort Jesus (Mombasa) as well as Gedi Ruins (Malindi) in Kenya. No small wonder therefore that Zanzibar tours are one of the most sought after form of Africa vacations.
Kilwa Kisiwani (meaning Kilwa on the island) is situated 300 km south of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania. The nearby ruins of Songo Mnara are important remnants of Swahili civilization on the East African coast. In the 13th century the island was the most famous trade post in East Africa, controlling the gold and iron trade with Sofala – the modern Beira in Mozambique. This was after it was sold to a wealthy trader known as Ali bin Al-Hasan, the founder of the Shiraz Dynasty.
Between 11th century and early 15th century, Ali Bin Hasan and his descendants managed to transform Kilwa into a powerful and prosperous city. They built a great mosque and established trading ties with the southern African countries. This way, Kilwa Kisiwani became the capital of trading on Africa's Indian Ocean, exercising political and economic dominance as far as Sofala in the south and Pemba Island in the north.
Kilwa remained unknown to the outside world until the 1330's when the Moroccan scholar, Abu Abdullah Ibn Batuta visited the area. Batuta was bewitched by the beauty of Kilwa, and wrote extensively about it describing the island as exceptionally beautiful and well-developed. However, by late 15th century the fortunes of Kilwa begun to decline when the Portuguese conquered the island with the intention of taking full control of the booming Indian Ocean trade. Kilwa rose again as a powerful Swahili trade centre in the 18th century when slaves were ferried from its port to the Comoro islands and Mauritius.
In present times, Kilwa Kisiwani has succeeded in preserving much of the scenery that bewitched Batuta and the Portuguese explorers. The island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Kilwa is separated from the mainland by a 3 Km wide channel. Among the major attractions around the area include a great ancient palace with over 100 rooms, the Great Mosque – at one time considered to be the largest in East Africa, and Gereza (prison) which was built by Portuguese. Gereza dominates the view of the island from far.
Kilwa can be reached by plane, bus or boat. There are daily scheduled flights from Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar to Kilwa and return. Although more pricier, charter flights can be arranged from the same locations as well. There are numerous daily buses from Dar es Salaam to Kilwa. For those travelling by boat or ship, Kilwa Seaview Resort has a safe anchor ground and so does the Kilwa Masoko harbour.
Located only about an hour north of Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo draws numerous visitors from around the world for its historical significance. Towards the end of the 18th century, the town became the capital for German East Africa.
Bagamoyo- Kiswahili for "lay down the burden of your heart" or "be quiet my heart" has one of the most wonderful white sand beaches in Tanzania, and was recently designated as Tanzania’s seventh World Heritage Site.
In the late 19th century, Bagamoyo was the most important trading centre on the entire coast of East Africa and was a stop-over for slave and ivory caravans that traversed all the way from Lake Tanganyika. On reaching Bagamoyo, the slaves and ivory were ferried by dhow to Zanzibar, from where they were dispatched to other parts of the world.
The Kaole Ruins situated about 5 kilometers south of Bagamoyo are worth visiting. The ruins consisting of the remains of the first settlement of Arab traders are the major attraction that Bagamoyo has to offer. Kaole Ruins date to the 15th century and consists of remnants of two mosques and several tombs, indicating the importance of Islam in early Bagamoyo.
A few miles away from Bagamoyo, some 7 km north of Dar es Salaam, is Bongoyo Island Marine Reserve. The reserve provides good snorkeling and diving sites for water sports lovers. Bongoyo reserve comprises secluded islands, beautiful beaches and a wide range of marine species. Bongoyo, unlike other beaches, is not tide dependent and so swimming can be done at any time of the day.
The old Swahili town of Mikindani, situated south of Tanzania, about 550km from Dar es Salaam and about a one hour drive from the Mozambique border, was also an important centre in the Swahili coast's network of Indian Ocean trade. By the 15th century Mikindani's dominance extended as far as the Congo and Zambia. In the 1880s Mikindani became a centre of German colonial administration and a key exporter of slaves, sisal and coconuts.
Following Germany's defeat in the World War 1, Britain took over the administration of Tanzania, then called Tanganyika. Mikindani remained an administrative capital post until 1947 when the British embarked on the development of the port in the nearby Mtwara which became the export point for peanuts. Trade and administration subsequently shifted to Mtwara and the fortunes of Mikindani dwindled until it was little more than a large fishing village.
Mikindani is today a fascinating old town with winding streets and an exciting blend of African, Arabic and European architecture. The protected lagoon at Mikindani has a fascinating harbor that has been used by generations of traders and fishermen. The old German Boma and a slave market offer memorable tours from the picturesque beaches that extend to the Mozambican border.
An ideal starting point for excursions to the surrounding areas, Mikindani is easily reached by road, as the road from Dar es Salaam to Mtwara runs through the town. Mtwara is the nearest major town and regional capital and is situated 7km to the south of Mikindani. It is also possible to reach the town by air through regular flights originating from Dar es Salaam.
Stone Town in Zanzibar is a World Heritage Site and is a historically important capital of the Zanzibar archipelago. For a long time Stone Town was a trading capital on the East African coast before colonization of the mainland in the late 19th century after which the focus shifted to Dar es Salaam and Mombasa. Spices, particularly cloves, were the main commodity exports of the town.
Stone Town also served as a base for many explorers, especially the Portuguese, and the colonizers who followed them from the late 19th century. David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer, used the town as his base for organising his final expedition in 1866. Immigrant communities from Persia, Oman and India lived in the town. Persians and Indians were often involved in trade while the Omanis ruled the island and its dependent neighbourhoods.
Stone Town has retained its ancient town scape virtually intact and contains many structures that reflect its particular character which comprises elements of the cultures of Africa, India, the Arab region, and Europe. Historical and cultural safaris to Zanzibar cover important areas around this island including the streets of the old stone town, the House of Wonders, Peoples Palace, Dr Livingstones house and the Arab fort among others.
A walk through Stone Town will reveal interesting features about the town. You can spend hours exploring the fascinating network of alleyways full of shops selling coconuts, spices, mangoes and lots of fresh seafood. Stone Town has an interesting array of Zanzibar hotels and it makes for an excellent ending to a Tanzania wildlife safari. The town is also the starting point for a Zanzibar Spice Tour to the surrounding countryside – an opportunity to see another side of Zanzibar other than old houses and beaches.
Some 500 km to the north of Zanzibar is Lamu, the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lamu was established in the 14th Century as a Swahili trading outpost and settlement and has evolved over the centuries to became one of the great centres of Swahili culture. There is an excellent Museum in Lamu town with good exhibits on Swahili culture in general and Lamu culture in particular.
At the centre of Lamu town is the impressive Sultan's Fort that was built by the Omanis in 1808. The Fort has been through various changes over the years, including conversion into a prison. Sultan's Fort is now a museum and its forecourt is home to Lamu's largest open market.
Lamu Island can be reached by air from Malindi, Nairobi, Mombasa and Diani Beach. All flights land on Manda Island, just across the channel from Lamu. Transfers can be arranged through your hotel in advance or directly at the dock upon arrival.
Fort Jesus, located along the coastline of Mombasa Island, is also a popular historical tourist site. The Fort was build by Portuguese in 1593 to secure the safety of Portuguese living on the East African coast.
Fort Jesus has had a history of hostilities of the peoples who have lived in Mombasa. Omani Arabs, for example, attacked the Fort from 1696 to 1698. In 1837 to 1895, the Fort was used as soldiers barracks and when the British protectorate was proclaimed in July 1895 it was converted into a prison.
In 1958, Fort Jesus was declared a national park in the custody of the Trustees of the Kenya National Parks. Excavation was carried out and the Fort was converted into a Museum in 1962. It is now an important historical landmark in the East African region.
Fort Jesus museum was built with a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation and it exhibits various ancient imports from cultures all over the Indian Ocean. There are ceramics from china and household paraphernalia from Kenyan tribes among it numerous artefacts. The museum also has the remains of Portuguese and British weapons. Most interesting is the wreck of a Portuguese frigate that sunk here three hundred years ago during the battles with the Arabs.
Gedi Ruins, located about 100 km north of Mombasa and 15 km south of Malindi along the coastal region of Kenya hold one of the country's great unknown treasures; a wonderful ancient town lost in the depths of the Arabuko Sokoke forest.
Little is known of Gedi, with archaeologists and historians remaining puzzled. But it is believed the town was abandoned in the early 17th century. Although the exact reason as to why the town was deserted is not documented, a school of thought has it that the town was destroyed by unknown invaders in the 17th century.
Another school of thought argues that the inhabitants of the town abandoned it after receding ocean waters depleted the available water from their wells. It is also alleged that the Portuguese brought the deadly Black Plague, with no known cure, wiping out the population. These theories have been disputed as they lack documented evidence.
The Gedi Ruins were declared a national park in 1948 and the area has since become a worthy tourist attraction on the Kenyan coastal region. Gedi remains a mysterious place to visit, especially with its pillars and stone walls, ruined mosques and tombs lying among stands of trees.
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