When, in 1500, the Portuguese reached Kilwa, an island city-state on the East African coast, they marveled at the tall buildings made of coral stone and noted how the islanders wore fine clothes of cotton and silk, as well as jewelry of gold and silver. Kilwa was so wealthy that its rulers and nobles could afford luxuries from around the globe. Porcelain from China is still found among the island’s excavated remains.

When the first volume of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum was published in Cologne in 1572, it contained 546 engravings of cities from across the world. Among them was Quiloa, the Portuguese spelling for Kilwa. Readers of the atlas must have dwelled on this engraving, since the mysterious Islamic city, which no one had heard about, appeared as a magnificent agglomeration of palaces and towers, occupying most of a verdant island framed by two sailing caravels. It looked like a German medieval city, transplanted to a land of coconut trees and baobabs.

One of the oldest misconceptions about Africa is that the continent south of the Sahara had no cities before the Europeans got there. To this day, Africa is seen as the land of the village, an intensely communal space, where everyone shares his life with everyone else. In fact, cities such as Kilwa and Sofala on the east coast existed, but the process of their destruction began with the European arrival and Portugal’s control over the Indian Ocean’s trade routes (after 1505, the Kilwa sultan fled and was replaced with a ruler acceptable to the Portuguese). Rhapta, which probably lay somewhere in the delta of the Rufiji, just north of Kilwa, has yet to be found. As for Timbuktu and Lalibela, enough is already known about their global importance.

To explore Kilwa’s mysteries, I took the road south of Dar es Salaam to Kilwa Masoko, a new settlement on the mainland. From here, you can hire a local boatman to bring you to the island. While I was crossing the channel, the first building to catch my attention was the massive Gereza, an Omani fortress, hiding within its walls an older, smaller Portuguese fort. Omani control over the East African coast eventually spelled the end of Kilwa as an independent city-state, with the last sultan deported after the new masters moved their seat of power from Muscat to nearby Zanzibar.

A short walk from the Gereza lies the magnificent Great Mosque, built on a grid of stone pillars branching into arches to support 16 domes. The effect might remind you of the famous mosque in the Spanish city of Córdoba. Looking inside the mihrab, I was surprised to find a reading candle, probably left behind by a student from the local madrassa trying to memorize the Koran in the holy place. The Great Mosque is a link to a glorious Islamic civilization on this island, which must appear miraculous to the current village inhabitants, living in Swahili huts, with roofs of palm thatch. One night, I heard the sounds of a zikr being performed in the mosque ruins. This is a form of Islamic meditation where certain phrases are chanted until the participants enter a trance.

Thirty minutes from the mosque, on a slope going down to the sea, the vast Husuni Kubwa palace, built in the fourteenth century, is another reminder of how wealthy Kilwa was. I would have trouble thinking of a European building from the same period designed on this scale. Husuni Kubwa was conceived as both royal residence and trade emporium. When it was built, the Kilwa sultans must have dreamed of controlling most of global trade, and they had an effective monopoly on the gold caravans from Zimbabwe feeding Europe’s and China’s appetite for the precious metal.

I found the way back to my boat by descending from the palace to the mangrove below, repeating the path of traders who came to the emporium to exchange their wares. The distance between the Great Mosque and the Husuni Kubwa testifies to the size of Kilwa, whose meandering alleys of coral houses have not survived the ravages of history. The authors of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum may have invented a German Kilwa to fit the limits of their imagination, but they were not wrong to think that the city, at the height of its power, was comparable with the European cities of the time.

Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images


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