Sketch of monument by Alex Vines

Olduvai Gorge, Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro and Serengeti are not the only splendid assets that Tanzania offers the tourist. Along the hundreds of miles of Tanzanian coast lie numerous ‘Swahili’ ruins dating from what in Europe would be called the ‘Middle Ages’. Some are well-known, though infrequently visited, such as the sites with resident curators administered by the National Museums of Tanzania at Kilwa Kisiwani, Songo Mnara, Kunduchi and Kaole. Many others are however neglected and are seldom visited except by the local inhabitants.

Our knowledge of these ruins derives largely from the pioneer work in the 1950’s and 1960’s of the archaeologists Neville Chittick and Peter Garlake. Their fieldwork and reports provide the basic archive from which all subsequent study and survey commences. In conjunction with the Department of Antiquities these sites were revisited in 1967 to assess their current state of preservation and to make an up to date photographic record of what remained. These brief visits to the Mosques and other coral-built structures on the coast from Kilwa up to Tanga provided confirmation of what everyone feared – that many of the sites had deteriorated seriously in the twenty years since Chittick’s and Garlake’s assessments. This of course is not at all surprising given Tanzania’s poverty. Health and education must clearly take priority over crumbling ruins. But within these constraints Tanzania could still capitalise on her heritage of ruins.

Different dangers face different monuments. Simple neglect was the most common threat to the sites in isolated locations. Foliage and bush were slowly breaking up the fabric of walls through their iron grip. This was however the least serious threat, although affecting some 70% of the sites visited. The simple and not too costly answer would be occasional modest clearance of particularly threatening undergrowth, but this creates its own problems. Many of the neglected Mosque sites are shrines to local ancestors, littered with carefully placed offerings of cloth, rose water or money. Disturbing such monuments would breach the sanctity they continue to enjoy. It can therefore be argued that their secondary religious nature should be respected as much as if they were complete and functioning Mosques, accepting that the local people are happy to tolerate the undergrowth as an integral part of their ancestor’s shrine.

A second threat noted at 10% of the sites visited along the coast was robbery. The situation at Kisiju was especially worrying. The local population had taken to robbing the sites in the area for building materials. This has meant that in many places ‘robber trenches’ remain as the only witness of where walls once stood. Kisiju is a problem because of the ‘Ujamaa’ settlement there which means that many of the local population are originally from other provinces of Tanzania. They therefore feel little affinity with the ancestors of the ruins. The visiting team was told by one incredulous local that it was the first visiting team to ever show interest in the ruins.


Although Tanzania continues to suffer from acute poverty and a lack of development, where economic development has taken place or is proposed could have lasting consequences for the ruins. Construction related to the oil and gas industry on the island of Sobngo Songo has severely damaged the island’s ruins. It is a reminder both of the potential threat to Tanzania’s heritage and of the need for archaeological consultancy if the plans to develop the Kilwa archipeligo by the petro-chemical industry go ahead.

There is no reason why development and conservation could not go hand in hand. In Botswana legislation stipulates that all development projects need to be first assessed for their potential environmental damage. Companies are obliged, as part of this process, to obtain planning permission and therefore to consult an archaeologist. In Tanzania both the Archaeology Unit at the University and the Antiquities Department have the expertise to carry out such work.

One further threat is unique to the standing and still functioning Mosques. With the growth of fundamentalist Islam and the tensions and competition between Sunni and Shi’ite traditions stimulated by the Iranian, Omani and Saudi Arabian funds flowing into Tanzania to support their particular brand of Islam, historical Mosque edifices are beginning to be modified by renovation or alteration reflecting the form of Islam practised by the different congregations. For the architectural historian this is particularly worrying. Initiatives by more fundamentalist and puritanical sects have begun to cover over and, at times, destroy decorated Kiblas. These could, if they offend be whitewashed or covered over which would preserve them for future scholars. There is no reason why they, should be destroyed. They are a valuable part of East African and, indeed, world history, proving visible evidence of the past great trade routes of the world. We have only to think of the loss to British culture and research from the depredations of Middle Age art in British churches by the Puritans to assess for ourselves the potential loss to Tanzania’s awareness of her past and of her tourist resources.

One of the striking features about the Tanzanian mainland and its monuments, in contrast to Zanzibar or Kenya, is the lack of marketing, publicity and care. Kenya makes much of Gedi, near Malindi and Fort Jesus in Mombasa as tour destinations. Tanzania may not wish for cheap mass tourists but it is experienced in conducting specialist game tours. Research such as that described by Mark Horton in this Bulletin (No 35) is an important first step in awakening a wider audience to this aspect of Tanzania’s cultural heritage. The next stage should be feasibility studies of ruins as a potential tourist attraction. This has been done already 1n Zanzibar where the international project to rehabilitate the Stone Town is in part a response to such groundwork.

Perhaps the mainland could learn from Zanzibar whose ‘National Museums and Monuments’ is about to launch a Development Plan for ruins and monuments. As UNESCO World Heritage Monuments, the ruins In Kilwa archipelogo could certainly attract specialist tours which could provide badly needed foreign exchange. It is a shame that the existing lack of coordination between those with the relevant expertise in Tanzania in National Museums, Antiquities and the Archaeology Unit to bring about such a plan will mean that Kenya and Zimbabwe will market and continue to prosper in an area that Tanzania could equal or surpass.
Alex Vines

Mr ALEX VINES has held the graduate scholarship at the British Institute in Eastern Africa. He is currently a part-time tutor for African Archaeology and History for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA).


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