Great House at Kilwa
Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania
The Great House at Kilwa, located directly to the south of the Great Mosque, is thought to be the home and final resting place of Sultan Sulaiman b. Isma'il. The Great House, which today is in ruins, was actually a complex of three connected residential units separated by courtyards. These residences were likely constructed in the fifteenth century, though they incorporated pre-existing fourteenth century elements, and underwent successive alterations throughout the sixteenth century. Due to the plethora of pre-extant building material, it is assumed that this area demarcates the historic city center of Kilwa. The three houses demonstrate the variety of forms in Kilwa housing layout and the importance and definition of reception spaces, in sunken courtyards. The Great House complex is bound to the west and south by walls that predate the houses. The north wall, which runs along the Mosque Lane, is used to date the complex.

Western Dwelling
The western dwelling is the largest and most impressive. Its entryway ias located at the northern most corner of the west wall, from which its three entry steps protrude. Atop these stairs is a decorated doorway, ostensibly more notable than any in the Great House or the neighboring Great Mosque. The threshold is flanked by low, parapet walls inlaid with coins and topped with sandstone slabs. Five rebated orders carved into coral stone give depth to the door that is further marked with a pilaster on each side. This gateway leads into an entry hall, uniquely unlike a more typical Kilwa house that enters directly into an entrance courtyard. The center of the entry hall had a beehive-shaped soakaway, for drainage, and the north and east walls were lined by masonry benches further surmounted by sandstone slabs. South of the entry hall one passes through a lobby that meets another lobby to its east. Both of these transitory rooms have squared timbers supporting their roofs.

One enters the sunken reception courtyard through this secondary set of lobbies. The plastered floor of the reception court is about 1.5 meters below the surrounding terraces. Not surprisingly, this low patio had a soakaway in the center, much like many of the rooms at the Palace of Husuni Kubwa. It is entered on the north and south down sets of four steps, the southern of which contained a small foot-bath. The north of the court is lined with an open arcade, while to the east a large room with a raised seating dias looks down into the court, similar to the arrangement at Husuni Kubwa.

The southern half of the western dwelling contains the domestic rooms. A narrow passageway leads south between two suites of bedrooms. Further south of the suites is a large domestic court containing a well. The western dwelling was changed in the sixteenth century when an upper story was added to the northern rooms, from which a stairway leads from the arcade to the north of the reception court. A second entrance, directly leads to the second story of the house, is opened at the north wall of the complex. On the first story, a latrine was carved in the northern end of the reception room.

Central Dwelling
The western dwelling is separated from the smaller central and eastern dwellings by a long and narrow central court. However, whereas the western dwelling is built on a north-south axis, the central dwelling abutting it is built along an east-west one. The central dwelling resembles a small version of a "double house" in that it faces two sunken courtyards to its east and west. The western central court originally was the entry court from the north street, though this doorway was later closed off. This Court was unplastered and houses two ovens in its southwestern corner.

The eastern reception room, overlooking the eastern court, was the main reception room and was inlaid with glazed bowls like the room to its north. The eastern court was considerably deeper than the western one and was accessed by six steps. The court was lined with a terrace along its south façade where in the sixteenth century tombstones were placed, one ostensibly of the Sultan Sulaiman b. Isma'il. The unpaved floor of red earth had carved into it two stone lined pits to drain rainwater through a trench. Masonry sockets for posts suggest that both the east and west courts were covered by a unique light timber awning.

The main room in the east opens onto two bedrooms with a lobby between them leading through another main room to the terrace overlooking the western courtyard. Latrines are in the south of both this main room and the eastern main room. On the northern side of these rooms two private rooms branch between the central court and the eastern court.

An irregularly paved flagstone walkway, sunken beneath ground level, runs along the north of the central dwelling and was originally used to link the two courts. This walkway was later roofed through the addition of another story. Stairs were then added to this second story from the northern part of the east terrace and from a room near the northwest corner of the house.

Eastern Dwelling
To the north of this courtyard is the wall of the neighboring eastern dwelling's domestic court. This domestic court, like that of the western dwelling, was not sunken and contained a well and a latrine room in its eastern corner. Also, like the western dwelling, the rooms surrounding the domestic court are rather haphazard and unfinished, implying that they were for use for domestic purposes only. Like the eastern courtyard in the central dwelling, the domestic court has one grave marked with rough head- and foot-stones from a later period.

To the west the court leads to a kitchen, tank and a lobby room. The lobby proceeds to a large entrance court. When a second floor was added, raised walkways were built surrounding the entrance court and leading to the stairs. At the time of this renovation, a latrine, only accessible from the upper story, was added to the southwest corner of the entrance court. The oddly angled and incomplete nature of this dwelling, confirmed by the fact that it does not have any reception rooms, asserts that it was built after the other two in the space delimited by the walls of the central dwelling and perhaps as an adjunct to it. This reading is supported by the fact that a direct entrance runs from the central dwelling into the eastern dwelling, though the eastern dwelling also opened into the Mosque Lane. The entryway from the lane is up two steps into a vestibule with a bench skirting its northern side.

The walls of all three of these dwellings were made of coral rubble set in lime mortar. Carved coral stone was used for decorative moldings, quoins and thresholds. With the addition of second stories to all of these houses, these walls were reinforced and thickened. The roofs were constructed of rafters overlain with masonry and the floors consisted of a foundation of coral chips that was plastered over.


Chittick, Neville. 1974. Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast, vol 2. Nairobi: British Institute in Eastern Africa. 100-131.

Garlake, Peter S. 1966. The Early Islamic Architecture of the East African Coast. London: Oxford University Press. 110-112.
Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania
15th c.
Style Periods
Building Usages