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Old mosque of Kaole.

Are the Old Tombs of Kaole, Tanzania, Really Able To Heal?


Situated on the beautiful east coast of Africa, Tanzania is a fascinating country with a rich culture and no shortage of historic sites on its Indian Ocean coast. Kaole, an abandoned town and archaeological location, is one of the most significant of these sites due to the development of Islam and commerce in the region.

The History of Kaole, Tanzania

Kaole is located near the historic town of Bagamoyo and, based on archaeological research, we know the area was first settled by local tribes as early as the 8 th century, drawn to the region’s resources. Unfortunately, because it was made of wood, most of the first settlement no longer exists.

The tribesmen traded extensively with seafarers, including Arabs and Persians. In fact, the eastern coast of Africa has been decisively influenced by Arab-Persian traders and merchants who brought Islam to the area, which in turn led to the development of the unique Swahili culture.

Still the predominant ethnic group in the region, the Zaramo people settled in Kaole around the 10 th century. During the Middle Ages, roughly 13 th century AD, the town of Kaole was occupied by both Arabs and a Swahili population. The town was diverse and had extensive trade connections both by land and sea; pottery and other artifacts which have come from as far afield as China have been found.

Old Arab Teahouse, Bagamoyo (Jones, A / CC BY 3.0)

Old Arab Teahouse, Bagamoyo (Jones, A / CC BY 3.0)

The town was ruled by local sheikhs who had immense political and religious authority. One of the best known was Sheikh Ali Muhamad al-Hatim al-Barawi, an important figure in the region who is still revered by local Muslims. At some point in time, however, Kaole was a dependency of the power city-state of Kilwa. The town was controlled by Muslims, often of Arab origin, who taxed the local population.

In the 18 th century settlers from Oman came to the area. They moved the markets to the small settlement of Bagamoyo, three miles north of Kaole, due to the fact that the harbor upon which the prosperity of the town rested had silted up and was no longer suitable for merchants’ vessels.

The Timeless Ruins at Kaole, Tanzania

There are significant archaeological remains at the site dating from the Middle Ages, including houses, wells, and walls. At the center of the old town stand two mosques. The first is from the period of the Sultanate of Kilwa and dates to the 13 th century, the oldest on mainland Tanzania. A paved pathway, which is one of the finest examples of Medieval paving in Africa, leads to the second mosque which dates from the 15 th century. Approximately 22 graves of foreigners who resided in the town during its heyday have been found.

Mausoleum of Kaole (CC BY 3.0)

Mausoleum of Kaole (CC BY 3.0)

Several Shirazi style tombs with distinctive pillars which are almost certainly the graves of local religious leaders grace the area. These tombs are thought to be of Persian inspired design and indicate the level of influence the culture had on the east coast of Africa. Many tombs found around the old town which have no inscriptions are those of children.

The Spiritual Significance of Kaole, Tanzania

This site retains a great deal of religious significance for communities in the area and pilgrims still visit the tombs of the religious leaders or sheiks. It is widely believed in this part of Tanzania that certain tombs have magical healing powers, so many people looking to be cured of evil spirits come to this site that overlooks the magnificent Indian Ocean. Another option is hammering iron nails into a sacred tree which is believed to transfer bad luck or illness into the wood.

Getting to Kaole

The Kaole ruins are five kilometers (three miles) southeast of the town of Bagamoyo from where you can hire a taxi. Accommodation near the archaeological site is plentiful.

Top image: Old mosque of Kaole. Source: Hinrichsen, L / CC BY 3.0

By Ed Whelan


Pawlowicz, M. (2012). Finding their place in the Swahili world: An archaeological exploration of southern Tanzania. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 47(2), 247-248
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Pollard, E. (2009). S ettlement adaptation to a changing coastline: archaeological evidence from Tanzania, during the first and second Millennia AD. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 4(1), 82-107
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Pollard, E. J. (2008). The maritime landscape of Kilwa Kisiwani and its region, Tanzania, 11th to 15th century AD. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 27(3), 265-280
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Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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