The historic palace of Husuni Kubwa, now in ruins and built in the early fourteenth century by Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman, was only inhabited for a short period of time, and abandoned before completion. Though the town of Kilwa wasn't abandoned until 1843 after the last sultan was deported to Muscat, the Palace of Husuni had been unused since the fouteenth century. Its brief occupation and its unfinished state reveals a lot about building process and tradition. Until recent archeological excavation work was done, the ruins of Husuni Kubwa were covered with thick shrubbery. The palace is located on a high sandstone headland overlooking the Indian Ocean to the east, the entrance to the Kilwa harbor to the north, and the town of Kilwa to the west. Its brief glory was due to its fine design that included over one hundred rooms and terraces organized around sunken courtyards sprawling along a cliffside. Three main elements situate the palace across the cliff; the large South Court, the residential complex surrounding four inner courtyards and the steps winding down to the beach at the tip of the cliff. Elements such as a large octagonal swimming pool and a mercantile south court accented by an eclectic roofline contribute to its reputation as the most impressive palatial structure south of the Sahara dated before the eighteenth century. The royal complex takes its name from the Arabic husn indicating a fortified enclosure and from its position as the kubwa, or larger, of two husuni. The smaller husn, the Husuni Ndogo, is a mysterious rectangular bulwark located about 80 meters to the east of the palace.
South Court The large south court is a 46 by 46 meter square surrounded by about 38 storage rooms two deep, with each side holding two units of four to six similar storerooms. In the center of each side of the south court is an entrance including one on its northern side directly from the inner palace. On this side and the western side abutting it, long chambers which run about 20 meters to the corners flank the stepped entrances into the court. These long chambers are open to the court via a doorway and high square windows beside low, narrow windows which themselves could serve as subsidiary doors. These long rooms, and the more subdivided rooms of the south and east walls were backed by smaller compartmentalized storage rooms, with depressed floor levels in some places 1.5 meters below the front rooms and thus requiring a ladder. The back rooms are lit solely through eight squared portholes about 40 cm by 40 cm, two on each wall, which may alternatively have served as holes for shelving. The doors to the storerooms are directly aligned with the doors (or subsidiary doors) from the South Court, making them more accessible, unlike the more private staggering of doorways throughout the rest of the palace. These design features indicate that this court was likely a center of commerce and trade for the palace, though a double-apsed niche on the eastern side of the South Court suggests that this space may also have been used for communal friday prayer.
Upper Storey apartments of South Court A second level of rooms runs from the western entrance to the north and from the northern entrance to the west and meet in the northwest corner of the quadrangle. They are bordered by low parapets, giving privacy from below, and open with high arches, allowing for remarkable open vistas. These spaces were, perhaps, to accommodate respected merchant travelers and were probably intended to circle the entire court. These roof terraces distinguish the skyline of the palace. Each of these rooms employ a unique combination of vaulting, ranging from simple barrel vaults to vaults further supported by quarter vaults, octagonal vaults and conical vaults. The room at the corner, marking the intersection of these two multi-vaulted arms, is surmounted by a high conical dome fluted on the inside and ribbed on the outside. The steep sides of this cone at an angle of about 60 degrees, cause this vault to resemble a spire, and in the buildings heyday made this the tallest roof in Husuni Kubwa.
To the southwest of the court is an addition presumed to have been two stories and to have been the residence of the manager of the commercial activities of the south court. The rooms in this building were comprised of small finely decorated rooms with coral doorjambs and carved elements. Most accessible to the town, this may have been the main levying point of taxes. Next to this house was a very large well, each side measuring 4.6 meters, lined in masonry and covered with masonry over a mangrove pole frame.
Inner Core The residential section of the palace resembles a common layout of coastal houses in East Africa, which may have influenced this style. The more private rooms in the north cluster around a sunken courtyard and a court for receptions with its own entourage of rooms located to the south. The palace of Husuni Kubwa expands upon this theme to include four courts; the westernmost court serves as an audience court leading to a domestic court to its east, and a bathing court with a pool to its north leading into the private palace court in the northeast which closes the square configuration.
Audience Court The 13 by 15 meter audience court is entered from the west and comprises a space which appears quite depressed in that its was surrounded on all sides by intimidatingly high walls. The walls to the north, south and west are surmounted by an imposing walkway a story above, atop the roofs of the rooms that encircle it. These walls have three rows of small square niches probably used for decorative purposes or to hold lamps. Two open verandahs, likely for citizens coming to petition the sultan or his officials, break the surfaces of the walls which otherwise contain rooms. The audience court spatially expresses a realm below the pavilion, which abuts it to its east. The westernmost court is the audience court which leads north to the swimming pool or east into a pavilion which leads into the Domestic Court.
Pavilion Nine stairs run the length of the eastern end of the audience court and lead to a pavilion three meters above. This pavilion, with this monumental ascent and the large slab, likely a reclining dais, marked by a double niche, likely served as the sultan's receiving area. The height of this room afforded spectacular views to the harbor to the northeast and of the low audience court behind which the town of Kilwa lay to the west. The wide door and window apertures allowed for a cross-breeze. The south tip of the pavilion leads to the aforementioned series of uniquely vaulted rooms overlooking the South Court.
Domestic Court To the east of the pavilion is the domestic court, so named for the fact that it includes a well and is lined to the south by servants rooms and to the north and east with single storied residential rooms or beyts. The court itself is much shallower than the audience court, being only about 40 centimeters deep. To the east are a few bedrooms, one with a built in platform bed and access to a seating verandah which is located next to the main well and corresponding cistern.
Residential Rooms The layout of the residential rooms to the north of the domestic court is mirrored by yet more residential rooms to the north which face the inner Palace Court. The two sets of interlocking suites form the core of royal domicile. The double-house unit begins each from the corresponding court, where the units proceed from a short but very wide ante-room (about 17 meters long), into a main access room, to two bedrooms each about 2.2 meters square. These two bedrooms interlock with the bedrooms of the other unit. These units are accessible to each other both through a central corridor and a common lobby off of the west side of the main rooms. These flat-roofed rooms were decorated with niches and shelves, and likely with wall hangings. The shared lobby and northernmost anti-room off of the palace court both also open onto a section of the palace which had latrines which let out over the west cliff and two levels of servants quarters with large built in platforms which may have served as communal beds. To the east, the residential units also open onto the bathing courtyard, with a unique swimming pool.
Swimming Pool The swimming pool is set within an open court about 13 meters square, surrounded by a covered arcade. The pool itself is octagonal with a diameter of eight meters. The corners of the pool are filled by triangular lobed recesses which probably served as seats and the sides are marked with semicircular apses, providing the steps into the pool. The edge of the pool is raised about 60 cm above the surrounding court and the depth of the pool ranges from two meters at its eastern edge to 1.6 meters at its western edge. A drain leads from the west of the pool to let out over the cliff. It is sealed with two layers of plaster.
Palace Court The final and most private court at the northern end of the palace is a rectangle elongated along the north-south axis. The palace court is sunken via four descending steps at the north and south ends to about one meter. To its east and west raised walkways divided by wide-doored rooms resemble an arcade of iwan. At each corner of these arcades are square chambers only accessible by stepping up from the court. Each of these rooms had a soakaway drain, 100 cm deep circular pits, in the middle of the floor, suggesting that they may have contained ornamental plants and flowers, which would have been visible from the court. The other rooms dividing the arcade are longer and include minor chambers branching from them to the north and south.
Above the palace court exists another set of residential rooms. These rooms are like those of the domestic court in that they run from an anteroom to a main room into two bedrooms, though this northernmost unity does not have an interlocking suite of rooms behind. These rooms may have been backed by a pavilion or verandah from which to capture the view. This residential section was probably the most ornately decorated, suggested by remains of tiles and carved inscriptions and fragment s of curved vaulting indicating that the bedrooms were barrel-vaulted. This residential building has notably shifted one meter to the east of the main north-south spine of the palace and the axis of its approach from the palace court.
Steps of Mosque At the most northwestern corner of the palace is a wide stairway leading down the northern tip of the headland where a small building thought to be a mosque sits on the beach. The stairway is cut from the sandstone cliff, and descends in two flights at almost right angels to each other. The steps are large and irregular and capped with timber nosing to prevent wear at their edges. The small building, only about two meters wide, has a single door on its south wall with a low water tank on each side. Due to its size, proximity to the sea, and its directly northward orientation, this room is thought to be a mosque that predates the palace. Such small mosques, overlooking the sea, are not uncommon on islands such as Kilwa or Zanzibar where they are visible to passing seafarers as well as demonstrate veneration for the sea. This small building may otherwise have served as an entranceway to the staircase.
Material, Construction and Decoration The primary material engaged in the construction of the mosque is coral stone. The manipulation of this material, whose lime content converts easily to a cement, can be seen in the horizontal bands in the south court, where the walls were built up in segments as the wall dried and the lime filling the porous stone hardened. Most of the rooms of the palace, including the vaulted ones, are not more than 2.7 or 2.8 meters wide due to the support capacity of this material and its weight as a roofing material. In the vaulted rooms, where there are no columns, timbers are imbedded in the walls near the cornice line for reinforcement.
There are a variety of vaults in the palace, as evidenced by the apartments atop the south court, but barrel vaulting is the most common. One such barrel vault is supported by quarter vaults resulting in a ribbed trifoliate shape and set into the walls by curved pendentives. In other more standard barrel vaults, the cornice line is shaped into an octagon by flat pendentives which are decorated by a frieze of carved coral panels. The more impressive of the vaults were lined with similar panels of carved coral from offshore.
Thick lime plaster on the walls was made stronger by coral pebbles set in by hand. The surface was then smoothed over in royal residential and reception rooms but left rough so that trowel stokes can be seen in other rooms, likely those of the servants.
Flooring was of plaster usually covering a base of crushed coral or just packed red earth only. In the center of the domestic rooms of Husuni Kubwa, soakaways, 100 cm deep circular pits, are cut into the sandstone subsoil and are corbelled with coral blocks, though which water could drain. These drainage pits were sometimes covered with sandstone or coral slabs with a hole of 4 cm drilled though.
Many of the decorations at Husuni Kubwa carved from offshore living coral are unique to the east African coast. The most richly decorated part of the palace are the rooms at the northern tip. In these rooms dadoes, doorjambs, cornices, and gabled ends of barrel vaults were inlaid with carved coral panels. One such dado is carved with interlocking crosses creating an eight-pointed star shape between them. In the main room of these quarters, two deeply incised coral bosses depict a star surrounded by semi-circular petals and a pinwheel motif. A frieze of square panels decorated with a dart motif is unique in that it is comprised of both plaster and coral. Three panels with inscriptions were also found in these rooms: one invoking God's guidance for Sultan al Hasan ibn Sulaiman al Mali al Mansard, one wishing the occupants of the building we;;, and the third displaying ornate foliage interlaced with text, is not yet translated.
Throughout the palace are other decorative motifs occur including a herringbone cable pattern wrapping around corners, fleur-de-lys images and semicircular moldings mimicking the arcades of arches of the palace. Many decorative carvings on bosses and tiles appear to have remained unfinished.
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