The ruins of Ungwana, until recently, were believed by most archaeologists studying them to be too sophisticated to have been produced by an African society. Now some African archaeologists think that the local inhabitants may have played a much bigger role in their existence than previously thought.
The ruins consist of remnants of a town that was once encircled by a wall which enclosed 8 mosques, numerous houses and several groups of large monumental tombs.
Much of the excavation done at the site was concentrated around the main mosque known as the Two Jamia or the Friday Mosque, the Domed Mihrab, the Sea Wall and the site at the gate adjacent to the Two Jamia.
The early mosque was built in the 15th century and later in the same century, a 2nd prayer hall with 3 rows of piers and a domed portico was added.
The origin of the town has puzzled and impressed many archaeologists because of its elaborate plasterwork and indoor toilets to the extent that most thought these features to be cultural transplants from another continent, constructed by Arab traders who visited the African coast and decided to stay.
It is here at Ungwana ruins a large earthen mound, to the northeast of the ancient town and adjacent to the town wall, is believed to be the burial site of the legendary Fumo Liyongo, the giant Swahili poet-king who was indestructible in war.
The ruins of Ungwana, which have now been identified as Hoja, were initially settled by the Portuguese. The site which extends roughly over 45 acres, was first excavated by Kirkman in the 1950s and more extensively, in 1990, by Abungu.
At its peak, it appears Ungwana was highly prosperous. It ceased to exist as a community in the last quarter of the 17th century due to the advancement of the Galla, an Eastern Cushitic-speaking people from south-western Somalia. The town can be divided into sections based on the spatial organisation of the standing ruins.
The standing stone houses at Ungwana are concentrated in the central and eastern parts of the settlement. Most of the houses are known from standing piles of rubble – except for the palace, the midwest section where there are houses of long rooms and a group of houses in the eastern section.
The divisions of the town are as follows: the palace (central), the central section, the south section, the commercial section, the midwest section, the western, the north-west section, the south-western section, the wells, the town wall, the mosques 1 to 7 and the burial tombs.
Ungwana Ruins are fast disappearing because of chemical weathering, human farming activities nearby and the ever-encroaching plant life. The coastal monsoon rains are not helping to slow down the decay either.
Today only stubs of a once magnificent town remain. Soon even these may be no more and at that point, it may only be stories like these that carry their memories to the future. All in all, it provides quite an interesting experience as you explore ancient coastal architecture.