Unguja Ukuu – Unguja Ukuu, Tanzania - Atlas Obscura

Unguja Ukuu, Tanzania

Unguja Ukuu

A remote island settlement off the coast of Tanzania is a storied archaeological site with an ancient past. 

Located on Unguja, the largest of two principal islands that constitute the Zanzibar Archipelago, Unguja Ukuu is a far-flung village off the East African coast boasting quiet beaches and idyllic forests. Bantu for “Central Place,” the name Unguja Ukuu is in keeping with the extensive Asian, Middle Eastern, and European artifacts uncovered in the region.  

Archaeological evidence suggests that Unguja Ukuu was once a crossroads of international mercantilism, long predating Zanzibar’s neighboring Stone Town, a better-known 19th-century Swahili trading port-turned-World Heritage Site, though it’s believed that a smaller, peripheral village existed where Stone Town was built from the 11th century onward.

Unearthed pottery, glassware, currency, and jewelry from India to the Roman Empire indicate that Unguja Ukuu was a notable and prosperous point on a global network of trading routes. An excavation carried out in the 1920s uncovered the ruins of a mosque, demonstrating an Islamic presence in the area, as well as Iranian coins minted in Baghdad between the late 8th and 10th centuries.

A later archaeological sweep in 1966 yielded fragments of Chinese stoneware and Islamic pottery with origins somewhere between the 8th and 9th centuries. At the time, the height of Unguja Ukuu society was subsequently dated between the 8th century up until the 1500s. It wasn’t until 1991 that a deeper dig uncovered early 6th-century pottery from Egypt and the Roman Empire, revealing an even older history than anthropologists had previously accounted for.

Today, Unguja Ukuu is one of the least-visited parts of Tanzania, offering pristine vistas for travelers in search of a truly undisturbed getaway.

Know Before You Go

Multiple tour companies offer private day trips to Unguja Ukuu by boat. Most tours offer transportation to and from Unguja Ukuu, lunch, and the opportunity to snorkel, sail, and explore.

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