The Kenyan coast has one of the oldest civilizations in the east Africa region for its longstanding contacts with the outside world going to over 1000 years ago. The rich heritage is best represented by a wide range of landmark building some central to the people culture to date. In this guide we shall cover some of the most remarkable places you could visit and learn the interesting evolution of the civilization which is a mix of Arabic, Swahili and European culture.
Fort Jesus is the most iconic building in Mombasa old town. The fortress was built in 1593 under the instructions of then Portuguese King Philip I following the conquest of the Kenyan coast. The building would be completed in 1596 and was mainly used as a strategic watch tower against attackers who would come through the seas. For its significant role when controlling the colony, the fort Jesus was constantly under attack from potential regimes mostly the Arabs who have had interest in the East African coast. Between 1670 and 1880 fort Jesus had changed ownership 9 times between the Portuguese, Arab, Persians and Swahili warriors. Today the fortress is a panoramic piece of architecture with great artifacts to be studied by historians. The interior of the facility also features different chambers like Mazrui hall and omani house each representing some of the interesting facts of the Kenyan history.
Situated in the Arabuko Sokoke forest 16 km south of Malindi town and 90 km to the north of Mombasa town, is what remains of an ancient Swahili town. The well organized town sat in a 45 acres piece of land which depicts the opulence in one of the ancient african civilizations. The wealth is depicted by the presence of magnificent mosque, a large palace, tombstones and palatial houses. Historian believe that the town was first established in the 12th century. It was then rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries facts that are backed by relatively new buildings and town walls. Said to have completely declined in the 17th century. The decline is attributed to many factors amongst them attacks from Wazimba warriors and the Portuguese.
Vasco Da Gama pillar
The incredibly alluring coral column was erected by the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama in 1498. The pillar in Malindi is the foremost European landmark features in the Kenyan coast having been built about a century before the fort Jesus. The pillar was used for directing Portuguese ships headed to the Indian Goa colony. The pillar is designed like a lighthouse and is built from limestone that was shipped from Portugal. Today the pillar is one of the most visited monuments in the Kenyan coastline.
Jumba la Mtwana
The ruins of the small historical Swahili town are situated just 20 km from Mombasa in the Mtwapa creek. The architecture is Arabic design featuring large arch openings and wide coral blocks. Though the excavation is still in progress some of the buildings are intact and in recognizable conditions. Though there are no written records about when the town was established and its decline, available material evidence indicate the town was built in 14th century and abandoned in the 15th century.
Lamu was built is in 1813 to 1821 by the omani arab rulers. The fortress was initially used as a watch tower against invaders from the seas mostly the Portuguese who had been disposed from most of their territories in the coastal strip in a number of wars with the arabs. The fortress would however, loose its significant as the lamu region turned less economically significant to the arab rulership and much of the administrative work moved to Mombasa and Zanzibar. In 1910 the British colonial government converted the ort to a prison up to 1984. Today the fort is used as a coastal library where a lot of written materials on the rich coastal heritage are displayed.
Kongo mosque is said to have been the oldest mosque in the Kenyan coast have been built by early Arabs merchants in the 14th century. The mosque was initially named Diani Persian mosque. Afterwards, the mosque was abandoned and engulfed by the coastal forest as well as a number of the giant baobab trees. The mosque would later be reinvented and rehabilitated by Muslim scholar Sheikh Mwenye Kombo in 1710s. Sheikh Kombo later renamed the facility to Kongo after a Muslim faithful swaddiq Kongo who was buried in the site. The mosque is still in use over 300 years later. Even though most of the initial architecture have been erased over time, there still coral stone wall which were used in the days. Besides there is a large round stone that dates before the mosque and which the locals claim to have been used in by natives to perform rituals.
Kaya kinondo shrines
Kaya kinondo forest was once a dominion of the Mijikenda a community of related coastal Bantu sub-tribes. To avoid conflict with the Arabs and the Cushitic neighbors, the Mijikenda lived in organized villages (Kaya) set in clearings at the heart of the deep coastal forest. The paths leading to the villages were well guarded to avoid intrusion. However, in the 19th century as the community grew, the Mijikenda started establishing new settlement and by 1930s the entire community had vacated the forest. To day the Kayas are used as shrines by the community elders. Tourists are open to visiting alongside the kinondo forest walk.
Takwa ruins are what remains of a small but densely populated city that existed between the 15th and 17th century. The ruins situated in the manda island just 20 minutes boat ride from the lamu island, has a great sense of once a prosperous and thriving settlement with its incredible coral stone Arabic architecture. The most iconic feature is a mosque built with a large pillar and set on top of kibla wall. Some of the reasons that lead to the decline of the town includes attacks from the more powerful pate town and salination of the surrounding waters.
Siyu fort is the only fortress in the Kenyan coast that was built by the Native. Situated in the Pate island across a tidal channel to the north of Lamu town, siyu fortress was built by Mohammed Ishaq bin Mbarak bin Mohamed bin Oman Famau one of the local siyu leaders. The purpose for its building was to protect the local community from invasion by the powerful Omani rulers who reigned over much of the Eastern African coastal strip and its islands. The building is built from local materials and has square shape with large corner pillars. There is a large mosque in the fort and which is in use to date and accommodates up to 600 Islamic faithful. Besides the mosque tourists there are tombs and other iconic features in the surrounding siyu town.
Portuguese chapel is the oldest Christian place of worship in Kenya having been established in the year 1502 over 340 years before the Rabai church the oldest church in Kenya was established by church missionary society (CMS). The chapel was built by Portuguese famous explorer Vasco da Gama on his second voyage to Goa via the East African coast. During his first voyage he had built the famous Vasco da Gama pillars and the chapel was built close-by. This chapel is said to have been intentionally built as a small hut like structure bearing the fact that the coastal Kenya was largely Islamic and the Portuguese were viewed as unwelcomed intruder. The church was mainly used by Portuguese factory workers. In 1542 catholic missionary Francis Xavier (later saint Francis Xavier) and who was the founder of the society of Jesuits, passed by on his way to Goa and buried one of his accompanying voyagers in the chapel graveyard. After the fall of the Portuguese rule in 1594 the history of the church became obscure up until 1894 when British first Malindi district commissioner J Bell Smith was buried in the facility moments after the British took over the coastal region under the British east Africa protectorate. Today the facility is a popular site for religious pilgrimage and is managed by the national museum of Kenya.