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Kenya Lamu

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Lamu District

Nowhere else can you absorb the romantic atmosphere of Swahili Culture more than in Lamu. There are markets and colourful lanes, relaxed lifestyle, traditional architecture, museums, forts, magnificent beaches and a great nightlife to explore.
Remote and self contained, Lamu is a place, which offers an unmatched cultural feast and a traditional architectural style.

The town was founded in the 14th century and it contains many fine examples of Swahili architecture. The old city is inscribed on the World Heritage List as "the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa".

Once a center for the slave trade, the population of Lamu is ethnically diverse. Lamu was on the main Arabian trading routes, and as a result, the population is largely Muslim. Due to the narrowness of the streets, automobiles are not allowed - the city is easily explored by foot, bicycle, or, as many locals favour, donkey.

Today Lamu is reputed among the tourists as a relaxed destination with a glorious past.

Places to go in Lamu:

Lamu Museum

The Lamu Museum is on the waterfront on the Kenyatta Road, housed in a building once occupied by Jack Haggard, Queen Victoria's consul in this outpost. Displays on Swahili culture include a reconstructed Swahili house and relics from Takwa. Other exhibits include Lamu's nautical history, the Maulid Festival and tribes that lived along this part of the coast, including the Boni who were legendary elephant hunters. The nautical section of the Lamu museum features aside of many other interesting items, a variety of dhows, the traditional Swahili sailing ships.

Riyadha Mosque

Habib Salih, a Sharif with family connections to the Hadramaut, Yemen, settled on Lamu in the 1880´s, and became a highly repected religious teacher. Habib Salih had great success gathering students around him and in 1900 the Riyadha Mosque was built. He introduced Habshi Maulidi, where his students sang verse passages accompanied by tambourines. After his death in 1935 his sons continued the Madrassa, which became one of the most prestigeous centers for Islamic Studies in East Africa. The Mosque is the centre for the famous Maulidi Festival, which are held every year during the last week of the month of the Prophet´s birth. During this festival pilgrims from Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Zanzibar and Tanzania join the locals to sing the praise of Mohammad.

Lamu Fort

Fumo Madi ibn Abi Bakr, Sultan of Pate, started to build the fort on the seafront, to protect members of his unpopular government. He died in 1809, before the first storey of the fort was completed.

Manda Island

Manda is an island of the Lamu Archipelago of Kenya, known for the ruined ports of Takwa and Manda town. The island is linked by ferry to Lamu and is home to an airstrip, while Manda Toto island lies to its west. The island is separeted from the mainland by the narrow Mkanda channel.


Both Manda town and Takwa were probably abandoned due to lack of water. In the 1960´s the Kenya Department of Agriculture recommended building several concrete catchments called jabias to capture rain water on the island. Two jabias were build and many families moved onto the island, farming maize, cassava, simsim and cotton.

Manda Town

The Manda town ruins (by the coast on the NW side), were excavated by Neville Chittick. Manda owed its origins in the 9th and 10th centuries to trade with the Persian/Arabian Gulf. The large scale excavations revealed an unrivalled prosperity for the period and include Chinese ceramics dating from the ninth century onward, Islamic pottery and glass and local pottery datable by the associated imports. Manda prospered until the century when it began to decline. It was abandoned (due to lack of water) in the first half of the 19th century. At the heights of its power the town covered some 40 acres and its population is estimated to have been about 3,500.


The Takwa site can be easely reached from Lamu town. The ruins (on the south side of the island) were first excavated by James Kirkman in 1951. In 1972 the site was cleared again under the supervision of James de Vere Allen, the Curator of the Lamu Museum. Takwa was never a large place. It was founded around year 1500, and probably abandoned around 1700. Kirkman thought that it was perhaps a place were holy men or religious people retreated. The Great Mosque at Takwa is relatively well preserved. The other structure remaining of importance is the Pillar Tomb, which has an inscription with the date of 1681-1682. It is reported that when Takwa was abandoned, its inhabitants settled just across the bay at Shela on Lamu Island. Twice a year the people of Shela come to the Pillar Tomb in Takwa to pray for rain.

Pate Island

From the seventh century, Paté was an early site of Arabic colonisation. It long vied as a Swahili port with Lamu and with Takwa on Manda Island and came to prominence around the fourteenth century, but was subjugated by Lamu in the nineteenth century.

There is no motorized transport on the island. The main administrative centre on the island, with the police station, is Faza.


Faza, on the North coast, dates back at least to the fourteenth century. In 1587 Faza was destroyed by the Portuguese as the local Sheikh had supported Mirale Bey, a notorious privateer who had earlier played a key role in ousting the Portuguese from Muscat. The Portuguese arrived from Goa with some 650 men on their punitive expedition, and unleached their fury on Faza. Everybody they could find was killed, including the lokal Sheikh. The Portuguese preserved his head in a barrel of salt for display in India. After 4 days of loothing they invited Fazas archrivals from Pate town to take away anything that they liked from Faza.

Faza was later resettled. The Portuguese in Faza constructed a chapel there, however, nothing remains of it. In the 18th century Faza again fell into decline due to the rise of Pate. The English Consul Holmwood visited the place in 1873 and found it "dirty and infected with diseases".

Pate Town

Pate Town is situated on the South-West coast of the island. According to the Pate Chronicle, the town of Pate was founded by refugees from Oman in 8th century and re-founded by members of the Nabahani family, also from Oman, in 1204. The Pate Chronicle also claims that in the 14th century Pate was so powerful that it had conquered most of the coastal towns of East Africa. However, recent archeological findings (by Neville Chittick) suggest that the early references in the Chronicle to Pate are wrong and that the town is in fact younger.

The 18th century was known as the "Golden Age of Pate", when the town was at its height of powers and also prospered in fine arts. Builders constructed some of the finest houses on the East Africa coast, with extensive elaborate plaster works. Goldsmiths made intricate jewelry, fine cloths (including silks) were made by Pate´s weavers and carpenters prodused fine wooden furniture. Both men and women wrote poetry in the Kiamu dialect of Swahili. The use and production of the musical instrument known as Siwa were most famous. Two examples of Siwas still remains in the museum in Lamu.

The downfall of Pate town came as a consequence of continuous quarrelling/warring with its neighbours from the end of the 18th century. In 1813 the famous "Battle of Shela" took place at Shela. This was an attempt by Pate, allied with the Mazrui clan from Mombasa/Oman, to subject Lamu. The attempt failed totally, and many were killed. Only a handful of people managed to return to Pate, and their lossess were felt for years. By 1892 the number of inhabitants had fallen to only 300, down from 7000. Today, the town have recovered some. Agriculture is today the main economic activity.


Siyu is situated on the North coast of Pate island. As no major excavations have been done in Siyu, its age is not known, but it might date from the 13th century. Gaspar de Santo Bernadino visited the town in 1606, and stated that it was the largest town on the island.

Siyu´s main claim to historical fame is that it through several battles withstood the Sultans of Zanzibar. In 1843 the Sheikh of Siyu, Bwana Mataka, and the new Sheikh of Pate, repudiated the sovereignity of Seyyid Said, Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar. In response, Seyyid Said assembled an army consisting of 2000 people from Muscat, Baluchistan and Lamu. Leading them was his relative General Seyyid Hamad bin Ahmed Al-Busaidy, known as Amir Hamad. He had previously been Governor of Bandar Abbas (in 1824). He landed at Faza in early January 1844. On January the 6th they moved towards Siyu, but were ambushed and forced back to Faza. After three weeks without victory Amir Hamad sailed off.

In 1845 Siyu gave Seyyid Said one of his greatest military defeats. When Siyu finally succumbed to Zanzibars dominance, under Sultan Majid in 1863, it was one of the last towns on the whole of East Africas coast to do so.


Kizingitini is situated on the North coast and is the largest fishing port on the island.


Shanga is situated on the South-East coast. It is an important archaeological site.

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