Some history today…
The founding of Mombasa previously known as Mambasa is associated with two rulers: Mwana Mkisi and Shehe Mvita. According to oral history and medievals, Shehe Mvita superseded the dynasty of Mwana Mkisi and established his own town on Mombasa Island. Shehe Mvita is remembered as a Muslim of great learning and so is connected more directly with the present ideals of Swahili culture that people identify with Mombasa. The ancient history associated with Shehe Mvita and the founding of an urban settlement on Mombasa Island is still linked to present-day peoples living in Mombasa.
The city is located on the Island which is separated from the mainland by two creeks: Tudor Creek and Kilindini Harbour. The island is connected to the mainland to the north by the Nyali Bridge, to the south by the Likoni Ferry and to the west by the Makupa Causeway, alongside which runs the Kenya-Uganda Railway. The Port serves both Kenya and landlocked countries, linking them to the Ocean.
Most of the early information on Mombasa comes from Portuguese chroniclers writing in the 16th century. The famous Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta did visit Mombasa in 1331 on his travels on the eastern coast of Africa and made some mention of the city, although he only stayed one night. He noted that the people of Mombasa were Shãfi’i Muslims, “a religious people, trustworthy and righteous. Their mosques are made of wood, expertly built.”
Fort Jesus is perhaps Mombasa’s biggest attraction. The remains of the fort provide an interesting tour back through history and a small museum features a variety of relics. The modern center of Mombasa is the intersection of four major ways: Moi Avenue, Nyerere Road, Nkrumah Road, and Digo Road. The city’s most famous land mark is located on Moi Avenue: two pairs of crossed tusks created as a ceremonial arch to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Treasury Square remains the administrative center of Mombasa and features old colonial buildings, the historic town hall, and a charming garden square.
Vasco da Gama was the first known European to visit Mombasa, receiving a chilly reception in 1498. Two years later, the town was sacked by the Portuguese. In 1502, the sultanate became independent from Kilwa Kisiwani and was renamed as Mvita (in Swahili) or Manbasa (Arabic). Portugal attacked the city again in 1528, and built Fort Jesus in 1593 in an attempt to colonise, from which time it was governed by a Captain-major. In 1638, it formally became a Portuguese colony, subordinated to Goa, as a stronghold on the route to India.
However, the true heart of Mombasa is found in the exotic old town, among the narrow winding streets and Arab architecture. While Mombasa’s Old Town doesn’t quite have the medieval charm of Lamu or Zanzibar, it’s still an interesting area to wander around. The houses here are characteristic of coastal East African architecture, with ornately carved doors and window frames and fretwork balconies, designed to protect the modesty of the inhabitants. Sadly, many of these have been destroyed due to old age. There is now a preservation order by the Museum of Kenya on the remaining doors and balconies, so further losses should hopefully be prevented.
The streets are alive with the bright colours of the traditional coastal khanga and kikoy, the all purpose wrap around cloth worn by both men and women. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to walk around as there’s more activity, although most houses are residential these days and the streets are rather quiet, except for the moving cars edging their way round the corners.
Over the centuries, there have been many immigrants and traders who have settled in Mombasa, who came mainly as traders and skilled craftsmen. Even after four or five generations, their descendants continue to contribute highly to the economy of present day Mombasa and Kenya as a whole.
Photography | Joe Lukhovi