The coast of Kenya harbours several beautiful islands, but of interest to me today is Mombasa. This serene island is neatly surrounded by turquoise blue salty waters of the Indian Ocean and sunny sandy beaches, that continue to be the country’s largest tourist attraction site. The old town of Mombasa is one of those pre-historic sites that is a must visit for any tourist, whether domestic or international.
A huge monument of a golden kettle and China cups warmly welcomes its guests to the ancient town located in Vasco Da Gama street in the South East side of the island, that was formally inhabited by the Arabs, Swahili, British and Portuguese. The monument was a symbol of hospitality among the former inhabitants of the town. This monument was built by Burhan Ali in 1988. However, today, the old town is majorly inhabited by the Swahili people.
One unique feature of the old town is its architectural designs. According to a tourguide of the old town, Mr. Hassan, the architectural desigs were mainly influenced by the trade culture in Mombasa, then. He further explains that, these designs resemble those in Zanzibar. The buildings exist in beautifully carved Omani/ Lamu doors as well as elegantly styled wooden balconies attached to their turn of the century facades overlooking narrow streets.
Omar Hassan, a resident of the town states that most the houses have been inherited by descendants of the original grand owners. He goes ahead to explain that , those that have been rented out, are outrageously expensive.
Walking through the narrow streets, there are distinct landmarks which have remained relatively the same throughout history, that ought to be recognized.
Fort Jesus, is a yellowish-brown building that was constructed In the shape of a man, by the Portuguese on a coral ridge at the entrance of the harbour in 1593. Anne, another tour guide at the Fort states that 70% of the fort was curved out of coral rock and 30% was built of stone. Fort Jesus has proved to be one of the most commonly visited sites in the area.
Along the streets, first comes to sight an old but classy building. This is the Africa Hotel, built in 1901, making it the first hotel to be built in Kenya.Its 12 bedrooms were particularly appreciated for balconies with a lovely view of the sea, as there was no building opposite the hotel, facing the sea, thus giving unobstructed view of the sea.
Another site to behold is the Mandhry Mosque.” The mosque was built in 1507, by one of the families that came from Zanzibar,” says Mr.Hassan, a tour guide of the old town. This therefore makes the Mandhry mosque the oldest of its kind in Kenya. However, its elegant white walls may actually deceive the eye that it is not even a century old, and can only be betrayed by its old architectural style.
Old port of Mombasa
The Old Port is also another vital piece of the Old town’s history. It was a major port of the Triangular dhow trade in the Indian Ocean and the Arabic Gulf. “Today, the old port is only used by small ships and boats and it only receives food items”, Says Mr.Hassan. He further explains that there is a new port in Kilindini that harbours numerous ships that bring in cargo.
Just as one leaves the Old Port, a pungent smell of fish rents the air. This emanates from the Old fish market just around the bend. As we approach, a local fisherman cheerfully greets and welcome as in fluent Kiswahili and introduces himself as Farouq. “ This is the old fish market, it has been used for about the one thousand years and was recently restored”, says he. The old fish market is currently used by local fisherman, who prepare and sell their fish from there.” Almost everyone in the old town purchases fish from the old fish market”, Farouq concludes.
Our final site is the leather factory. This is a local factory that manufactures leather sandals, a common Swahili footwear. The leather is mainly obtained from hides of cows, sheep, goats and carmels. The factory provides employment to majority of the youth around the area, who make and sell sandals. One shop owner near the factory (name withheld) says that, he sells sandals at an affordable price of only 350 shillings. During such visits, he gets lots of local and international customers. The sandals come in different shapes, sizes and designs.
Also, the old town is a secure place with lots of families residing in the area. This is characterized by lots of children shouting and giggling, while in hot pursuit of one another, along the narrow streets.. In the evenings, one will also notice that the residents gather in small groups to engage in small talk , to pass time.
The old town is an attraction to both domestic and international tourists.Other must visit sites include the Old post office, the government square and the Portuguese church. It is a great honour to be part of a truly beautiful and historic culture.