Mombasa Old Town: Then and Now

There are places in this world that are so full of history, it’s impossible to grasp the full extent of the secrets and treasures they hold.

Welcome to Old Town Mombasa..


1572 Mombasa by Gorge Braun: source

Renowned for its cultural diversity, its ornate balconies, intricately carved doors and precariously narrow streets, the old town of Mombasa serenely sits by the edge of the sea like an old man reflecting on a life well lived.

The town which spans an area of approx 180 acres was the first settled area on the island. It is believed to have been primarily started by members of the Swahili ethnic group.

As you would imagine, a post titled Mombasa old town, then and now would naturally take you the reader through a series of both past and present photos ( which I assure you it will). But this time round, think of it as more of a journey back and forth through time. A journey which like any other, has its fair share of setbacks, adventures and wonderful encounters.

We begin somewhere in the 12th century as we accompany the famed geographer and cartographer Al Idrisi on his travels around the world. In his work, Al Idrisi gives the first published reference to Mombasa. His citing enabled historians to estimate that the town was probably founded ca. 1000. (Although there is no agreement as to exactly when or who founded it)

The world as it was known in the 12th century


1154 world map by Al Idrisi for King Roger of Sicily Image Source

In the spring of 1331, another notable figure visited the town. The acclaimed Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta traveled south along the East African coast from Aden to Mogadishu, Mombasa and down to Kilwa, center of the Kilwa Sultanate. At its height, the sultanate claimed lordship over most mainland and island states along the Swahili Coast, Mombasa being one of them. Ibn Battuta, who spent one night in the town described Mombasa as..

” a large island with two days journey by sea between it and the land of the “Sawãhil”. It has no mainland. Its trees are the banana, the lemon, and the citron. They have fruit which they call the “jammun”, which is similar to the olive ….the people are a religious people, trustworthy and righteous. Their mosques are made of wood, expertly built. At every door of the mosques there are one or two wells…

At this time, the town was still relatively small. It hardly had the air of a town that would grow into a major port or a thriving commercial center. It would take a while for the young town to find its ground but this was a very short time compared to the years of prosperity that were soon to follow…

Our next stop over, the 16th century… It’s been close to 300 years of slow but steady trade and growth..

In 1584, the first standard map of Africa was drawn and the town of ‘Mombaza’ can be clearly seen along the East African Coast. Other  towns indicated on the map include ‘ Melinde‘ ( Malindi ), ‘Magadazo‘ ( Mogadishu) and Lamu.

1584ortelius map with Mombasa

The 1584 Africa map by Ortelius Abraham,1527-1598. source

In this map there is a town and in this town there is a port and in this port lies the budding heart of a future city.

For close to 400 years, this very port was the main docking place for traders from Arabia, India, Persia, and Somalia. Every year during the season of the monsoon winds, their dhows sailed south and graced the shores of the Indian Ocean. The traders brought with them a variety of goods such as spices, silk, textiles, oils and porcelain. And when the time came and the monsoon winds blew north, some merchants would return to their countries and come back the next year. Others chose to stay and establish themselves in the town.

But it wasn’t just goods that they brought with them, it was their culture too. The coastal trade formed the basis for cultural integration and interaction in the area. An interaction that is to this day reflected in Swahili cuisine, language and architecture, among several other things.

In 1885, Kenya was declared a British protectorate. One of the main priorities of the British was to do away with slave trade in the region. It was proposed that a railway be built from Mombasa to Uganda therefore eliminating the need for caravans which were the main mode of transportation for slaves and ivory .

The prospects of building a railway meant that there was a need for a fully-fledged sea port with a deep water habour to handle larger ships bringing construction materials and workers for the new railway. As a result, a new port was created at Kilindini Harbour in 1896. From that point henceforth, all major imports and exports were conducted through there. Today, the old port is mainly used by local fishermen and traders.

OLD PORT ca. 1901 and in 2015

 Old Port history

As previously noted, the impact of the Indian Ocean trade went far beyond the commercial activities undertaken. It came to define the political, social and religious practices of the town. In 1507, Abdalla bin Ali founded what is considered to be the first mosque in Kenya – The Mandhary mosque. An extension was added to the mosque in 1988.

Mandhary mosque in the 1980s and 2015 Mombasa Old Town then and now old port mosque

 Mandhary mosque well ca. early 1900’s and 2015

Mombasa Old Town then and now

1900’s Image Source , 2015 Image Source

” As we journey through time remember: There are always two sides to history.

The visible one – that which we see and admire,

and the invisible one – that which stems our curiosity and enchantment. “

The visible aspects of the Old Town’s history can be seen from the nature of its buildings down to the very ground on which it stands. The buildings which combine flourishes and geometric patterns from a variety of cultures – African, Arabic, Asian and European – date to as far back as the 17th and 18th century .

Buildings along Old Town Streets ca. early 1900’s and 2015

Mombasa Old Town then and now street

1900’s Image Source

The distinctive character of the town’s streets is defined by intricately hand carved wooden balconies that line the buildings. The balconies which are of varying designs each flaunt a different pattern /color or structure.

Mombasa Old Town Balconies

In 1837 Mombasa and its domains came under the lordship of the Omani ruler of Zanzibar and Muscat, the Busaidi sultan, Sayyid Said.

In some respects, Zanzibar was Mombasa’s Paris. As recently as the 1960’s before the revolution radically changed Zanzibar, what was au courant there was to be looked up to and emulated in Old Town. – Marc .J. Swartz

In these streets, everything has a story and our journey to the 19th century brings us to this one..

The Mombasa House

The Mombasa House was built in 1880 by a former customs master to the Sultan of Zanzibar, Mr. Jadewji Dewji. A unique feature of this two storey house is its closed balcony which was so designed to provide intimacy and privacy for the family members, especially the women. The balcony which remains practically unchanged since it was first built, is one of the best preserved in Mombasa.

Mombasa House then and now

Mombasa Old Town then Mombasa House

Image source (left) : NMK

But it is of little benefit for posterity to speak so highly about what was and totally disregard what is. And the reality we face today is that the Old Town is crumbling. Despite its timeless beauty, neglect looms eerily over the town like a thick dark cloud.

Where are we Today ?

MombasaOldTown Falling

Ali’s Curio market (formerly the police station)  1980’s and 2015

Mombasa Old Town then and now Ali's Curio Shop

Due to poor maintenance, buildings in the town are in a deplorable state. The condition varies from building to building, with each requiring its own level of restoration.

It is important to note that the Old Town represents one of the very few places in East Africa where Swahili culture is still traditionally practiced and upheld. Therefore, it’s not just the buildings that are in danger of disappearing; the neglect poses a direct threat to the culture too.

Residents complain about the lack of financial support from the local government yet many tourists pay to visit the area.  They say they are expected to restore their homes at costs which are simply too high for them to afford.

Lack of community involvement in matters regarding the town has further aggravated the situation. Yet community participation is a major part of any conservation project.

Local communities play a big role in contributing to practical solutions to the problems they face and finding sustainable ways of maintenance. As the blame continues to be passed back and forth, the town continues to deteriorate. Wherever the buck stops, the situation has become almost too painful to ignore and should be dealt with urgently. Amicable agreements should be reached between relevant stakeholders on how best to go about maintaining the town and securing the stability of its buildings and notable structures.

Like a painting that never fades, the vibrant colors and character of the town are still apparent to all who visit and inhabit it. There still remains much to be admired and as you walk down the streets, you can’t help but pensively gaze at…

The Hand Carvers at work

Mombasa Old Town 2015 12

The children playing along the street

Mombasa Old Town 2015 10

The elaborate, hand carved coastal  doors


But Perhaps the most beautiful and admirable thing about this quaint coastal town, is its resilience and its daring will to survive.

In June of this year , Thee Agora teamed up with Swahili Box to curate and visualize conservation data for the old town. This would entail coming up with digital solutions to solve cultural issues pertaining mostly to conservation and preservation. The map embedded below which was developed by the SwahiliBox research team, allows users to visually interact with the town and read about the history of respective buildings and their current conditions. Perhaps this is where the future is headed. That I am not sure, but it is certainly a step in the positive direction.

As our journey comes to an end, we can not help but admire the thousands of stories and secrets from different eras that this town holds. And as we wave good bye to the old man by the sea, he smiles shyly with his head towards the horizon. His eyes are weary and one can see a glint of sadness in them. But despite everything, they are dominated by hope.

Old Town Conservation Map

All images used in this post are copyright of Thee Agora unless otherwise stated and may be freely distributed under the creative commons licence.