The living history of Lamu

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Siyu Fort on Pate Island, Lamu archipelago
Siyu Fort on Pate island, Lamu archipelago. Photo: Maina Kiarie.

In Lamu, history and modern life are inextricably linked.

The community has learned the value of its history, and the importance of traditions and customs. The values, beliefs and way of life throughout the Islands are all part of a rich culture that grew and expanded with the sprawling stone town at the heart of the archipelago.

Market outside Lamu fort in Lamu, Kenya, (1892) by Adolph Jacob Hertz (1865-1912)
Market outside Lamu fort in Lamu, (1892) by Adolph Jacob Hertz (1865-1912)

This was a civilization born of the trade winds that first brought commerce to these chores two thousand years ago. The first recorded history of Lamu dates from the 15th Century, and the following centuries saw visits by traders and explorers from Turkey, Portugal, China and other great trading nations.

But the most pervasive influences came from Middle East, and Arab traders settled in the area from the 9th century onwards. They called the local people “Swahili” (people of the coast) and the gradual intermarriage of the two communities and their lifestyles created and enduring new culture.

The turbulent history of the Swahili Coast saw battles for control of commerce between the Omani Arabs and the Portuguese, and regional conflicts between the Islands of Lamu Manda and Pate. Lamu remained a significant and prosperous trading port until the late 19th Century, and in many ways have remained unchanged by modern influence.

For visitors to the region, sailing across the channel from Manda to Lamu is to arrive in the same way centuries of traders’ explorers and adventures first entered this antique town. The sea front throngs with activity donkeys, porters and merchants bustle around the dhow docks and jetties that surround the gateway to the town’s central fort, built by the Omanis in 1808.

Donkey transport in Lamu
Donkey transport in Lamu. Photo: Karl Ragnar Gjertsen

The town of Lamu is a preserved treasure of both architecture and town planning. The town consists of over 40 individuals’ areas or Mitaa, with a main thoroughfare (Usita wa Mui or Harambee Ave.) separating the original stone town from the comparatively recent 19th Century seafront.

The Central Sultan’s Fort (1808) has been through various changes over the years, including conversion into a prison. It is now a Museum and its forecourt is home to Lamu’s largest open market.

Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001, the narrow labyrinthine streets of Lamu town is a historical attraction in them. Exploring the town on foot is the best way to soak up the living, breathing history of Lamu.

Lamu Museum entrance
Lamu Museum entrance. Photo: Karl Ragnar Gjertsen

The Lamu Museum has excellent exhibits on Swahili culture in general and Lamu culture in particular and can provide information and advice on visiting other historical sites throughout the archipelago.

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