Traveling the Islamic Swahili Coast of Kenya

Journeying the east coast of Africa, from Lamu Island near Somalia down to Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania (separate posts will cover these destinations).

Meanwhile, here’s some lesser-known places along the gorgeous Swahili Coast of Kenya.

Gorgeous river estuary at Kilifi.
Gorgeous river estuary at Kilifi. RIGHT: houses of expats amid colors of dusk and rainstorm; Swahili ruins of Mnarani on a bluff above the river at Kilifi. NOTE: intact Arabic inscriptions and pillar tomb.

Swahili culture is African and Islamic, with a touch of India and east Asia, too.

History of Africa’s Swahili Coast

For centuries, traders from Shiraz in Iran and Oman traded and later settled along the East African coast.

islamic Swahili ruins at Gede kenya
Swahili ruins at Gede. The city reached its peak in the 15th century … and was abandoned in the 17th or 18th century. Mosque overgrown by a tree – reminding me of Ta Phrom temple at Angkor, in Cambodia

Along with Islam, they also brought a written language and connections to ocean trade routes that stretched to India, Indonesia and China.

islamic Swahili ruins of small mosque and baobab tree at Kilifi on the coast of kenya
Swahili ruins of small mosque at  Kilifi, overshadowed by Kenya’s 4th largest baobab tree. It is 900 years old, and is still a sacred ceremonial place – that pre-dates the arrival of Islam in the region.

Swahili culture developed in about 60 cities long the eastern coast (from present-day Mogadishu in Somalia to Sofala in Mozambique).

Most famously however, were the centers of power established at the archipelago Sultanates of Lamu and Zanzibar.

For centuries, the Islamic world controlled the sea trading routes to India and Asia  

That was until 1498, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, looking for a sea-passage to India.

Fort Jesus Mombasa island kenya
Fort Jesus – an Unesco site – was built in 1593 by the Portugese on Mombasa island. But changed hands 9 times between 1631 + 1875, due to attacks by Swahili rebels, Omani troops and later, the British.

And within 3 decades of Da Gama landing in East Africa, Portugal had subdued and controlled the region in its desire to muscle in on the lucrative spice trade that had been dominated by Muslims for centuries.

After Da Gama’s voyages, Portuguese forts and firepower began sprouting up along strategic ports and resupply locations around the coasts of west and east Africa.

swahili coast scenes kenya
LEFT: Postcard-cliche Diani beach – Kenya’s mega resort-land. RIGHT: Cross monument where Vasco da Gama set foot in 1492 on the Swahili coast at Malindi and befriended the local Sultan, who in turn helped the Portuguese navigator sail onto India, via a guide with trade-winds knowledge and hence began the era of Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean trade routes. CENTER: Islamic Swahili ruins at Gede.

This vast trading network also linked the Persian Gulf to India (Goa + Diu), and later to Indonesia’s Spice Islands (Ambon and East Timor) and wound up in China at Macau.

But the Portuguese invaders didn’t get it all their way on the Swahili coast, with forts seized by rival European powers and some devastating defeats at the hands of Omani Muslim forces.

By the early 18th century, Portugal had lost control of the Swahili coast to the Omani Arab sultanate, based in Zanzibar.

monkeys swahili coast of kenya
The reason to visit mega-resort Diani beach was not the lovely beach, but solely to stay in a tree-house backpackers, surrounded by bush and monkeys and birds, etc. LEFT: Cobus monkey + baby. BOTTOM-RIGHT: Enjoying beer in the heat on my jungle balcony. TOP-RIGHT: Sykes monkeys – bastards. They managed somehow – even the management can’t fathom how they can get in – but they squeezed into my locked hut, as I was showering around dusk, and ripped open my cardboard cask of red wine and spilled it all on the floor… suppose that’s what happens when I poke out my tongue and film them – without their permission … !
Locals fishing and collecting seafood during low tide at the small town river estuary beach of Takaunga. I later hung-out with young fishermen, under the shade of the baobab tree.
people scenes swahili coast kenya
People of Swahili coast: Getting a local fry-up – spiced potatoes – to have with my beer; Boarding the ferry from Mombasa Island to the mainland; Islamic woman in old town of Mombasa, passing the Hindu-Indian influences from this ancient trade route.
Takaungu island swahili coast of coast kenya
Having taken a motorbike taxi, then crossed the estuary at low-tide by small boat, I arrived at Takaungu village, to gaze out at the river-mouth view to the sea.

Travels in Kenya – 2013


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