The Islamic, Swahili Coast of Kenya

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A journey down the Swahili coast of Kenya, from Lamu Island to Zanzibar Island – in Tanzania (separate posts will follow on these two destinations.)

Meantime, here’s some of the in-between places that form the gorgeous Swahili coast of East Africa.

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.

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

Swahili ruins at Gede
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

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

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

Swahili ruins of small mosque and baobab tree at  Kilifi
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.

The Islamic world controlled the trade routes to India and Asia.  

Until the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498, who first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, looking for a sea-route to India.

Fort Jesus Mombasa island
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.

Within 3 decades of Da Gama landing, 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 many centuries.

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

swahili coast scenes
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 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 coast, with fort seizures by other European powers and some devastatingly defeats by the armies of Oman.

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

monkeys 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 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 village river swahili 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.

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