Historic Sites at the Coast

45 Historic Sites at the Coast of Kenya

View of Mnarani Ruins in Kilifi County.  Photo Courtesy of PlanetWare
View of Mnarani Ruins in Kilifi County. Photo Courtesy of PlanetWare

Overview of the Historic Sites at the Coast

For the casual visitor, Fort Jesus, Gede Ruins, Jumba la Mtwana, Takwa Ruins and Siyu Fort are perhaps the most interesting and striking of the historic sites at the Coast Region of Kenya, yet, these are among the dozens of well-studied and accessible historic sites along the Coast.  Some of the historic sites found here are composed of the old settlement towns and outlying groups of tombs. It is awash with a collection of historic sites, found mainly along the coast, many of them on private lands; consisted of ancient mosques, ruins, palaces, houses, walls with gates and tombs. Owing to their isolation and overgrown vegetation, some are hard to reach. All historic sites found in Kenya are protected under Chapter 215 of the Laws of Kenya: The preservation of Objects of Archaeological and Palaeontological Interest Ordinance. This collates a list of those ruins and monuments listed as protected under the Subsidiary Legislation of Chapter 215, as revised in 1962, considering only historic sites in the Coast Region of Kenya.

The Ruins of Gede – Published by Jan van Bekkum

Forward: This list of Historic Sites at the Coast Region of Kenya contains excerpts from the in-depth research: “The Monumental Architecture and Archaelogy of the Central and Southern Coast” that was written by Thomas H. Wilson, Ph.D., in February, 1980.

Historic Sites in Kwale County

At the moment, the beautiful beach at Diani has been the most successful at attracting travellers to Kwale, yet, there’s much more to the county than the miles of perfect beach. It’s awash with a collection of historic sites, found mainly along the coast, many of them on private lands; consisted of ancient mosques, ruins, palaces, houses, walls with gates and tombs. Owing to their isolation and overgrown vegetation, some of the ruins are complicated to locate.

Map of Historic Site along Kwale's Coastline.  Image Courtesy
Map of Historic Sites along Kwale’s Coastline. Image Courtesy

1. Vumba Kuu

The historic old site of Vumba Kuu is located near the Kenya-Tanzania border (Lunga-Lunga) nearby the Mchamalale (or Mchongo) Stream. The site itself is densely overgrown, although much of the area around is under cultivation. An erosion channel and tidal flats divide the site into two parts: a western section, a small part of which is in Tanzania, and a smaller eastern area where a mosque is located. Vumba Kuu, which literally means the capital of Vumba, dates to the 15th Century coinciding with the arrival of the Bani Nabhani from Pate and the rise of the Omani (Arab) Rule. “It is likely that the historic date from Pate was incorporated into the history of Vumba Kuu. Seven sultans followed the first man enthroned at Vumba Kuu, allegedly in 1201+, before the reign of a Kwana Chambi chardi Ivoo, whose presence seems to be confirmed about 1630 – 80’s.” The area suggested by the curve of the town wall might reach seven acres, but if the eastern side is included the total area might double that. House remains could not be seen” – Thomas H. Wilson. All that remains of the mosque are the broken walls of its southeastern section, including: a south wall, ruined to a low height; a cistern to the east of the musalla, although, no trace of an anteroom can be seen; a well south of the rear wall, with an adjacent cistern, smaller than the other. Traditionally Vumba Kuu was said to have been founded in 1201+, as the date for the arrival of the Nabhani at Pate, and for the founding of Tumbatu.

2. The Ruins at Vanga

18 kms south of Lunga Lunga Town sits Vanga, a small fishing-town of mostly mud and thatch houses arranged along a neat series of north-south streets. The town is at the water’s edge, with access to the sea through a broad channel that is flanked by mangroves. Vanga is the most southerly settlement in Kenya and contrary to expectation, this ways-out hamlets is a treasure trove of historical ruins. Small tombs are scattered throughout Vanga, one of these having a small pillar about 2 ms high, with the base of a 19th century European ceramic mug on top. According to a report by National Museums of Kenya “Vanga was only a small fishing village when Diwan Sheikh moved there from Wasini about 1821.” Some of the other elaborate ruins include those left over from the British epoch.

3. Kagugu

This is a site out in the mangroves located a few minutes walk out of Vanga. There, on a grassy rise above sea level, a little island about 200 metres long by about 100 metres wide, are found an isolated cistern and, somewhat farther north, a ruined mosque. At the cistern is a collection of umpteen 19th century ceramics. The mosque was at the north end of the grassy high ground, but the north end of the structure has been carried away by tidal action. “The hidden nature of this site suggests ‘Kagugu’ is located where it is for defensive reasons”.

4. Wasini Island

The 21 km2 – 7 kms long and 3 kms wide – Wasini Island orientated in an east-west strike sits just 900 ms south the Shimoni Penninsula. Shimoni boatyard is traditionally the jump-off to the island. The little town of Wasini located on the northwestern side of the island is its main landing. The Island has a population of about 4,000 of mainly three fishing communities – Wadigo, Washirazi and Wavumba – who coexists in this dreamy place where life has changed very little in the past decades. At Wasini Island there are five mosques, three of which are still in use, associated tombs and the ruins of a few stone houses. Prom west to east the mosques: Msikiti wa Mira Mwiyuni, Msikiti Mdogo, Msikiti wa Ijumaa, Msikiti wa Kale and Msikiti wa Mgodo. The western mosque, Msikiti wa Mira Mwiyuni, was said to have been built by one Mkulu wa Mwenyi Mkuu of the al-Ba Urii family; he is said to have come from Pate. At the southwest corner of the mosque are six tombs, said to be those of Mkulu wa Mwenyi Mkuu and his kin.

The eastern mosque, Ksikiti wa Kgodo, like Ksikiti wa Kira Mwiyuni, is said to have been built by Mkulu wa Mwenyi Mkuu. The other unused mosque at Wasini, Msikiti wa Kale, is now in ruins. It’s thought to have been built by the agent of Ahmed bin Muhammad, the Mazrui governor of Mombasa. Ksikiti wa Ijumaa was built by Diwan Hasan, the son of Diwan Ruga, and completed in 1161 or 1162. Near the seafront is the grave of Iaarus, who is reported to have been considered a wizard and at whose grave the Digo were said to pray for rain. He is remembered today as a religious man, and a leper, to whom people, mostly sailors, would go to ask him to pray for them or their problems. The grave has short pillars on the east and west ends, with central wall monuments on the side walls and step ends at the corners with conical finials on top on the east end and cylindrical finials on the west. Its facades are decorated with blue and white bowls and plates. There is a tombstone at the grave that’s dated 1279.

Behind Msikiti wa Ijumaa are 26 tombs. 13 are arranged in three groups and a single tomb is at the southeast corner of the mosque. 5 tombs, or rather four tombs and a grave, are within a high-walled compound with a southern arched doorway. Another group of about 4 tombs is within another compound adjacent to the southwest, the eastern access to which is now blocked by a tomb straddling the doorway. The last 4 tombs are to the south and east of the others, and are not surrounded by a compound wall. Thomas H. Wilson

5. Chambocha Cemetery, Wasini

On the south side of Wasini Island, near the hamlet of Nyuma ya Maji, is found the Chambocha Cemetery; the burial place of the people of Wasini. The reason the cemetery is located so far away from the village is simply because there is not an area without stony ground any closer. At the cemetery, there about 50 tombs in thick bush. The tombs are small, usually single. The facades often have windows or niches and sometimes had plaques as well as bowls and dishes. To boot, some gravestones had inscriptions, although they are now mostly illegible.

6. Pongwe

A few kilometres west of Kidimu are the ruins simply known as Pongwe. Its only remains are the ruins of a small mosque now located about 20 metres inside the high water line, at the edge of the mangroves. It measures about five metres long and four metres wide; although the masonry nowhere stands to above one metre in height, the structure was undoubtedly a mosque: traces of the mihrab can be seen on the north, and there was likely a cistern on the south.

7. Hurumuzi (Hormuz)

The site of Hurumuzi, probably the old Hormuz (Ormuz), is located about 30 minutes’ walk west-south-west of Pongwe, through dense concentrations of mangroves. The site is on a little grassy knoll rising above the surrounding mangroves. Some scatters of local ceramics could be seen, and there were a few stones around that might have belonged once to structures. The main building is a small mosque of a single chamber, entered through a door on the south end of the east wall, and possibly through another in the south wall. The north, east and east half of the south walls stand; the west and west half of the southern walls have fallen. There is a single rectangular column in the centre of the room.

8. Shirazi

Shirazi, also known as Kifundi, is a pleasant little village at the edge of a sea channel about 3 kms from the highway. About 100 metres or less south of Shirazi village is a mosque and one or more tombs in dense bush. There are two wells, one south of the mosque that is still used by the people of the village, and an old well in the bush east of the mosque. The mosque is in extremely ruined condition, all walls and the qibla fallen except for a short portion of the north wall. On the outside it is seen that the north wall stands to a height of about two metres, demonstrating that the mosque is deep in rubble. The central musalla measures about 4-60 metres wide by 6.90 metres long. There is a niche on the east end of the north wall and a small window on the west end. The mihrab was framed by an architrave that on its lower faces was plain. There was probably a capital, below which the facade seems to have been plain. 200 metres north of Shirazi, about 150 metres from the high tide line sits a second mosque, in ruins.

9. Munge Ruins

The ruins at Munge consist of two mosques, one on a hill overlooking a little beach and the sea and the other about half a kilometre back from the sea in some shambas. The Munge mosque in the shambas is built upon a little hill and overlooks the surrounding land by a metre or two. The mosque consists of a central chamber, eastern and western flanking rooms, a southern chamber and an area delimited by a western peripheral wall. About 9 metres northwest of the mihrab is a well that does not appear to be used. Some sections of the mosque still stand, as does the mihrab, although this is tilting precariously to the north.

10. Gazi Ruins

Gazi was in the 19th Century the headquarters of Mbarak bin Rashid al Kazrui, whose palace with a carved wooden door may still be seen today. About 3 kms southeast of Gazi is a ruined mosque on the Khan farm. It appears to have been a three room type, with an eastern anteroom about 2.60 ms wide and a western room about 2.20 metres wide flanking the musalla, which measures 3-5 metres wide by 7.6 metres long. Enough low sections of the eastern wall of the musalla stand to indicate there were two doorways into the musalla. The western side is more crumbled although a section of the musalla wall may be seen at the south.

11. Galu Ruins

Galu ruins is a large walled compound similar in design to Tumbe, although it is located upon a hill rather than at the sea. It is a walled enclosure, approximately square, with western and eastern gatehouses. The western entry is in slightly better condition than the other but both structures reveal a two room ground plan. The former structure was two storied, as was probably the latter. Inside the compound is a well located about midway between the gatehouses; it is still in use. In the middle of the north and south walls were salient circular bastions with holes placed to allow enfilade fire across the northern and southern walls.

12. Ukunda Mosque

Ukunda Mosque, the remains of a single mosque may be found near the large baobab tree protected by presidential decree at Ukunda. It is a structure with eastern and probably western rooms flanking the musalla and with another room to the south. The musalla measures 5-20 metres wide by 8.95 metres long; the eastern room is about 2.10 metres wide. A section of the eastern wall survives and suggests that there were two eastern doorways opening into that chamber. At the northwest edge of the mosque is a tomb, just off the north wall.

13. Kongo Mosque

Also known as Tiwi Mosque, this 14th Century Arab Masjid originally known as Diani Persian Masjid, is thought to be one of the oldest in Eastern Africa. Most parts of its unusual copula or barrel vault have remained almost intact for many centuries. Remarkably, Kongo Mosque is still used day-to-day as a community Masjid. This ancient Masjid set next to the lovely Tiwi Beach and the scenically-splendid creek where enormous baobab trees stand sentinel, depicts the style of early Islamic Mosques. The flanking rooms were roofed with domes, and the three rear rooms were covered by four longitudinal barrel vaults. The doorways are simple archways, as in the mihrab, which opens without adornment from the wall plane into an unaecorated apse. This stark mihrab design was seen in the mosque by the sea at Munge and, in northern Lamu, in the mosque of the pillar at Shanga. “West of the mosque are walled courtyards, and to the north are five or more tombs, labelled A-E on the accompanying illustration. Tombs B, C, and D are interesting because they have basal curbs, but more particularly because they are rather large and are approximately square, or measure slightly longer on the east and west sides than on the north and south sides. Only tomb B was panelled, on the east side only, above which was a frieze of niches.” Tomb C might have been a step end tomb. It is located near Amani Tiwi Beach Resort.

14. Twiga Mosque

Not far northeast of the ruins of the “Mosque and houses of Kirima”, and only a few metres off the road between the highway and Twiga Lodge, is a small ruined mosque popular as the Twiga mosque. A part of the south wall stands but all other walls have fallen. A portion of the qibla survives under a tree, the roots of which twine throughout the masonry. Its facade has fallen, but there seem to have been several recessed orders under a capital. At the northeast corner of the masjid is a tomb with an arched window. It’s found 510 ms south of Tiwi Beach.

View of Kongo Mosque at Tiwi Beach.  Photo Courtesy
View of Kongo Mosque at Tiwi Beach. Photo Courtesy of Jumuiya News