Historic Sites at the Coast

Historic Sites in Kilifi County

If one is interested in exploring the compelling history of the Coast Region of Kenya, few destinations can better the enriching experience of Kilifi County.  Its charm in beauty and extent of historic sites has attracted the attention of many adventure-makers. Along the coast of Kilifi, ecclesiastical ruins are frequently to be seen, dating back in some cases to the early 9th Century.  Jumba la Mtwama, found just a few kilometres north of the city of Mombasa, is a perfect example. The famous Gede Ruins which are just off the main Mombasa-Malindi Road, near Watamu, and which can be visited within a day from Mombasa or Malindi, are perhaps the most interesting of these reminders of the Arabic influence on the Coast. At Gede Ruins, there are extensive ruins of palaces, a walled ancient town, numerous tombs, and several important remains of large heroic mosques.

Map of Coastline along Kilifi Counties.  Image Courtesy
Map of Lower Coastline along Kilifi Counties. Image Courtesy

20. Mtwapa Ruins

Mtwapa Ruins is a large site on the north side of Mtwapa Creek, in thick bush, with many walls of about 60 houses still standing, stretching several hundred metres north to south; but the breadth of the site is continually reduced by the construction of houses overlooking the creek and the ocean. It is not difficult to imagine that Mtwapa was once considerably larger than its present size. Cut coral was used for the edges of doorways and decorative pilasters. A town wall surrounded the site and may be seen today as a high mound of earth extending across roads and through the bush. There was apparently one congregatioral mosque at Mtwapa, still seen at the site. “The Mtwapa Ruins is a site of great archaeological potential, for settlement pattern studies, survey and mapping, architectural study and excavation. Few other sites could rival it in quantity and quality of its standing remains. It would have had much more potential for development as a national monument if its access to the sea and Mtwapa Creek had not been cut off by new houses, which must have greatly damaged the site”.

21. Jumba la Mtwana

Eke-named “the house of many doors” or “the slavemaster’s house”, Jumba la Mtwana is perhaps the most pronounced structure along the Coast Region of Kenya, and among the best preserved ancient ruins. It consists of four mosques and a number of houses located in a picturesque setting on and above the beach not far north of the mouth of Mtwapa Creek; or again: “Jumba la Mtwana has four mosques, a tomb and four houses that survived in recognizable condition. These houses include the House of the Cylinder, The House of the Kitchen, The House of the Many Pools and the Great Mosque; all part of its three phases. The inhabitants of this centre were mainly Muslims as evidenced by its numbers of ruined mosques”. The site was investigated in depth by James Kirkman in 1972, who cleared some of the houses and at least one of the mosques. He dates the site to the late 11th Century early 15th Century. One of the mosques of Jumba la Mtwana, cleared and planned by Kirkman (1972) is aptly known as the Great Mosque or the Mosque by the Sea. There is a second mosque near the centre of the site, a small mosque at the far western end, and the fourth mosque, or the domed mosque, is found some metres north of the cleared areas of the National Monument. North of this mosque is a cemetery, with several tomb enclosures abutting the little coral cliff to the west. The style of architecture seen at Jumba la Mtwana is comparable to the style of ancient ruins found at the Songo-Mnara Region, of Tanzania’s Coast. The ruins are found 16 kms north of Mombasa, off Mombasa-Malindi-Lamu Road for 4 kms to the northern end of Mtwapa Creek.

A Section of Jumba la Mtwana Ruins in Kilifi. Image Courtesy

22. Vipingo Mosque

The Vipingo mosque is located on the beach about 14 kms north of Mtwapa and 3 kms southeast of Kijepwa Police Station. The qibla and west side of the north wall stand, and some of the western walls may be traced, but the eastern side of the mosque has been eroded by the sea. There’s little evidence that remains of what was possibly a wall. The roofing of the mosque supports a more narrow musalla, and to the west of the scar the top of the wall falls with a sharp pitch. This pitch continues down to the north arched doorway of the western room, and probably indicates the roof was of makuti. The wall height of the western room appears to have been no higher than the spring line of the archway; the area thus probably functioned as an open verandah. The mihrab is framed in a plain architrave, with plain jambs below offset capitals of two narrow members.

23. Kinuni Ruins

Kinuni is a small site of one mosque and a group of tombs located on a beautiful beach just north of a coral outcrop at the end of a well-kept access road in the Kuruwitu Conservancy. Portions of the site were excavated and reported on by James Kirkman in 1975. Only the western anteroom of the mosque stands, the northern part to full height. The surviving northwest doorway of the musalla is a simple archway with edges of coral. The western doorways of the anteroom were squared. There might have been a western verandah. The mihrab and the eastern areas of the mosque are completely destroyed. Of the tombs at Kinuni labelled A to E by Kirkman, ‘A’ is the largest of the tombs over 17 metres in area.

24. Kitoka Ruins

Kitoka, on the north bank of Takaungu Creek, along with Mnarani on the south bank of Kilifi Creek and Kilifi Ruins on the north bank, were the settlements of the old “city state” of Kilifi – Kirkman 1959. Kitoka is a site of two mosques and numerous houses, today covering an area of about six acres, although it is likely that in the past the site was considerably larger. Plans of the two mosques and elevations of their mihrabs were first cited by Garlake, in 1956. The mihrab of the large mosque is still in good condition, with two arch orders above and two recessed jambs below single member capitals. Some of the more interesting features or characteristics of the houses at Kitoka include the doorways in the houses framed by architraves, often with single niches in each of the pilasters. Also, the archways at Kitoka themselves were often once or twice recessed from spandrel level, either including the jambs or above the level of “springing” only.

25. Mnarani Ruins

Among the plentiful ruins of ancient Swahili towns along the Coast of Kenya is Mnarani, which was occupied in the 14th Century. It serves as a great example of the ancient civilization that thrived here for hundreds of years.  To start with, there is a magnificent pillar tomb with a Friday Masjid (Mosque) and 12 tombs labelled from A to L, still in good condition. Then, there are the captivating fine carvings at its large pillar tomb, which is marked by layered arcs on the mihrab with stellar coral inscriptions still in immaculate condition. It has slave tunnels too.  The ancient Mnarani Ruins are located at south bank of Kilifi Creek, about 55 kms north of Mombasa City, and just 200 ms off Mombasa to Malindi Road.

View of the Pillar Tomb within the Mnarani Ruins. Image Courtesy

26. Uyombo Ruins

Uyombo is located a bit inland from the south side of Mida Creek. The site is a very ruined mosque in the bush, its mihrab fallen. The only thing of interest is a long conduit, about a metre high, running from a well that is still in use to a cistern that was located at the southeast corner of the mosque. Another cistern and wall close by were from a ruined house. Uyombo Ruins are probably recent.

27. Kilepwa Ruins

Kilepwa is a site on an island in Mida Creek, consisting of a mosque, some tombs and some houses. The site was investigated by Kirkman who, on the basis of local and imported ceramics and porcelains, divided the site into three periods of seven phases, dating from the last half of the 12th Century through the second quarter of the 17th Century. The earliest permanent structure that has survived is the pillar tomb, probably dating to around the middle of the 14th century. This interesting structure has two large single recessed panels on the east facade of the wall. Coral panels composed of three ascending coral tiles alternating with adjacent areas of rough coral masonry today give a pleasing chequered effect to the pillar. “Although Kilepwa continued to be occupied throughout the 16th Century, the scarcity of late Ming sherds would appear to indicate that the population of the area was smaller or poorer” – T. H. Wilson.

28. Mgangani

Mgangani is the site of a mosque southwest of Gedi, near the upper reaches of Mida Creek associated with Somali mosques of the 18th Century. A few piles of rubble nearby suggest that there might have been a few stone houses other than the mosque, but the ‘outpost’, if there were stone houses, must have been small.

29. Kiburugeni

At the southwest end of Blue Lagoon, near Watamu, are a mosque and two tombs named for the area, Kiburugeni. The mihrab has a plain architrave, with two arch orders within the spandrels. At the apex of the arches is the small terminal coast nick. All walls except the qibla have fallen. At the northeast corner abutting the mosque is a large tombstone tomb, with three single recessed panels below a frieze of niches. This is flanked by masonry piers ending in square pyramids. In the facade of the tombstone are recesses for three bowls or dishes; it is almost certain that about half a dozen 11th Century Chinese blue and white porcelain sherds now in the Gede Museum came from this tomb. As the mosque predates the tomb, a late 11th or early 15th century date for the mosque seems appropriate. Behind the large tomb is a smaller one.

30. Gede Ruins

This is found at the corner of Mombasa-Malindi Road and Gede-Watamu Road, 16 kms before arriving at Malindi. Typical of most ancient towns along the East African Coast, the 12th-16th Century Gede Ruins are a relic of the ancient Arab towns. “Gede traces its origin in the 12th Century but was rebuilt with new walls in the 15th and 16th Centuries”. The entire site is estimated to cover 45-acres in the primeval forest at the edge of Arabuko-Sokoke. Gede Ruins are one of three most important historic locations along Kenya’s coast, owing to the quality and quantity of its remains. It was also the first intensively studied site. Work began in 1948, led by James Kirkman, concentrated in the north-central part of the area. Its prime area is comprised of a conglomeration of mosques, palaces and houses, with one of its most imposing structures being the Great Mosque. This as it stands is the youngest of 3 mosques. The first, about which little is known, was built in the mid 15th Century; then, half a century later, a similar Mosque to the present one was built. The latter dates to the mid 16th century. It a large mosque with three rows of six square pillars is further divided in two by a wall.

There are six minor mosques at Gede: the Mosque of the Long Conduit, the Mosque of the Three Aisles, the Small Mosque, the Mosque of the Sarcophagi, the Mosque Between the Walls, and the Mosque on the South Wall. All of the mosques had a single central row of one, two or perhaps three pillars, except the Mosque of the Three Aisles, where two rows of pillars left an unobstructed view of the mihrab. All of the mosques had eastern ablution facilities, again with the probable exception of the Mosque of the Three Aisles, where these seem to have been on the west. The units combined to make up the Gede houses are: forecourts and domestic courts; long rooms, usually spanning the width of the house; small rooms, based on the division of a long room; store rooms, usually at the rear of the house or at the end of a suite of small rooms; toilets of the typical coast type; lobbies and entryways, essentially small rooms for the passage from one area to another; and passageways, usually long / corridors from a street to the entrance of the house. According to historians, Gede was partly wiped off (in 1528) by troopers from Mombasa opposing the Portuguese.

3D Animation of the Swahili Town in Gede Published by Zamani Project

31. Portuguese Chapel

The Portuguese interest in East Africa stretches back to the late 14th Century, with aims of establishing a trading empire and to outflank Islam commercially, politically, militarily, and religiously. The decision to conquer East Africa was taken by the Portuguese after Vasco da Gama’s return to Portugal in 1499, from an exploratory voyage of East Africa in 1499 on which he forged friendly bonds with Malindi. Build around 1500 and enlisted in 1935 as a national monument, the tiny Portuguese Chapel, 550 ms south of Malindi Museum along Silversand Road (also known as Mama Ngina) is arguably the foremost Church of Kenya. Outstandingly, it’s still in use.  One of its momentous milestones happened in 1542, when on his voyage to India Saint Francis Xavier S.J., one of the greatest missionaries since St. Paul, visited the antiqued Portuguese Chapel.  There are two outlying graves found close to the Chapel where Saint Francis buried two of his sailors before embarking on his journey to India. After the Portuguese left Malindi in November 1698, it was deserted, until the British arrived in 1893. While the Portuguese had garnered some success with trade, they did not fair well with spreading Christianity in East Africa. They had won some converts in Malindi and some in Mombasa but their endeavor had no permanent success.

32. Vasco da Gama Cross

This is found 400 ms south of the Portuguese Chapel, standing stentinel at the edge of a peninsula almost 520 years since it was set up here. Looking out to the infinite ocean horizon, Vasco da Gama Cross connects trippers to a far-removed history of the 1490’s. In January 1498, Vasco da Gama’s exploratory voyage had reached the island and town of Mozambique, now under the influence of Kilwa, before arriving to a very hostile welcome in Mombasa, and more significantly to a friendly one at Malindi – the arch-rival of Mombasa. Soon after his arrival at Mombasa, Vasco da Gama set off for the coastal town of Malindi (or Melinda, as he liked to call it) that would later become the seat of the viceroy in East Africa. The welcome and proceedings in Malindi had been cordial and before departing for India he erected the infamous stone pillar cross as was customary, as a sign of amicable relationship. Some say, Vasco da Gama Cross depicts a trimmed down version of a ship, while others have suggested it resembles a giant sword. Either way, it is a deeply moving monument that memorializes the Portuguese conquest of East Africa, and one of the most captivating chapters in its history.

This monument was brought by Da Gama from Portugal and set up in Malindi; possibly it was moved to its present location, at the end of a coral projection into the sea south of the town, a few years later. Today the cross is seen as a large monument with the small cross atop a large, flat-topped cone of masonry built on a circular pedestal. T.H

33. Jemadari Mosque

Although Malindi is one of the most historic old towns on the coast of Kenya, few monumental antiquities survive in the area. Those that survived include, from south to north: a south mosque, the Da Gama Cross, parts of a Portuguese Chapel, the famous pillar tombs and the Jemadari Mosque. The Jemadari Mosque is on the north side of Malindi, near the sea and Malindi Golf and Country Club. The mihrab design is interesting for its highly stilted multiple arch orders; its panelled jamb blocks, decorated with cable pattern mouldings. Although the east side of the mosque is buried and the south side has fallen, the plan of the mosque was probably the six room type: musalla flanked on each side by anterooms behind which, on the south edge, were three smaller rooms.

34. Mambrui

The most interesting of the Mambrui tombs was studied by Kirkman, in 1950, is a large tomb with a decagonal pillar about 1.6 metres wide and 5.5 metres high. In a frieze around the top of the shaft wore set ten late King blue and white porcelain bowls and plates, one alternating with the other, of late 16th Century. Adjoining this tomb on the north is a compound with a large tombstone on its east wall and, like the enclosure of the pillar tomb, with a doorway in its west walls Nearby is another tombstone tomb, which once had a circular coral boss set in the centre of the tombstone; although the stump of this boss remains. The old Mambrui Mosque is located on some high ground just above the beach, east of the cemetery. Leading from the musalla out to the west was a single square headed doorway, while in the north end of the west wall was a niche or window.

35. Kibirikani Ruins

In the style of the Kongo Mosque and the Munge mosque by the sea, this located at the rear of Sheshale Bay-about 3 kms north of Mambrui, at a point where a channel sometimes washes water into the sea but at high water is itself filled part way up stream by the sea. The site of one Mosque, Kibirikani is located several tens of metres from the beach, in dense bush on the south side of the channel. The mihrab and a few walls on the southwest side stand, including a small cistern, from which perhaps the site takes its name (Birikani).

Map of Upper Coastline along Kilifi Counties.  Image Courtesy
Map of Upper Coastline along Kilifi Counties. Image Courtesy