Historic Sites at the Coast

Historic Sites in Lamu County

40. Siyu Fort

This is located about 5 kms east of Pate Town, just south of Faza and north of Shanga. The small settlement of Siyu is best known for the remains of Siyu Fort; an antique mid-19th Century fort. Oral traditions suggest that it was built by Siyu’s eminent leader Mohammed Ishaq bin Mbarak (or Bwana Mataka) “who also rebuilt much of the town including a fine stone mansion for himself, of which the remains are still to be seen”. Within the fort is a Friday Mosque with an elegant minbar or lectern dated to about 1521 AD. Siyu is also famous for fine skills in furniture-making and leather-crafting. As this may suggest, Siyu’s prosperity continued much longer than that of Pate, and unlike many other ecclesiastical relic forts at Lamu, Siyu Fort is unique because it was built to protect the town from the advancing Omani Arabs domination. Siyu is the only town that built a fort of its own, unlike Mombasa and Lamu where the forts were put up by foreigners. One of the endearing features of Siyu Fort, on one of the towers, is a carronade still in its original position and still with remains of its wooden carriage around it. Siyu Fort was gazetted as a National Monument in 1958. It’s reached either by boat up Takwa creek and then by foot to Siyu, or by rounding Manda Island by boat to Shanga and a short walk north.

Siyu Fort in Lamu County. Image Courtesy of World Monuments Fund

41. Shanga Ruins

Also conspicuous among the relics of Lamu are the 8th Century Shanga Ruins named after the Washanga, or the people of Shanga, a clan who still live in the nearby Swahili town of Siyu. Located at the southeast area of Pate Island, south of Siyu, Shanga contains coral walls, two palaces, three mosques and a cemetery outside the wall with hundreds of tombs. All in all, the site is thought to contain the ruins or foundations of about 130 houses and 300 tombs, well hidden by the overgrown shrubbery.  It was excavated over eight years, starting in 1980. The earliest settlement was dated to the 8th century, and the conclusion drawn from the evidence (locally minted coins and burial sites) indicate that a small number of local inhabitants were Muslim, probably from the late 8th Century onwards, and at least from the early 9th Century. The excavations also reveal a key break in the development of Shanga in the mid-late 11th Century, with the destruction and rebuilding of the Friday Mosque. Due to over abstraction of ground water, sea water seeped in and the village was no longer habitable. A rarely roved site, Shanga Ruins are one of the oldest recorded along the Coast of Kenya. So much so, that it was a thriving trading post 400 years before Mombasa was founded, and was also thriving 100 years prior to Lamu’s accent as a major hub. Dating of Shanga Ruins was based on quantities of ceramic artefacts collected in 1980s.

Section of Shanga Ruins in Lamu. Image Courtesy of U.Digital

42. Atu Ruins

Atu Ruins are located about half way between Siyu and Chundwa, but off the main trail to the east, almost at the edge (within about 100 metres) of the high water and mangrove line. At Atu are a mosque and an interesting grouping of tombs. The mosque had two rows of two piers, creating three aisles, with the ablution chamber to the south. The mihrab is curiously recessed into the walls, ana the apse is squared; next to the mihrab was a stepped masonry minbar. The musalla was entered through a single doorway in the east wall, or through the southern room; the western wall has fallen. About 150 metres or less south of the mosque are the tombs, labelled from the easternmost, set within thick bush.

43. Chundwa Ruins

The little-known Chundwa (or Tundwa) Mosque is located a little way out of the village on the Faza trail. It’s intriguing for its 18 shallow and narrow arch orders and recesses of over 50 bowls in the north wall. In the town is Chunawa pillar, a round tapering column about four metres high – A bench or base at the bottom has a diameter of 1.7 metres, while the base of the main body of the pillar is 1.1 metre across. Three masonry shafts with open spaces between them hold the top section above the body of the pillar, and on top is a conical finial. Just at the edge of the town along Faza trail, is a cemetery with step end tombs, some with long east facades. East of town on the Kizingitini trail are a mosque and tombs.

44. Ashuwei Ruins

On the mainland north of Kiwayu Island the first historic site is Ashuwei – a settlement just recently abandoned, probably in the 1960’s. The single mosque is broken down except for the north wall, which contained a very plain mihrab, perhaps simply a plain round arch, without apparent cut coral. East of the apse is a minbar of four steps. The second site is known as Mvindeni and Ras Uwani used to refer to the pillar tomb and town ruins at the north end of the little bay.

45. Ishakani Ruins

The entrance to Kenya in the immediate vicinity of Somalia (and Ras Kamboni) is marked by two tombs with high pillars whose site may have once been a pre-Islamic market, possibly one of the emporia mentioned in the Periplus. It is also believed to be the legendary Shvpigwaya of African tradition, claimed by Kitab-ul-Zunuj to have been the dispersal point for a large number of African tribes during the 12th or 13th Centuries. 10 kms to the south of Ras Kamboni are the remains of the walled town of Ishakani, with a similar tomb. South of Ishakani is a large striking rectangular panelled tomb over 1.2 ms high covering an area of about 80 m2. Three of its walls are decorated with asymmetrical, apparently abstract motifs in low relief; that do not appear to be Islamic. 16 kms further south are the ruin of a mosque belonging to the site of a settlement on Kiunga Island, opposite where there is an old tomb with a pillar in a bad state of repair.

Map of Lamu County.