Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, retaining its traditional functions. Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is characterized by the simplicity of structural forms enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors. Lamu has hosted major Muslim religious festivals since the 19th century, and has become a significant centre for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures.
Lamu Old Town
© UNESCO – National Museums of Kenya
Outstanding Universal Value
Lamu Old Town, located on an island known by the same name on the coast of East Africa some 350km north of Mombasa, is the oldest and best preserved example of Swahili settlement in East Africa.
With a core comprising a collection of buildings on 16 ha, Lamu has maintained its social and cultural integrity, as well as retaining its authentic building fabric up to the present day. Once the most important trade centre in East Africa, Lamu has exercised an important influence in the entire region in religious, cultural as well as in technological expertise. A conservative and close-knit society, Lamu has retained its important status as a significant centre for education in Islamic and Swahili culture as illustrated by the annual Maulidi and cultural festivals.
Unlike other Swahili settlements which have been abandoned along the East African coast, Lamu has continuously been inhabited for over 700 years.
The growth and decline of the seaports on the East African coast and interaction between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Europeans represents a significant cultural and economic phase in the history of the region which finds its most outstanding expression in Lamu Old Town, its architecture and town planning.
The town is characterized by narrow streets and magnificent stone buildings with impressive curved doors, influenced by unique fusion of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles. The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas provide a unified visual impression of the town when approaching it from the sea. While the vernacular buildings are internally decorated with painted ceilings, large niches (madaka), small niches (zidaka), and pieces of Chinese porcelain. The buildings are well preserved and carry a long history that represents the development of Swahili building technology, based on coral, lime and mangrove poles.
The architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrate the cultural influences that have come together over 700 hundred years from Europe, Arabia, and India, utilizing traditional Swahili techniques that produced a distinct culture. The property is characterized by its unique Swahili architecture that is defined by spatial organization and narrow winding streets. This labyrinth street pattern has its origins in Arab traditions of land distribution and urban development. It is also defined by clusters of dwellings divided into a number of small wards (mitaa) each being a group of buildings where a number of closely related lineages live.
Attributed by eminent Swahili researchers as the cradle of Swahili civilization,Lamu became an important religious centre in East and Central Africa since the 19th century, attracting scholars of Islamic religion and Swahili culture. Today it is a major reservoir of Swahili culture whose inhabitants have managed to sustain their traditional values as depicted by a sense of social unity and cohesion.
Criterion (ii): The architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrate the cultural influences that have come together there over several hundred years from Europe, Arabia, and India, utilizing traditional Swahili techniques to produce a distinct culture.
Criterion (iv): The growth and decline of the seaports on the East African coast and interaction between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Europeans represents a significant cultural and economic phase in the history of the region which finds its most outstanding expression in Lamu Old Town.
Criterion (vi): Its paramount trading role and its attraction for scholars and teachers gave Lamu an important religious function (such as the annual Maulidi and Lamu cultural festivals) in East and Central Africa. It continues to be a significant centre for education in Islamic and Swahili culture.
The property, covering 16 hectares, adequately incorporates all the tangible and intangible attributes that convey its outstanding universal value. A high percentage (65%) of the physical structures is in good condition with only 20 % being in need of minor refurbishment. The remaining 15 % may need total restoration. The majority of the town’s buildings are still in use.
The town needs to maintain its relationship with the surrounding landscape. The setting of the Old Town is vulnerable to encroachment and illegal development on the Shela dunes that are a fundamental part of its setting. Development is a threat to its visual integrity as an island town closely connected to the sea and sand-dunes, and to its ultimate survival in terms of the fresh water that the dunes supply. The setting extends to the surrounding islands, all of which need to be protected from informal settlements, and to the mangroves that shelter the port.
The architecture of Lamu has employed locally available materials and techniques which are still applied to date. The people of Lamu have managed to maintain age-old traditions reinforcing a sense of belonging and social unity. This is expressed by the layout of the town which includes social spaces such as porches (Daka), town squares and sea front barazas. The town continues to be a significant centre for education in Islamic and Swahili culture.
The authenticity of the Old Town is vulnerable to development and to a lack of adequate infrastructure, that could overwhelm the sensitive and comparatively fragile buildings and urban spaces that together make up the distinctive urban grain of the town.
Protection and management requirements (2010)
Lamu Old Town is managed by the National Museums and Heritage Act 2006 (that replaced the 1983 National Museums Act CAP 216 and Antiquities and Monuments Act CAP 215) and the Local Governments Act (and the associated by laws). Physical construction is also subjected to the EMCA Act and the 2006 Planning Act, which recognize that archaeology is material for consideration. The Old Town has a gazetted buffer zone that includes the Manda and Ras Kitau mangrove skyline and the Shela sand dunes, also protected by the Forest Act and Water Act respectively (although the buffer zone has not been formally approved by the World Heritage Committee). All the components are legally protected.
The Lamu Stone Town Conservation Office, now renamed the Lamu World Heritage Site and Conservation Office, was established by the National Museums of Kenya and has been in operation since 1986. A conservation officer is seconded to Lamu County Council to advice on conservation matters. A planning commission exists since 1991 to play a supervisory role and address emerging issues in the conservation area.
There exists a conservation plan for Lamu Old Town which is used as a guide in balancing the community needs for development and sustaining the architectural values of the town. The property is in a satisfactory state of conservation. Locally embedded institutions ensure the continued importance of Lamu as a centre of Islamic and Swahili cultural learning and practices.
A draft management plan has been developed that will address issues such as the mushrooming of informal settlements in the setting of the property, encroachment and illegal development on the sand dunes water catchment area, the proposed port and cruise ship berth, and oil exploration. The plan will also strengthen the inter-ministerial relationships to enhance an integrated management approach, including the establishment of a conservation fund, for sustainable conservation and management of the property.
The growth and decline of the seaports on the East African coast and interaction between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians and Europeans represent a significant cultural and economic phase in the history of the region, which finds its most outstanding expression in Lamu Old Town. The architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrate the cultural influences that came together over several hundred years from Europe, Arabia and India, using traditional Swahili techniques to produce a distinct culture.
Lamu represents the Swahili culture, resulting from interaction between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians and Europeans. The origins of the town date back to the 12th century, but the site was probably inhabited earlier. The present town flourished in the early 13th century among the independent city states on the East African coast. In 1506 it was invaded by the Portuguese, who monopolized shipping and suppressed coastal trade, causing the once prosperous city state to lose its position and gradually decline.
Under Omani protection the coastal commerce slowly regained its momentum, leading to a further development of Lamu and the construction, by skilled craftsmen and slave labour, of town houses and mosques using coral stone and mangrove timber. In 1890 the entire coastal strip north of Zanzibar was assigned to the Imperial British East Africa Company. The East African Protectorate was established in 1895 and organized into provinces and districts under the new British administration in 1898. In 1963 Lamu became part of the independent state of Kenya.
Lamu is located on an island known by the same name on the east coast of Africa some 250 km north of Mombasa. The town is made up of two distinct sections, one built from stone and the other from mud brick. The old town centre consists of large houses of coral stone and mangrove timber. The relatively larger, surrounding area consists of mud, wattle and makuti houses. The whole built area covers about 37 ha, while the stone town is about 15.6 ha, articulated in three distinct areas. The oldest part of the town is in the north, the areas of Pangahari and Yumbe with the Council Chamber and the Friday Mosque, then expanding to the west and south in the 18th century (Mkomani area); the bazaar street runs north-south behind the seafront; the fort and the houses on the seafront were built in the 19th century. The approximately 400 houses of the Mkomani area date mainly from the 18th century, forming the largest and historically and architecturally the most interesting part of the old town. It is characterized by narrow streets and two- to three-storey buildings, mingled with small gardens.
The Swahili houses are marked with simplicity and uniformity in their exteriors, but they have elaborately carved wooden doors particularly characteristic to Lamu. The massive walls are covered with lime mortar. The houses have an entrance porch (daka ) and an interior vestibule (tekani ) with seats. Inside the house the spaces develop around small courtyards (kiwanda ) and open galleries (misana ); they are decorated with painted ceilings, large niches (madaka ), small niches (zidaka ) and Chinese porcelain.
The Lamu Fort was built between 1813 and 1821 in the southern corner of the old stone town, encouraging new development, particularly on the seafront. The fort is a massive multi-storey building with a central courtyard which has become an image of the Lamu community, being now used for weddings, meetings and theatre productions. The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandahs provide a unified visual impression of the town when approaching it from the sea. One of the largest buildings on the seafront (dating from 1892) has been acquired as the Lamu Museum, exemplifying the finest characteristics of the verandah-style construction in the 19th century.
The section consisting of mud-brick buildings covers an area of some 21 ha and is spread between Langoni (the oldest part south of the fort), Tundami (north of the old town), and Gademi (the newest part, west of the old town). Having first developed spontaneously, many of the houses have been transformed into permanent buildings with concrete block walls and corrugated iron roofs. Such development has taken place particularly after fires in 1962 and 1981. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC
- THE EARLY PHASE
The town of Lamu represents the Swahili culture, resulting from interaction between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Europeans (in Arabic sawāhilī, "of the coast"). The Swahili language is principally a mixture of Bantu and Arabic. The relevant cultural region extends from the island of Lamu in the north to Tanzania and Mozambique in the south, along the East African coast.
The origins of the town of Lamu date back to the 12th century, but the site was probably inhabited earlier. Archaeological evidence shows that there were two early Swahili settlements surrounded by walls, one to the south and the other to the north of the present town, which flourished in the early 13th century among the independent city states on the East African coast. It has been recorded as a large town with the office of Qadi (Muslim judge) in the mid 15th century. It first developed in the form of small clusters of stone buildings, including the Council Chamber, in the northern part of the present town (Pangahari, Yumbe) where the Friday mosque still is. The original market (Utuku Mkuu, the Great Market) lay west of this area. Later the town extended to the south (Mtamwini), an area north of the Fort, thus representing the full extent of the town in the 18th century. Lamu then came under Omani rule and was subject to the influx of Indian merchants from Gujerat in the 19th century. This period saw the building of the new Fort, and the development of the bazaar street, Usita wa Mui, and the area along the shore line.
Lamu was first developed by local Bantu people together with maritime traders from the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and the Far East. The town merchants prospered acting as middlemen between the interior and the sea, exporting ivory and timber in exchange for manufactured goods such as cloth, porcelain and spices across the Indian Ocean. In 1506 Lamu was invaded by the Portuguese, who monopolized shipping and suppressed coastal trade; consequently, the once prosperous city state lost its position, and gradually declined. In 1585 and 1588 Lamu and other coastal towns suffered from raids by Turks and rose in rebellion but were crushed by the Portuguese. In 1652 the Sultanate of Oman was persuaded to help the city states to overthrow the Portuguese regime, which was accomplished in 1698.
- THE OMANI PERIOD Under Omani protection the coastal commerce slowly regained its momentum, leading to a further development of Lamu and the construction, by skilled craftsmen and slave labour, of town houses and mosques using coral stone and mangrove timber. The merchants' houses were decorated with Chinese porcelain, and slaves were used to maintain plantations, keeping a share of the crops in return. In 1744 the Mazrui clan started ruling Mombasa, forming an alliance with the town of Pate in the north and forcing Lamu to strengthen its defences. After winning a battle in 1813, Lamu invited Seyyid Said Ibn Sultan-al-Busaidi, the Sultan of Oman, to install a garrison to protect the town, leading to the construction of the Fort, which was completed in 1821. In 1840 the capital of Seyyid Said was transferred from Oman to Zanzibar, helping Lamu to prosper. In the 1880s the Sultan of Zanzibar was granted the islands of Zanzibar, Maria, Pemba, and Lamu, and a strip of the mainland up to Kipini in the north. The inland was declared open for European exploitation.
Until the end of the 19th century the population contained a large number of slaves providing cheap labour and living both in the hinterland and in households. Freemen consisted of three social groups: the often land-owning merchants who lived in stone houses, the shariffs who claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, and the fishermen and artisans. In the 19th century Lamu became an important religious centre as a result of tarika (The Way of the Prophet) activities introduced by Habib Swaleh, a shariff, who had many ancestors traced directly back to the Prophet Mohammed. The religious annual festival of Maulidi has continued up to the present day, attracting Muslim followers. Lamu has also become an important Islamic and Swahili educational centre in East Africa, owing to the relatively unchanged and conservative character of its Muslim society.
- THE BRITISH PERIOD In 1890 the entire coastal strip north of Zanzibar was assigned to the Imperial British East Africa Company. The East African Protectorate was established in 1895 and organized into provinces and districts under the new British administration in 1898. Lamu became the headquarters of Lamu District, administered by a resident British officer together with a Muslim officer (Liwali, Viceroy). During the British rule many houses were built on the reclaimed seafront, but after the construction of the railroad from Mombasa to Uganda in 1901 and the transfer of Protectorate government from Mombasa to Nairobi the town's economy gradually declined. This was caused partly by the abolition of slavery at the end of the 19th century and the loss of cheap labour. In a way, this contributed to Lamu retaining its traditional character.
- KENYA In 1963 Lamu became part of the independent state of Kenya. Aware of the cultural significance of the town, the government authorized the first conservation study, sponsored by UNESCO, in 1974 and the old town was gazetted as a national monument in 1983. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation