Lamu Old Town
Lamu Old Town
Cultural Kenya Africa Coast Province, Lamu District

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.