Inside Africa

Swahili coast in Kenya: Dhows and lost cities

Tom Page, for CNNUpdated 7th July 2017
(CNN) — For thousands of years, the Indian Ocean winds have brought traders, warriors and religions to the Swahili Coast. From Arabia, Asia and Europe, all clambered ashore, each leaving another layer of history and culture.
The coastline of Kenya has been shaped by seismic changes over the centuries, and there's plenty that remains to be explored.
From lost cities to bustling metropolises, here are six reasons to visit:

1. A fort worth fighting for

Built by the Portuguese, Fort Jesus remains an iconic symbol in Mombasa.
Built by the Portuguese, Fort Jesus remains an iconic symbol in Mombasa.
courtesy Konstantinos Dafalias
In the city of Mombasa, separated from the mainland by Tudor Creek, Fort Jesus looms large from on high. Centuries ago, Europeans and Arabs warred over this fort and city, with the Swahili people caught in the middle.
"Whoever was staying in the fort was ruling Mombasa," explains Rafael Igombo, Fort Jesus education officer.
No trip to the city is complete without a visit. Built in the 1500s from coral rock, it took two years and nine months to construct, and was done so largely by the Swahili people, who later turned to the Omanis for help to fight their Portuguese oppressors.
After a three year war the Omanis came to rule Mombasa, and subsequently Arabian influences began to permeate through Swahili culture -- indeed, Swahili means "people of the sea," or "people at the coast" in Arabic.

2. Stunning Swahili architecture

Inside Africa travels to Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city, to learn about Swahili culture and history
Mombasa's old town is a warren of Swahili architecture: large balconies, archways and decorative doors, all ornately finished with nods to traditional Islamic design. They recall an era in which immigration from Arabia and Asia was prevalent, and you can find scripture from the Koran adorning nooks and crannies all over the place.
But local design is only partly based on religion, and you can also find Indian influences from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Workshops at the Swahili Center introduce youngsters to traditional methods of wood carving and fabric design, full of floral designs and bold geometric shapes.

3. Sail a dhow

There's a whole ocean out there to explore.
There's a whole ocean out there to explore.
As you'd expect, water has been the main source of Swahili life for centuries. The dhow has been integral to both trade and food, but today the fishermen of Mombasa are a dying breed.
Hitch a ride and try and catch yourself supper, or set sail on one of the many evening cruises available, where all the hard work has been done for you.

4. Visit lost cities

Swahili culture's past and present are seen along the beautiful Kenyan coast from Jumba La Mtwana to Mnarani
North of Mombasa is Jumba la Mtwana, Swahili for "the large house of slaves." Despite its name, the ancient village was built in the thirteenth and fourteenth century, predating the practice endemic along the eastern coast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Carbon dating and other evidence, like Chinese porcelain, suggests that Omanis founded the village in the mid-1300s, and at one time hosted traders from across the Indian Ocean, who dealt in the likes of turtle shells and ivory.
Like Jumba la Mtwana, Gede, an even larger settlement, lies abandoned, for reasons unknown. Dating from the twelfth century, it was over 75 acres in size, and it's estimated housed 2,500-3,000 people. Easily accessible, you can visit these places, frozen in time and surrounded in mystery.

5. Luxuriate in a sultan's palace

No, not a real sultan's palace, but rather a luxury complex financed by a Chinese company.
Mombasa and the Kenyan coast is increasingly a destination for international tourists, and some of the homes here cost as much as $800,000. Despite modern amenities, Swahili influences still dominate the styling, and show that local culture is alive and well and has a place in the modern world.

6. Get a tattoo

Inside Africa continues their journey up Kenya's coastline, exploring Malindi and the surrounding areas to find Swahili's rich and complex history
The ancient practice of using the crushed leaves from Lawsonia plants for Henna is not unique to Swahili culture or Islam, but on the Kenyan coast it's done in a very particular way.
Weddings are the main event when it comes to Henna here, and brides are decorated in the most intricate styles. Other attendees also have Henna applied, and there's a distinct sense of ceremony to the occasion -- arrive at the right place at the right time, and you might be able to get one too.