The venue to this exceptional event is Mombasa, which is the second largest city in Kenya, and vies with Dar es Salaam in Tanzania as the busiest port in East Africa. The island-bound town centre is the commercial gateway to a vast interior, stretching west into the Congo, northwest into Sudan and southwest into Zambia. Countries without a seaport, such as Rwanda and Uganda, depend to a large extent on Mombasa for imports and exports of their cash crop commodities.
According to some sources, Mombasa in its most ancient incarnation was called “Tonika”, a fitting description for Kenya’s main seaside town and the major centre for rest and relaxation. Just the sight of it, from an escarpment above the island, is instant relief for the weekender from Nairobi and the upcountry interior. It is just as attractive to arrivals from further afield – hundreds of thousands of visitors fly in every year, from Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere.
Mombasa is often described as a melting pot, and for good reason. One of the most important trade centres on the East African coast since medieval days, it is – like so many seaports – home to a rich and diverse blend of indigenous and exotic cultures. These include the coastal Mijikenda and Swahili, long-established settlers from Arabia and India, more recent arrivals from Europe, and of course large numbers of upcountry migrants from the Maasai and Samburu to the Akamba and Kikuyu. Despite this, Mombasa comes across as a far more culturally cohesive and integrated whole than the upstart Nairobi, with its focal point being the characterful old town below Fort Jesus.
Places to visit and things to do in Mombasa
A maze of alleys, many too narrow to allow motor traffic, the Old Town sprawls out either side of the Ndia Kuu Road. Traditional craftsmen such as goldsmiths and silversmiths, are still active in the Old Town, and many traders still conduct a substantial import-export business behind quaint and unpretentious storefronts, but the area is also studded with craft and antique shops specialising in Swahili, Indian and Arabian furniture, as well as all many of local handicrafts.
At the Old Harbour, flanking Government Square, the city’s commercial hub back in the 1890s, are the Old Post Office, the Old Customs House and the Fish Market. Even until the late 20th century, small coastal dhows from Lamu and Somalia still anchored in the harbour here seasonally, to trade in fruit, dried fish and similar commodities. From December to April, the kusi monsoon season, these were sometimes joined by larger ocean-going booms and sambuks from further afield, most with diesel engines to supplement the traditional lateen sailing power. Now, however, the old harbour is all but disused, and what few boats are docked there form little more than a picturesque remnant of the dhow fleets of the port’s heyday.
The Old Town also boasts several mosques of antiquity. The oldest is Basheikh Mosque, founded in the 13th century and topped by a tall curved minaret. There is also the 16th-century Mandhry Mosque on Sir Mbarak Hinawy Road, situated opposite a well that was connected to it by an aqueduct prior to 1901, when its ornate seat-like front was built. In both cases, however, the mosque itself has been rebuilt several times since it was originally founded, and the site is of greater religious than architectural significance.
Inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011, Fort Jesus is one of the oldest European buildings on the eastern coast of Africa, constructed by order of King Philip I of Portugal in 1593, and designed by the Italian architect Joao Batista Cairato. The ultimate in indestructible fortresses, it stands 15 metres (50ft) high on the seaward side, where it overlooks the entrance to the Old Harbour, and its stone walls are up to 2.5 metres (8ft) thick. For most of its existence, Fort Jesus has been the most significant building on the coast north of Ilha do Moçambique (which lies about 1,000km/600 miles further south) and despite its apparent impregnability, it changed hands at least a dozen times prior to the colonial era. The longest and most violent struggle for Fort Jesus was the 33-month Omani siege that claimed at least 6,000 lives between 1696 to 1698, and resulted in Portugal being ousted from Mombasa.
Fort Jesus was used as a prison by the British until 1958, when the Gulbenkian Foundation provided £30,000 for its restoration and the establishment of a museum. Entered via an arched passage that has been in place since the 16th century, the museum houses some fine examples of imported ceramics, carved doors and other artefacts relating to the history of Mombasa, as well as displays about Swahili and Mijikenda culture.
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Just north of Mombasa on route B8, lies the the Bamburi Cement Factory, one of the largest producers of its kind in Africa, producing upwards of a million tons of cement annually from the coral limestone that underlies the coastal plain. The factory grounds are of interest to tourists for Haller Park, which has been transformed from an unsightly quarry once thought to be too saline to support vegetation, to an exemplary private nature reserve under the guidance of its namesake, the award-winning Swiss agronomist René Haller. One of the most remarkable environmental rehabilitation projects in the world, the park can be explored along a 90-minute nature trail that passes enclosures grazed by giraffe, zebra and antelope, as well as patches of indigenous woodland, rattling with coastal birdlife. The park also features fish and crocodile farms, a reptile park, a butterfly pavilion and a restaurant.
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