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|Mombasa is one of the oldest settlements on the East African coastline, with a long and exotic history.|
There has definitely been a town here for the past 700 years, but the island may have been settled long before that. The writings of Arab, Roman and Egyptian explorers and scholars dating back to 2,500 years ago make mention of Arab settlements in this region.
When Vasco de Gama sailed into the harbor on Easter Sunday 1498, he found a thriving Arab port. He landed, but the received a cold reception from the locals, and after brief trade sailed North to make an alliance with the settlement of Malindi.
De Gama had paved the Portuguese way, and by 1505 a fleet of 14 ships sailed into the harbor. They were met by a wave of poisoned arrows from the troops of the King of Mombasa. The Portuguese response was immediate and brutal and with cannon and rifles they attacked the town, slaughtering the King’s army, looting the town and starting a massive fire that burnt Mombasa to the ground.
The Survivors set to work to rebuild the town, and in 1528 the Portuguese sailed back into the harbor and looted and burnt the new Mombasa. This cycle continued with a further two attacks by the Portuguese, who enlisted native troops to help massacre the citizens of Mombasa.
In 1561 Mombasa declared war on the Northern settlement of Malindi, which had remained a Portuguese ally. The armies of Mombasa were utterly defeated, and the Portuguese moved their garrisons of troops onto the island, starting work on Fort Jesus in 1593.
The grand fort dominated the island and was a clear symbol of Portuguese strength and dominance. However, in 1631 a local uprising managed to unseat the Portuguese and the Fort fell under the control of the Sultan. The outraged Portuguese soon returned, and so began an epic and bloody battle for control that would see the Fort change hands 9 times before 1875.
Today the majestic Fort is a National Monument,standing high over the harbor. The Fort is an interesting place to spend a day exploring the gun turrets, battlements and houses within the walls. There is an excellent Museum and trained guides available.
For those who want to learn more about the struggle for Fort Jesus, the Fort plays host to a spectacular sound and light show 3 nights each week.
Visitors are welcomed into the Fort by guards in flowing robes brandishing flaming torches. They are led to a specially designed and choreographed show that uses lights, sound effects and costumed actors to bring to life the long and turbulent history of the Fort.
At the end of the show, a candlelit dinner is served in the open courtyard of the Fort, under the stars.
This wonderfully atmospheric night out is the perfect way to end the day, and learn more about the history of Mombasa.
The sound and light show can be combined with a sunset dhow cruise on Mombasa harbour.
Mombasa old town is a fine example of Arab architecture,the winding streets surrounded by attractive mashrabia houses with large shuttered balconies. The old dhow harbour is still a busy trading hub, always alive with bustle and activity.
The eventual undoing of the Portuguese came with the rise of the powerful Omani Arabs, who united forces from the islands of Lamu and Pate to fight against the European power. Mombasa was ruled by powerful Omani families until it was declared a British protectorate in the late 19th Century.
The Mombasa Club was founded by the British in 1885, and built directly beside Fort Jesus. Today the club remains a functioning private club, commanding an impressive view of the harbour.
The British were determined to claim their chunk of Africa, and saw that control of an East African protectorate would give them influential control of the Suez Canal to the North. The only way to control and administer East Africa was to link the coast to the Source of the Nile, and plans were laid to build a railroad from Mombasa to lake Victoria. Work began in Mombasa in 1896 on one of the most ambitious and dangerous railway projects in human history.
For the full history of the railway, see the Related Links above.
The railway was built by labourers imported from the British colony in India. The majority of these railway workers came from Gujarati in Northern India. The city still has a large Asian population, both Hindu and Muslim.
Mombasa is home to many fine temples and mosques. The oldest mosques in Mombasa are the Mandrhy founded in 1570 and the historic Dawoodi Bohra Mosque, built in 1902, standing near a clifftop with a view of the old harbour. There is also a beautiful Baluchi mosque, founded in 1875.
One of the most impressive buildings in Mombasa is the Shiva Temple near Jamhuri Park. The temple is topped with an impressive gold spire and a fantastic array of animals statuary.
One of the best ways to get some impression of Mombasa's long history and exotic modern culture is to simply walk the winding streets of the Old Town and explore this world of mosques, markets and mystery.
Mombasa is an important centre of modern Kenyan coastal and national culture. The city has an interesting music scene, and the clubs and bars of Mombasa are a good place to see live bands. This is also a good place to find Taarab bands and musicians, playing traditional Swahili music.
Each year, Mombasa celebrates it's great wealth of cultural resources with a Cultural Carnival. Held in November, the carnival is a good chance to see artists and musicians from all over Kenya. The highlight of the Carnival is a lively street parade with members of all of the city's many cultures and communities participating.