Old Town is a suburb of Mombasa (Kenya’s 2nd largest city),situated on the south-east side of Mombasa Island. The Old Town covers an area of 72 hectares (180 acres), and is inhabited by a mix of local, Arab and Asian settlers
At the entrance of the old town is a coffee pot and cup, a gift to Mombasa which was built by Mr Burhan Ali Taher in 1988. Next to the coffee pot there is a remnant of the original trolley track which was laid in 1890.
Old postcard showing the main street (Ndia Kuu) in Old town. You can see the trolleys in the bottom left hand corner of the picture. Source
One thing that you are sure to notice while walking through Old Town is the carved doors.
As time went on and with booming trade especially in the 19th century wood carving emerged as a symbol of Swahili art in the decoration of doors and other domestic items. It became fashionable to fit every elegant building with a carved door.
‘The higher the tenement the bigger the gateway the heavier the padlock and the huger the iron studs which nail the door of heavy timber the greater the owners dignity .’- Sir Richard Francis Burton 
The name could simply come from the color of its paint or maybe because it housed the first American Consulate. The White House was built towards the end of the 18th century by Esmailji Jeevanjee, a Bohra Indian. It was rented to the Church Missionary Society as a “Ladies House” for unmarried lady missionaries or nuns from1893 to1904. By 1909, the building was used as the premises of an American firm known as Arnold Cheyney dealing in ivory.
It then became the first American Consulate in Kenya from 1915 to 1918. It had a very fine carved door that has been removed from the house and sold. The present doors and windows are carved in a Zanzibar style with wealthy vegetal designs.
The Post office
This building housed the post office which opened in 1899.This post office enabled the Indians who built the railway to send news and money home to their families. Trolley tickets were also sold here, as this was one of the trolley terminals. The post office was later transferred to Treasury Square in 1941.The post boxes were on the corner and there was a covered way leading over the road like a bridge to the post manager’s office on the other side. It was also the temporary immigration office during the World War I (1914-1918).
Old post office
This building is a good example of the Mombasa architecture with covered balconies on the front and back sides supported by wooden brackets. The elevation is also adorned with arched doors and windows surrounded by a rich plaster work decoration.
The Government Square
Government Square was one of the most important public spaces because of its location adjacent to the Old Port. Historically, it has served as the center of business and commerce in Mombasa for many years. In 1890 when the British arrived they set up most of their government buildings here because of the flourishing character of the port area, thereby giving the square its name.
In the early 20th Century, Government Square continued to flourish as government and businesses were willing to open up to the interior of Africa and carry on trade with the rest of the world. Early photographs show the middle of the square piled high with goods
ready for shipment or distribution around the town by mkotokeni (handcart), donkey backpack or camel. With the emergence of Kilindini port, Government Square began to loose its importance: the buildings were shifted to Treasury Square located on the road to Kilindini and many businesses associated with the shipping industry followed.
Government Square is surrounded by buildings of historical and architectural value, they were owned once, by some of the most influential merchants of the Old Town.
Located right at the Government Square is Sanaa Gallery
The Sanaa Gallery was in the past the main office of AlidinaVisram a successful Ismaili merchant who came from Bagamoyo in Tanzania in 1898. This man did much to build up the commercial life in Kenya. Indeed, he had a chain of offices stretching through Uganda and employed 500 Indian clerks, carpenters and masons. He provisioned labor force for railway building owned a soda factory, furniture factory and ginning factory. As shown on the photograph, he was also actively involved in the exportation of Ivory. Alongside the Ivory and cotton business, Visram established several mosques and charities. His son Abdul Rasul built the Allidina Visram School as a homage to his father. This building also housed in 1904 the East Africa and Uganda Transport offices, a parcel post office and a branch of the National Bank of India at post were also here for a short while in 1899.
This building is a Traditional House type with a carved balcony supported by carved brackets and covered with a wooden exterior. The door in the middle of the facade reveals Indian influence it was probably carved in the 1900’s, coffered and with a lintel carved with a flowing naturalistic design of leaves and fruits.
Ruins near old port
Site of Portuguese church
This place is supposed to be the site of the Portuguese Church of the Misericordia that was later converted into a cowshed as testified by Captain Guillain of the French vessel the Ducouedic who visited Mombasa in 1846 and then by the explorer Richard Burton in 1857
Because there are no records that survived we cannot determine precisely where the building was. The site may also mark the burial place of Lieutenant Reitz of the royal navy the HMS Leven, who is recorded as being in the old church. As explains Maitland-Jones in The old Town of Mombasa, A Historical Guide (Mombasa, Friends of Fort Jesus, 1997, pp.23) Old maps suggest that the church stood on the right hand side (walking away from Fort Jesus) of what is now Ndia Kuu i.e. to the east, which would tend to favour the theory that this was once the church.”
Information from oral tradition in 1983 places Reitz’s burial further along Ndia Kuu on the left in accordance with J. Maitland-Jones, in the house just after the junction with old Kilindini Road. As tells the latter “The ghost of a young man in short trousers is said to appear here, and it is rumored that a cross marks a grave in this house within a locked room.”
Mombasa House was built around 1880 by a former customs master to the Sultan of Zanzibar named Mr.Jadewji Dewje a member of the Bhatia Indian community, who was also a grain merchant.
This is a fine example of a two-storey Mombasa Traditional House with a fine carved door at the ground floor and an impressive closed balcony at the first floor. Mombasa has only a few closed balconies as well preserved as this one, which still display all their delicately carved decoration patterns. The lower part of the balcony is enclosed by a balustrade of wooden boards assembled in geometrical patterns, while the upper part is made of mobile wooden shutters with lattice.
The Mombasa house
The balcony is supported by carved wooden brackets of Indian influence its function is to preserve the intimacy of the family notably for the women who should remain hidden from the public view in accordance with the Islamic practices. The closed balcony allows however the air to penetrate into the house for the comfort of its inhabitants. Today the house is virtually unchanged and still being occupied by descendants of Jadewji Dewi.
The Africa hotel
The Africa Hotel-opened in 1901 and its twelve bedrooms were particularly appreciated for the balconies with view over the sea as there was no building opposite it facing the sea. Originally, there were two clenched upturned on fists the outside wall however probably to hold a notice board, but these were knocked down in 1988
The clients were however complaining about the lack of cleanliness in the area. Robert Foran, who later became the chief of police, said when he stayed here in 1904 that “there was a smell of rancid ghee, curry and other offensive odours of unsanitary drains earth closets, decaying fish and unwashed humanity” (in A cuckoo in Kenya). There were two other hotels at this time in Mombasa: the Grand and the Cecil.
Then it was bought by Souza Junior and Diaz and became a grocery and tailoring business. During this period , the Portuguese and the German consuls were living nearby and the French Consul lived at Dalal House.
This house is a Mombasa Traditional House with a carved wooden balcony that is two storeys high. At the first floor, the balcony has a geometrical design but at the top floor it is closed with wooden shutters. The balcony is completely covered by the roof. Fine curved brackets support it: they reveal an Indian influence in the use of vegetal designs.
The Mandhry Mosque
Mandhry mosque is the oldest mosque in Kenya. It was built in 1507 and expanded in 1988. Right opposite the mosque is a fresh water well.
Path to Fort Jesus
Fort Jesus in the background
There is lots more to Old Town, I was only able to cover a small section near Fort Jesus. By the time I visited (December 2014) there had been some security issues and my guide advised me that it would be unsafe to walk to some areas while carrying my camera.
Mombasa Old Town map
You don’t need a guide to take a tour of the Old Town. However if you do decide to hire one there are certified guides outside Fort Jesus. Their rates vary, the highest quote I got was for kshs 1500 ($16)
The information about the buildings pictured is from plaques put up by the National Museums of Kenya.
1.Athman, Hussein Athman Styles of Swahili Carving Swahili Forum; 3 (1996), S. 11-29
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