I am a huge lover of history and whenever I visit a new town I always make a point of visiting any museums or historical sites. I could not pass up this chance when I went to Lamu, after I was done exploring the town, I made plans to visit the Takwa ruins the remains of a once thriving Swahili settlement situated on the south side of Manda Island, Lamu county in the coastal region of Kenya.
Most of the information I have found online states that it takes half an hour to get to Manda from Lamu. Maybe the boat we hired was slow because the trip to the ruins took at least twice that time.
Once you get off the boat it is a bit of a walk to the island. First you have to walk along a walkway above the mangroves. Once that bit is done there’s another section of a slightly raised ‘bridge’ above a water logged area made of slender sticks.
You then get into what looks like a small village, there were very few houses and there were not very many people around either. Slightly past the village is the entrance to the ruins.
I paid for the tickets and was ready to explore the ruins. The office was a sorry sight, I understand that the location of the ruins is rather remote but I am sure the National Museums of Kenya can do better, if not, there will soon be little difference between the office and the ruins.
We were just getting ready to start the exploration when the skies opened. Fortunately it was not an intense downpour and soon the sun was peeking from the clouds and we could resume.
There is a museum on site but you can just skip it. It is only one room and honestly there was not much to see inside.
Takwa ruins are the remains of a thriving 15th and 16th century Swahili trading town before it was abandoned in the seventeenth century. Takwa’s eventual abandonment in the 17th century was due to salination of the once fresh water and endless fighting between the Takwa and Pate people.
The ruins were first excavated by James Kirkman in 1951, then in 1972 more clearing of the site was done under the supervision of James de Vere Allen. They were gazetted as a National Monument in 1982.
The ruins nest amidst giant baobab trees.
Fruit of the Boabab tree commonly known as ‘mabuyu’
We had a guide show us around, however there is not much I remember.
The town was surrounded by a wall and one of the first things you will see is some wall art. On the North precinct wall, graffiti incised in the plaster includes various renderings of daggers and sailing dhows and ships.
The mosque is located near the geographical center of the site. Its location reflecting the central place of Islam in the religious and social life of the community. The Takwa mosque is characterized by an unusual and striking pillar which rises from the center of its north wall. It is possible that the mosque is located on the site of the tomb of a revered person. The pillar may have been placed on the mosque on commemoration of the burial site. In the north wall or Qibla pointing to the direction of Mecca, is the Mihra, the main focal point of the mosque. The Takwa Mihrab is completely of cut coral construction and its plain lines contrast with the ornate trefoil designs of plasterwork common in the later mosques of the region. The side of the panel frame are two slots to support a wooden minbar, a sort of pulpit form which the congregation would be addressed.
Not all the structures are labeled, only a few have plaques. Among this is a house
The single detached house was a fundamental unit of settlement at the site. All structures appear to have been single storey, in contrast to some of the more opulent houses in the archipelago both past and present. The seemingly confusing mass of wall and rubble seen at Takwa is actually a series of houses organized in a very consistent plan, with each house invariably opening to the north.
As with most ruins located in the coastal region, Takwa Ruins is surrounded by a wall. Little of it remains but in some areas it is well preserved. The town was protected by a wall which rose to a height of about 3 meters. Openings located at intervals along the wall were most likely scaffolding supports, but may have been used to support a wooden parapet walk or used as sighting holes.
Takwa probably had four main gates. Only two gates can be seen today, one to the south to Kitao and one to the north facilitating communication with Manda. Ruins of a gate opened a path across the dunes to the sea, are visible to the east. A fourth gate is located to the west, near the high water mark of the tidal inlet.
The walk to see the coastline is a bit of detour from the ruins but the view is well worth it.
Outside the mosque to the east is a well built conduit and cistern comprising a system for ablutions before prayer. Bordering the exterior of the cistern are the remains of coral foot scrapers used to clean the feet before entering the mosque. A blue and white Portuguese dish of the mid sixteenth century and two earthenware dishes survive on the inside floor of the cistern. From the ablution area, three carged doorways led directly into an eastern anteroom from which access to the main room of the mosque, the Musulla, was gained through another three arched doorway.
All structures were built of coral rag quarried locally set in mortar made of earth, sand and lime. The lime was produced by burning heaps of coral over cylindrical piles of wood from the mangrove forest. Lime was used to make plaster for construction and a constituent element of the local mortar.
The Pillar tomb of Takwa is high walled unroofed rectangle with a pillar over six metres high and is located at the east end. The tomb is still considered sacred to the people of Shela who visit the tomb twice a year to pray for rain
The inscription calls to Allah, Muhammad and the first four Caliphs, Abubakar, Umar, Uthman and Ali. At the bottom is the Arabic date, 1094
How to get there
The Takwa ruins are located on the south eastern corner of Manda Island Lamu District in Coast province and it takes a 30 minute (or more) boat ride from Lamu Town.
Presently, Takwa is open daily to the public and there is a house that you can rent for an overnight camping, however there is no power.
You can read more about the Takwa ruins at Takwa: An Ancient Swahili Settlement of the Lamu Archipelago by Thomas Wilson.