East Africa: Jumba La Mtwana – Ruins of an Ancient Coastal Town

East Africa: Jumba La Mtwana – Ruins of an Ancient Coastal Town

The coast of East Africa is scattered with the ruins of once thriving towns and trading posts that date back several centuries.

In Kenya, the Gedi ruins are the most famous. A lesser-known but remarkable historic site is the Jumba La Mtwana near Mtwapa town.

Located about 30 minutes north of Mombasa, the ruins are under the care of the National Museums of Kenya.

The first thing you notice when you leave the ticket office is the quiet ambience of the ruins that are surrounded by trees. You can tell that this was once a well-planned settlement, and I counted at least three wells, suggesting a thriving population.

The ground has heavy leaf litter and the signage is limited, but for a small fee you can hire a guide who will give you an in-depth history of the place. Historians believe the town started more than 1,000 years ago, as a traditional village of mud and thatch homes, probably surrounded by a protective wooden fence. Residents farmed, reared cattle and practised African religious traditions.

Islam did not come to this region until the 8th century, when traders from the Middle East began to settle on the East African coast. Our guide explained how traders sailed across the Indian Ocean in dhows propelled by ocean winds that moved north or south at different times of the year. The merchants would stay at the coast for several months, trading and waiting for the winds to change direction.

There is a path leading from the ruins to the nearby sea and a peaceful stretch of beach.

The name Jumba La Mtwana means “big house of the slave,” which suggests that there was a slave port here to markets in the Middle East. From the 10th century onwards, wealthier people of Jumba constructed buildings from coral rag and mortar, but poorer families probably continued to live in mud huts on the periphery of the expanded town.

The present ruins are a collection of several buildings made of coral-stone walls with arched doorways, the roofs and wooden doors having long-since decayed. Although many of the buildings have crumbled, you can still see the arrangement of different rooms and chambers that had specific purposes. The narrow paths in between the houses reminded me of the narrow streets in Mombasa’s Old Town and Zanzibar’s Stone Town.

Several of the walls still have niches cut into them, which were used to hold oil lamps or items of decoration. There are sunken rooms that were once communal bathing pools.

The guide showed us a small, deep hole at the corner of building — an indoor latrine. A stone ledge next to it has a round depression where a bowl of ablution water would have been placed. He pointed to holes high up the walls that would have held wooden beams.

There is a mosque, recognisable by the dome-shaped mihrab carved into the wall. The mihrab identifies the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when praying. The names for the different buildings are quite imaginative, such as The House of Many Doors and The House of the Cylinder. The heyday of the Indian Ocean trade, between the 13th and 17th centuries, brought many cultural influences.

Inside Jumba’s gallery is a collection of artefacts, such as silver jewellery, an Arab sword and shield, an intricately carved grave marker, Chinese ceramics, shards of local pottery, and an Arabic oud guitar.

Outside the gallery is the large skeleton of a sperm whale, a reminder of the trade in whale excretions that were highly sought after for the perfume industry. Like other coastal ruins, the town was abandoned about 600 years ago possibly owing to a decreasing water supply or diminishing trade. With time, the buildings have decayed, large baobabs and other trees have grown around the ruins, and what remains needs to be renovated to prevent further decline.