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Lamu Old Town - Kenya

Map showing the location of Lamu Old Town UNESCO world heritage site (Lamu Island, Kenya)

Website Category: East Africa's Swahili Coast 

 Area: 0.2 km2 

Inscribed: 2001

Criteria: (ii)  interchange of values (iv)  icon of an era (vi)  association with belief system

Location and Values:  Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement on the East African coast, located on a small island off the north coast of Kenya, not far from the Somali border.  There are no vehicles on the island and goods are still moved through the narrow twisted alleyways of the town by donkey.  Many of its cultural and architectural treasures – ornate courtyard homes with elaborately carved Arabic doors - date from the period of Omani Arab control from 1698 to the mid 1800s, during its Golden Age after a previous period of Portuguese rule. 

Slideshow of Lamu Old Town:   This is one of the most comprehensive slideshows available on this website featuring 79 photos from the old town of Lamu.  These include most of the main features, starting on the waterfront where traditional wooden dhows are offloaded and goods transferred to donkeys for the final leg of their journey through the town’s narrow alleyways.  Besides the street scenes – which capture the essence of contemporary Lamu – places that are featured include (a) the museum, with some of its Omani Arab exhibits; (b) the Swahili House Museum, a lovingly restored traditional flat-roofed mansion, with its own well, leafy courtyard and elaborate internal plasterwork; (c) Lamu Fort; and (d) examples of the many finely carved Arabic doors that are found on buildings throughout the town.

Slideshow of Lamu Old Town:

Comments and Impressions:  Lamu’s rather remote location some 250 km north of Mombasa (the nearest large town on the African mainland), and the absence of vehicles makes it rather special.  All visitors arrive at the quayside by boat to make their way through the narrow alleys, or along the waterfront to one of the small hotels, often based on a traditional Swahili mansion. Not only has the island been able to maintain many of its traditional attributes, but it remains a relaxed and enjoyable place to visit.  Unfortunately, however, this may all change if plans to develop a major new port, with rail link into the African interior, come to fruition.

Google Earth View:  To view satellite imagery of this site on Google Earth, click here. This opens a new window, so when you are finished, just close the Google Earth page and you will be straight back here to continue browsing other world heritage sites around Africa. You can see Lamu’s location as a natural harbour facing the African mainland, protected by other islands and mangrove channels.

Links to other places featuring Arab influences in East Africa:  Kilwa  I  Zanzibar 

Other Links:     Official UNESCO Site Details

Ornate Omani Arab-style door in Lamu Old Town UNESCO world heritage site (Lamu Island, Kenya) Restored public buildings on the waterfront of Lamu Old Town UNESCO world heritage site (Lamu Island, Kenya) A maze of narrow alleyways characterise the Swahili Old Town of Lamu (a UNESCO world heritage site on Lamu Island, Kenya) Traditional Arab sailing dhows shelter in the harbour at the Old Swahili coastal Town of Lamu (a UNESCO world heritage site on Lamu Island, Kenya)



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