Lamu Friday mosques: Retracing 600 years of Islamic worship


A visit to Lamu's archaeological sites is never complete without a tour of its mosques. FILE PHOTO | POOL

A visit to Lamu's archaeological sites is never complete without a tour of its mosques which are some of the oldest in Kenya dating back to 600 years.

Gazetted by the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) as national monuments, these mosques attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year on a spiritual pilgrimage.

The most publicised of these are the Pwani Friday Mosque, found in Lamu Old Town, and the Siyu Mosque in Pate Island which still remain in active use to date.

NMK Curator in charge of Lamu Museums and World Heritage Site, Mohammed Ali Mwenje referred to such old but standing places of worship as an important part of the archipelago’s history.

According to Mr Mwenje, Siyu Mosque is the largest, having the capacity to host more than 600 worshipers while Pwani Mosque can hold up to 500 faithful in one prayer session.

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Other renowned historical mosques in Lamu are the Jamia or Friday Mosque in Shella, Siyu Friday Mosque, the Takwa Friday Mosque, Shanga, and Mwenye Kombo Friday Mosques in Pate Island, Ishakani, Manda, Ungwana, and Shalafatani Mosques in Faza Island.

These mosques are all overseen by the NMK as part of the county’s sites and monuments.

The Shella Friday Mosque has existed for 194 years, having been built in 1829. Shella reached her apogee during the 19th century, especially from 1829 to 1857, during which period there were built as many as five mosques in the village.

The Friday Mosque is still the highlight of any visit to Shella today.

Unlike most old mosques in the Coastal region, the Shella Friday Mosque features a minaret.

A minaret is a type of tower typically built into or adjacent to mosques. Minarets are generally used to protect the Muslim call to prayer, but they also serve as landmarks and symbols of Islam’s presence.

Minarets have a variety of forms, from thick, squat towers to soaring, pencil-thin spires.

Henry Burnier, who was a long-time resident of Shella, living in a part of what is now Peponi Hotel, supervised and paid for the complete restoration of the Shella Friday Mosque in 1948.

The mosque, however, underwent another restoration, this time under the supervision of some of the villagers.

In 2021, NMK announced that it was seeking at least Sh50 million to rehabilitate the Pwani and Siyu Friday mosques that were on the brink of collapse.

“Most of these mosques are in dire need of restoration and preservation. The few old but standing mosques are normally managed by the local communities, which are incapacitated to undertake restoration as it’s an expensive affair. That’s why we’re looking for conservation enthusiasts and well-wishers to undertake the same,” Mr Mwenje said.

Of all the 47 counties, Lamu has the highest number of historical monuments and buildings.

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Lamu Old Town remains a key tourist attraction site in the Coast region owing to its effortlessly preserved culture and heritage spanning decades.

Today, the town stands as the oldest surviving town in East Africa with over 700 years of continuous human habitation.

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