The abandoned Swahili city with a rich Portuguese influence


A Mosque within the over 300-year-old Takwa Ruins in Lamu that have become a tourist attraction. PHOTO | KALUME KAZUNGU | NMG

Among the medieval Swahili settlements scattered in the coastal region, the Takwa Ruins are among the largest archaeological sites.

At its heyday in the 16th century, it was a thriving trading centre and evidence even suggests a diplomatic melting pot. Then it was abandoned.

Today, the ruins have become an important attraction, drawing hundreds of tourists to the Lamu archipelago every year.

National Museums of Kenya (NMK) curator in charge of Lamu Museums and World Heritage site Mohammed Mwenje says Takwa, covering an area of over 16 hectares (40 acres), was roughly the same size as the Pate Old City and Lamu Old Town.

That a whole population up and left the thriving settlement in the 17th century has continued to baffle generations.

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The most plausible however include the lack of fresh water, particularly after the inhabitants discovered that their only source had become excessively saline.

“There also existed endless fights between the residents of Takwa and those of the nearby Pate Island. This also pushed the Takwa residents to migrate to the present-day Shella,” posits Mr Mwenje.

In its glory days, Takwa city was a melting pot of culture and was among the few Swahili settlements along the East African coast that welcomes Portuguese into their territory.

“There is no evidence that shows there was any form of wrangles or conflicts between the Takwa residents and their new neighbours-the Portuguese,” says Mr Mwenje.

It is at Takwa Ruins where the Portuguese writings, art, and drawings, including pieces of graffiti showing a European sailing ship and dagger, are vividly inscribed on the ancient walls.

“Such graffiti has been tested and found to be authentic as strong indications that this particular community at Takwa must have at one time had direct contacts with the Portuguese,” says Mr Mwenje.

He adds, “And whoever inscribed the graffiti in the wall must definitely have witnessed those European vessels and they must have impressed upon him to be able to depict them on that wall.”

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Another evidence of the cordial relationship with the locals is the presence of decorative porcelain plates just outside the Takwa Friday Mosque water cistern where people used to pray.

The bottom of the mosque cistern has porcelain plates with a Maltese cross which was used as a symbol of the crusaders.


National Museums of Kenya Curator in charge of Lamu Museums and World Heritage site Mohammed Mwenje shows graffiti of a European sailing ship and dagger inscribed on the wall within Takwa Ruins in Lamu. PHOTO | KALUME KAZUNGU | NMG

“And of course, the Portuguese were part of the crusaders during the medieval period. So, these plates must have either been received as a gift or it was traded because it was used in a very prominent position, which was in the mosque as a decorative item at the bottom of the mosque cistern,” points out Mr Mwenje.

After abandoning the Takwa settlement, most of the residents opted to reside in Shella, about a kilometre away within the same archipelago.

NMK notes that the present-day village of Shella also has people who claim Portuguese heritage and they are informally referred to as ‘Wareno’ (Swahili meaning Portuguese).

These are the remains of a mixed people with a very mixed heritage relating to the Portuguese, hence affirming that the Takwa people indeed and anciently had direct touch with the Portuguese.

Takwa ruins were gazetted and preserved by NMK as a National Monument in 1982.

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