Mombasa Island Tour

Mombasa is Kenya's second largest town and it is the only sizeable port. It has a recorded history stretching back nearly 2000 years, and was mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a pilot's guide to the Indian Ocean written by one Diogenes, a Greek living in Egypt, around the end of the first century A.D.

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The colonization of the coast by the Portuguese was a hit and miss affair with the invaders sometimes showing interest and sometimes the opposite. But it was also an era of strife between the Catholic Portuguese and the Muslim Arabs. The Arabs finally extinguished Portuguese hegemony with the capture of Fort Jesus in 1699 just over a hundred years after it was built. The next hundred years was a miserable record of petty wars between the minor sultans and of Omani Arabs based in Muscat. Trade, except in slave came to a halt until an army was sent, in 1822, by the Sultan of Oman to crush the warring states and re-establish commercial activity.

Some form of Arab government existed in what became known as the coastal strip until the region was declared a British sphere of influence following the treaty of Berlin in 1885. The town of Mombasa is built on a coral island. Less than a century ago, the builders of what was then called the Uganda railway attached the island to the mainland by a causeway. To the north a toll bridge spans Tudor Creek, with views of the old harbor, linking the town with the north coast beach resorts. On the south side a frequent car and passenger ferry service plies across Kilindini Creek, close to the entrance to the modern port area with its multitude of wharfs and deep water berths, carrying tourists to the splendid beaches of the south coast. Mombasa town itself is a mystical mixture of ancient and modern with a cosmopolitan population blending Africa, Arabia, Asia and Europe. The people who live in this old but vibrant gateway to Kenya and Africa now number almost 600,000. Fringing the dhow harbor is the old town, a maze of narrow streets and pedestrian lanes with quaint shuttered houses and open fronted shops; the smell of spices is always present. Dominating the entrance to the dhow harbor is Fort Jesus, which is open to visitors and which houses an interesting museum displaying antiquities from the length of the Kenya coast. Also on display are finds from the Portuguese warship the Santa Antonio D'Atanm which sank near the fort in 1697 while attempting to raise the Arab siege.

A wide array of African crafts and curios, together with some antiques, are available from shops and sidewalk vendors but a shopping highlight is a visit to Biashara Street where the shops compete for the purchaser's eye, and his pocket, with dazzling displays of locally woven fabrics and prints. Visitors find a visit to the Kamba carvers village near the airport a worthwhile experience. Scores of carvers can be seen at work, and one can follow the progress of a carving from log to the completed artistry. There is a shop selling the finished works.