Echoes from the past at the Takwa ruins in Lamu

Sunday October 24 2021

One of the few standing coral and limestone walls of the mosque area of the Takwa Ruins, in Lamu. PHOTO | KARI MUTU


The history buff in me enjoys peering into the past and a visit to Takwa Ruins of Lamu Island served an interesting insights into the history of coastal Kenya.

From our Shela area abode in Lamu, we took a 30-minute boat ride to Manda Island, over calm waters in mangrove-lined channels. The ruins are located in the south-eastern region of Manda, the largest of the Lamu islands.

Takwa Ruins

Takwa Ruins architecture remains in remarkably fine condition. PHOTO | KARI MUTU

We purchased tickets at the National Museums of Kenya office and were allocated a guide. There is a small museum on site but with little information or items on display, apart from an impressive siwa — a huge, curved horn instrument made from etched brass and blown from the side. Siwa horns were usually owned by upper-class Swahili people along the East African coast.

Our guide proved to be a talking encyclopaedia. Takwa was occupied in the 15th and 16th centuries but deserted in the 17th century due to a lack of fresh water and constant warring between the people of Takwa and Pate Island.

The protective town wall is still in place, constructed from coral ragstone or limestone that is exceptionally hard and durable. Sentry holes in the wall would have been used to keep watch on happenings outside. Takwa seems remarkably well preserved despite the hundreds of years.


Passing through a gateway in a town wall we came into a clearing under the shade of giant baobab trees said to be about 400 years old. The first thing we came to was the exterior of the mosque with a tall pillar tower and arched sidewalls. A prominent Sheikh is said to be buried beneath the pillar.

In the sunken floor of an ablution area outside are embedded old ceramic plates from China and Portugal. Inside the mosque is a beautifully intact mirbah, a semi-circular niche cut into the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca that Muslims face when praying. There are Arabic inscriptions carved into the wall, with the names of Allah, Prophet Mohammed, various historic leaders and the date 1094.

Rain pilgrimage

Further inside the town remains are more half-standing walls that may have lined streets and buildings in its heyday. Takwa was an important sea port and trading stop during its peak.

Residents are thought to have moved into other places in the Lamu archipelago. Although the place has not been occupied for over 300 years, the ruins are still used as a prayer site by the people of Lamu and twice a year they come to the pillar tomb to pray for rain.

A heap of rocks on the grounds is testimony to how limestone for construction was prepared by burning coral over piles of firewood. Near the ruins are a few homesteads and cats, but otherwise Takwa is very quiet.

The ruins were first excavated in the 1950s and more work was done in the 1970s. Takwa became a gazetted monument in 1982 and is under the care of the National Museums of Kenya.