The age-defying Khoja Mosque still stands at the junction of Nairobi’s Moi Avenue and the beginning of the ever-busy River Road as it did nearly a century ago. On this day I passed by, the view could not have been better – it was Christmas and Nairobi was a ghost town.
Back then, it was the axis of the old city centre and a symbol of progress and affluence. Some old folk remember how the many light bulbs on its exterior walls would be switched on during the festivities to give it the appearance of a palace in the sky.
This iconic 3-storey stone building which is actually a Jamatkhana or congregational house was built by the Ismaili community in Kenya in 1920. On that 4th of January in 1920, HE Sir Charles C Bowring, then acting governor, laid the foundation of Khoja Mosque – that is how the first Knight had an encounter with the mosque.
Two years later, in 1922, the second Knight, HE Major General Sir Edward Northey, opened the building on January 14. It was clear from that point on that Khoja Mosque, situated at the corner of Moi Avenue, then Government Road, and River Road and right across Biashara Street (then the Indian Bazaar Street) and Tom Mboya Street (Victoria Street), was not going to be ordinary. Actually, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of England visited once in 1956.
Unlike many other mosques, its exterior design of solid stone blocks makes it appear like a huge majestic palace with massive front entrance doors. A huge clock, reminiscent of British tradition, which adorns its dome, throws off the occasional passer-by even more. In later years, this clock became a reference point for many Nairobians in those early days of the city’s birth.
The ground floor is a courtyard with wooden benches where the faithful who have ended their prayers can relax and socialise before leaving. This floor also hosts the offices of the Aga Khan community institutions. A display case here captures the rich history of the Ismaili community in Kenya. Near it is the foundation stone plaque.
The first floor is occupied by a prayer hall where men and women, each on their separate side, pray. The second floor also has a prayer hall which is smaller with soundproof windows to block out the noise and provide a quiet environment for prayer and meditation.
It is said that much of the wood fittings for the Khoja Mosque were sourced from India, perhaps from the Kutch-Kathiawar area of present-day Gujarat where the mostly migrant Ismaili hailed from.
The Ismaili are known for their role in establishing Jamatkhanas wherever they have settled. In this particular case, the names of the major contributors are inscribed on the plaque marking the opening ceremony.
But Khoja Mosque might never have existed had one hustler, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, not stepped in. Born in 1856, in Karachi, his whirlwind adventure tour across India, peddling wares together with his later days in Australia as a door-to-door hawker, brought out his business star quite early.
When construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway began in 1895, it was Jevanjee who won the tender to supply the needed labour force and where best to source it than from his own country India! That is how 31,895 men, comprising Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims from Punjab docked at the port of Mombasa to work as labourers and tradesmen.
By 1900, it was said Jeevanjee owned 70% of Nairobi and an equally large portion of Mombasa. It is not a wonder then that the land on which Khoja Mosque was built belonged to him.
After 1902, with the completion of the Lunatic Express as the railway was famously known, most of the Indian labourers returned home but some 6,700 opted to remain in Kenya and are among those who built the Jamatkhana of Nairobi. Thanks to Jeevanjee’s land and a new Indian community, Khoja Mosque came into existence.
Even though nowadays the building that once was the tallest in Nairobi is overshadowed by far taller city edifices and the part of the town it occupies may no longer be as affluent as it used to be back in the days and rarely do you get to see the dazzling shimmer of the palace in the sky, Khoja Mosque is still a grand structure and it is here to stay – especially now that it is a gazetted national monument. Walk there one day and have a look.