Jumba la Mtwana in Mtwapa is what remains of a 14th-century Swahili settlement that, at its height, appears to have enjoyed a vibrant culture, art and commerce – then in only a century, it was mysteriously no more.
Today the roofs on the buildings are long gone and only the old coral stone walls remain standing. They now provide a home to a number of Agama Lizards.
Perhaps Jumba’s inhabitants moved to better places or the freshwater run out, no one can tell for sure. No one can even verify whether that was actually the name of the village seven centuries ago!
Either way, remnants of the village show it must have been quite beautiful in its time and the presence of 4 mosques shows its inhabitants to have been predominantly Muslim.
Why Jumba la Mtwana, which means ‘large house of the slave’ in Kiswahili was so named, is still a puzzle to me. Evidence shows fishermen and merchants lived and earned a livelihood here. They, therefore, must have been involved in the then Indian Ocean maritime trade.
Old Chinese porcelain that James Kirkman excavated in 1972 and the presence of a market centre seems to favour the idea of a place of commerce more than a place of slaves. But such is the mystery of Jumba.
Plan to visit the museum on site. It contains a number of artefacts that shed more light on how the settlement evolved over time. A collection of old photos reveals how the people lived back then. I was drawn to a particular one of Muslim women without the traditional buibui and hijab, an indication this practice was introduced recently in Islam.
The main mosque, which is the largest of the mosques at the ruins, stands by a white crystal beach against which light turquoise waters dance and ripple. Sections of its beautiful mihrab (a niche showing the direction of Mecca) in its north wall are still visible.
Each mosque had a shallow well where centuries ago the faithful must have come to cleanse themselves before prayers. The wells now stand empty, as do several cisterns nearby.
Of all the buildings here, the one that fascinated me the most was the house of many doors. It derives its name from a series of rooms, each with a separate access door – hence the many doors.
Archaeologists believe an enterprising nobleman, who having realised tradesmen arriving here had nowhere to stay after completing their business, built the house of many doors to offer them accommodation.
Travel by sea in those days very much depended on the Monsoon winds. Merchants had the habit of staying put in a trading centre for extended periods from 5 to 6 months waiting for the winds to favour them. In most cases, they ended up taking local girls as new wives! A little distance away, towards the ocean, is a tomb with a faded inscription from the Koran which reads:
Every soul shall taste death. You will simply be paid your wages in full on the Day of Resurrection. He who is removed from the fire and made to enter heaven, he it is who has won the victory. The earthly life is only a delusion.Koran
Until Jumba la Mtwana reveals more, its secret will lie well guarded in its crumbling walls and in the shade of giant baobab trees on grassy slopes descending to the sea. Only time may reveal its hidden secrets.
Next time you are in Mtwapa, visit Jumba la Mtwana and see if you can crack the mystery of the Watwanas! It will set you back a few shillings because the site is under the management of the National Museums of Kenya which
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