The wonders of Lamu's mysterious Takwa mosque

Visitors make their way into the Takwa ruins in Lamu County.

Photo credit: Kalume Kazungu I Nation Media Group

More than 300 years ago, the Great Takwa Mosque, also known as Takwa’s Friday Mosque, on Manda Island in Lamu County was a key religious building used by locals and visitors of the Muslim faith for Friday prayers.

But Takwa, a once-thriving 15th and 16th century Swahili trading city, was abandoned in the 17th century, contributing to the collapse of the mosque.

According to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), lack of fresh water was a key reason the ancient town was abandoned.

This is after their only source of fresh water on the island became excessively saline.

There were also endless fights between residents of Takwa and those of nearby Pate Island, prompting people in Takwa to migrate to the present-day Shella.

Today, Takwa and its mosques have become important ruins where traces of a rich Swahili cultural heritage can be found.

Local and international tourists can get a glimpse of what life was like in the old days, especially after the Takwa ruins were gazetted and preserved by NMK as a national monument in 1982.

Mohammed Mwenje, NMK curator in charge of the Lamu museums and World Heritage site, told Nation.Africa that the Takwa ruins have become a pleasant picnic and overnight camping site for visitors.

The site is accessed only through the sea.

Mr Mwenje noted that the Takwa Friday Mosque is among the unique and notable features of the Takwa ruins.

“The mosque was used for Friday prayers by locals and visitors as religion was a key part of social life here. It’s clear the mosque has a large pillar atop the Qibla wall. This pillar is believed to symbolise the burial of a prominent Sheikh beneath the wall,” he said.

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Photo credit: Kalume Kazungu I Nation Media Group

Inside the mosque is a beautiful, intact mihrab, a semi-circular niche cut into the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca that Muslims face when praying.

Further inside the town, there are remains of half-standing walls that may have lined its streets and buildings in its heyday.

Mr Mwenje said Takwa was an important seaport and trading stop during its peak.

Although it has not been occupied for over 300 years, the ruins are still used as a prayer site by the people of Lamu.

A heap of rocks on the grounds is testimony to how limestone for construction was prepared by burning coral over piles of firewood.

Mr Mwenje said the position of ancient Takwa on the island was most probably strategic.

“Takwa’s position or location with shallow waters must have been of considerable importance, especially during its peak when many of the sails that came into view were likely to be hostile,” he said.

“Therefore, access to the site must have been primarily from the shallow channel, which could only admit vessels of shallow draft.”

Another visible feature in the Takwa ruins is the protective town wall.

The wall was constructed from coral ragstone or limestone that is exceptionally hard and durable.

Mr Mwenje said sentry holes in the wall would have been used to keep watch on happenings outside.

“You can imagine such features portray how well preserved Takwa was despite the hundreds of years,” he said.

But the NMK is concerned that though Takwa is a key attraction for local and international tourists and researchers, it is in great danger of losing its unique features due to rising sea levels and erosion.

“I, therefore, call upon the government, both county and national, and well-wishers to allocate enough resources for the rehabilitation and protection of this crucial site,” Mr Mwenje said.

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