Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya, lying on the Indian Ocean. It has a major port and an international airport. The city is the centre of the coastal tourism industry. The original Arabic name is Manbasa; in Kiswahili it is called Kisiwa Cha Mvita (or Mvita for short), which means “Island of War”, due to the many changes in its ownership. The town is also the headquarters of Mombasa District which, like most other districts in Kenya, is named after its chief town.
The city has a population of around 900,000 inhabitants (1999 census: 665,018) and is located on Mombasa Island, which is separated from the mainland by two creeks; Tudor Creek and Kilindini Harbour. The island is connected to the mainland to the north by the Nyali Bridge, to the south by the Likoni Ferry and to the west by the Makupa Causeway, alongside which runs the Uganda Railway. The port serves both Kenya and countries of the interior, linking them to the Ocean. The town is also home to an airport.
The town is mainly occupied by the Muslim Mijikenda/Swahili people. Over the centuries there have been many immigrants, particularly from the countries of the Middle East and Indian sub-continent who came mainly as traders and skilled craftsmen and even after four or five generations, their descendants continue to contribute highly to the economy of present day Mombasa and Kenya as a whole. Recent immigrants are peoples from the interior of Kenya brought to the area by employment opportunities in the tourist industry.
Traditional dress for the Swahili women is a brightly coloured, printed cotton sheet called a kanga, which may have inspirational slogans printed on it, and type of black headdress and veil called a “bui bui”. Men wear a type of sarong, which is coloured in bright bands, called a “kikoi”.
There are several places to visit in Mombasa, including Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese, and the Old Town, which is by now in bad need of repair but still shows plenty of examples of the old Islamic architecture. Biashara Street in Mombasa which in Swahili means “Trade Street” is also an old part of the city where the Indian and Arab merchants set up shop and one can now find kangas and kikoys (pl. vikoi) being sold in these small authentic shops.
The founding of Mombasa is associated with two rulers: Mwana Mkisi (female) and Shehe Mvita. According to oral history and medieval commentaries (also based on oral history), Shehe Mvita superseded the dynasty of Mwana Mkisi and established his own town on Mombasa Island. Shehe Mvita is remembered as a Muslim of great learning and so is connected more directly with the present ideals of Swahili culture that people identify with Mombasa. The ancient history associated with Shehe Mvita and the founding of an urban settlement on Mombasa Island is still linked to present-day peoples living in Mombasa. The Thenashara Taifa (or Twelve Nations) Swahili lineages recound this ancient history today and are the keepers of local Swahili traditions. Even though today Mombasa is a very heterogenous cultural mix, families associated with the Twelve Nations are still considered the original inhabitants of the city.
Most of the early information on Mombasa comes from Portuguese chroniclers writing in the sixteenth century. The famous Moroccan scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta did visit Mombasa in 1331 on his travels on the eastern coast of Africa and made some mention of the city, although he only stayed one night. He noted that the people of Mombasa were Shãfi’i Muslims, “a religious people, trustworthy and righteous. Their mosques are made of wood, expertly built.”
The exact founding date of the city is unkown, but it has a long history. It must have been already a prosperous trading town in the 12th century, as the Arab geographer Al Idrisi mentions it in 1151. During the pre-modern period Mombasa was an important center for the trade in spices, gold and ivory. Its trade links reached as far as China and oral historians today can still recall this period of local history. Throughout early modern period Mombasa was a key node in the complex and far reaching Indian Ocean trading networks, its key exports then were ivory, millet, sesamum and coconuts. In the late pre-colonial period (late nineteenth century) it was the metropolis of a plantation society, which became dependend on slave labor (sources contradict whether the city was ever an important place for exporting slaves) but ivory caravans remained a major source of economic prosperity.
The great Chinese fleet of Zheng He is supposed to have visited Mombasa around 1415.
Vasco da Gama was the first known European to visit Mombasa, receiving a chilly reception in 1498. Two years later, the town was sacked by the Portuguese. In 1502 the sultanate became independent from Kilwa Kisiwani as Mvita (in Kiswahili) or Manbasa (Arabic). Portugal attacked the city again in 1528, and built Fort Jesus in 1593 in an attempt to colonise, from which time it was governed by a Captain-major. In 1638 it formally became a Portuguese colony (subordinated to Goa, as a stronghold on the route to Portuguese India).
In 1698, the town came under suzerainty of the Sultanate of Oman, but it became subordinate to Zanzibar, prompting regular local rebellions. Oman appointed three consecutive Governors (Wali in Arabic, Liwali in Kiswahili]):
12 December 1698 – December 1698 Imam Sa`if ibn Sultan
December 1698 – 1728 Nasr ibn Abdallah al-Mazru`i
1728 – 12 March 1728 Shaykh Rumba
Next, Mombasa returned under Portuguese rule by captains-major Álvaro Caetano de Melo Castro (12 March 1728 – 21 September 1729), then four new Omani Liwali till 1746, when the last of them made it independent again (disputed by Oman), as the first of its recorded Sultans:
1746 – 1755 `Ali ibn Uthman al-Mazru`i
1755 – 1773 Masud ibn Naisr al-Mazru`i
1773 – 1782 Abdallah ibn Muhammad al-Mazru`i
1782 – 1811 Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Mazru`i (b. 17.. – d. 1814)
1812 – 1823 `Abd Allah ibn Ahmad al-Mazru`i (d. 1823)
1823 – 1826 Sulayman ibn `Ali al-Mazru`i
From 9 February 1824 to 25 July 1826 there was a British protectorate over Mombasa, represented by Governors. Omani rule was restored in 1826; seven liwalis where appointed. On 24 June 1837 it was nominally annexed by Zanzibar; in 1840 it was effectively taken by the Sultan of Zanzibar.
On 25 May 1887, its administration was relinquished to the British East Africa Association (see Kenya). The sultan formally presented the town in 1898 to the British. It soon became the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate and is the sea terminal of the Uganda Railway, which was started in 1896. Many workers were brought in from British India to build the railway, and the city’s fortunes revived. On 1 July 1895 it became part of Britain’s Kenya protectorate (the coastal strip nominally under Zanzibari sovereignty).
Mombasa was part of the state of Zanzibar until 12 Dec 1963 when it was ceded to be incorporated into the newly independent state of Kenya.
Kizingo – Considered the prime residential area of Mombasa. The State House & Mombasa Golf Club are in Kizingo.
Nyali – It is on the mainland north of the island & is linked by the Nyali bridge, It has numerous beachfront hotels in the area known as the “North Coast”. It is also a prime residential area.
Changamwe – Industrial
Kibokoni – Part of Old Town with swahili architecture. Fort Jesus is in Kibokoni.
Makadara – Part of Old Town consisting of a high number of descendants of Baluchi soldiers who settled within this area before it developed into a town. The name is derived from the Arabic word Qadr-ur-Rahman meaning fate of God.
Ganjoni – Primarily residential. Middle class.
Tudor – Another middle class residential area.
The airport of the city is the Moi International Airport. Mombasa has a railway station and Kenya Railways runs overnight passenger trains from Mombasa to Nairobi, though the service is less extensive than it used to be. Highways connect Mombasa to capital Nairobi, Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam while northward road link to Malindi and Lamu. Within Mombasa, most local people use Matatus (minibuses) to move between villages and Mombasa Island. Mombasa port is the largest in Kenya but there is little or no scheduled passenger service. International cruise ships frequent the port.
Mikindani – Township 10 minutes northwest of Mombasa Island, situated on the Nairobi Road.
Magongo – Small town that serves as a link between the city and Moi International Airport. Magongo is also home to the Akamba Handicraft Cooperative.
Mombasa is a sister city of Seattle, USA. On November 28, 2002, a suicide car bomb exploded at the Israeli-owned beachfront Paradise Hotel killing three Israelis and ten Kenyans. About 20 minutes earlier, an (unsuccessful) attempt was made to shoot down an Arkia Israel Airlines Boeing 757 chartered tourist plane taking off from nearby Moi International Airport using surface-to-air missiles; nobody was hurt on the plane, which landed safely in Tel Aviv. The main suspect for both attacks is al Qaeda (see Kenyan hotel bombing).