A thousand years of trade, settlement and Islamic expansion have left ruins up and down the East African coast. In the 2nd century the Greeks knew of this coast and called it Azania. Later, in the 9th and 10th centuries Arab and Persian traders and settlers called it Bilad-al-Zenj. Their small settlements grew into fiercely independent city-states which brought forth a distinct Arab-African culture called Swahili.
The buildings in Lamu historical core date from the 18th century though both folklore and archaeological evidence point to an older settlement just south and possibly also north of today’s town.
Lamu flourished in this period and her traders grew rich exporting ivory, mangroves, oil seeds, grains, cowries and tortoise shell. Their dhows sailed to Arabia and India and brought back coveted oriental silks, spices and porcelain.
Along the beach between Lamu and Shela you still find pieces af Chinese blue and white porcelain
Lamu continued to prosper in the 19th century under the protection of the Sultan of Oman who in about 1820 built the Fort. As the last century drew to a close the town gradually declined. One hundred years later the streets and the buildings remain to tell Lamu story: only they are not empty monuments, but a living town.
The streets of Lamu are narrow, cool and quiet. They are surprisingly intimate spaces enclosed by massive stone buildings whose thick coral rag walls give the town its distinct colour and texture. It is not a town of landmarks and monuments; the Fort alone stands out. Religiuos and domestic buildings are difficult to distinguish from one another.
Both are simple with few openings and neither has any exterior decoration except for Lamu characteristic heavy carved doors.
Lamu mosques do not have minarets; virtually the only outward sign is the collections of sandals on the steps at prayer time. From an architectural point of view the most intresting of the coral stone buildings are the 18th century traditional Swahili courtyard houses. Inside, these houses are extravagantly decorated with rich and masterfully carved plaster ceiling friezes, wall panels and complex wal niches, and beautifully carved trifoliate arches. The art of carving plaster was perfected more than 200 years ago, yet many examples may still be found in the old town. One of the loveliest is in a “Little House” owned and restored by the National Museums of Kenya. The “veranda” houses which line the seafront promenade were built later, around the turn of this century. The National Museums has also restored one of these houses and turned it into the Lamu Museum, one of the finest small museums in Africa.