The coastal city of Mombasa has a rich and often bitter history, a place where the Swahili culture was born but also a port from which slave traders once shipped their human cargo. Though some have likened it to a fading star, Mombasa remains a popular resort and cruise ship port, as well as a jumping-off point for safaris to nearby Malindi and WatamuNational Parks.
The city of Mombasa is an island, linked to the mainland by the Makupa Causeway and the New Nyali Bridge. One of East Africa's oldest cities, it may date back as far as 2,000 years, often under the control of non-Africans. It is also the cradle of Swahili, a distinct coastal culture sometimes mistakenly called a tribe.
The first foreign influence probably came with the arrival of the Portuguese, when Vasco de Gama and his cohorts sailed up in 1498. They were just exploring the possibilities; the real invasion happened seven years later, and over the next century, a wave of Portuguese attacks left thousands dead. The city came under Omani Arab rule in the 17th century. By 1840, the British controlled Mombasa. Only in 1963 did it finally gain autonomy.
Kenya's main seaport (and the capital of the Coast Province), Mombasa's Kilindi port is East Africa's most advanced. Ship trade is nothing new to the city; it has long served as a gateway to East Africa, hosting vessels from around the world. Sadly, among those docking most frequently during the 18th and 19th centuries were the slave traders.
Among the brutal landmarks that recall that ugly era are local caves, once infamous as storage pits (often death pits) for captured Africans before they were shipped overseas.
Another, somewhat horrifying (at least to conservationists) landmark is the famous Mombasa gateway arch on Moi Avenue made of giant elephant tusks. Less disturbing attractions include Fort Jesus Museum (at the fort built by the Portuguese in 1593), with exhibits on Swahili culture and history; the fabric shops selling the dramatic clothes of the coast; and the old mosques that dot Mombasa, including the 1570 Mandhry Mosque, with its picturesque minaret, and the Bashkeih Mosque, said to date back to 1300.