What are the secrets lurking within the ancient ‘Jumba la Mtwana?’

The Jumba la Mtwana, the historical castle ruins found in the Swahili stone town of Kilifi County, in Kenya is said to date back to the 14th and 15th centuries.

The very charming beachside ruins of Jumba la Mtwana, a small Swahili stone town on the coast of Kenya, are located 15 kilometers north of Mombasa in the modern town of Mtwapa.

And it is barely two kilometers from the other ‘Jumba la Mtwapa,’ the ruins of another Swahili stone town.

This relatively small site stretches approximately 250 meters inland.

It features a wealth of coral-rag stone architecture, typical of Medieval Swahili towns and the homes and monuments of their mercantile elites.

The ruins include 4 mosques that were once domed, tombs, calligraphic inscriptions, a number of residential compounds and a large number of wells and cisterns, as well as remains of walling, which may have once been part of a town wall.

“The building material specific to the East African coast, coral rag, is in fact a marine resource of organic origin and can be considered a type of limestone.

…It deserves attention for its special properties.” says a guide in the area.

On the East African coast, it is a very common geological deposit underlying archaeological layers on Swahili sites.

One type of this building material is porites coral, which can be carved like wood when freshly cut from the sea because it hardens as it dries.

Experts say the material was frequently made use of to make finer architectural features like niches, recessed archways, or inscriptions that are all widely seen on the coastal sites.

As with other Swahili settlements, the majority of its inhabitants would have likely lived in homes built from wood and wattle and daub, off the main axis of stone buildings, but these perishable structures have not been preserved.

Unlike other, more important sites on the Swahili Coast, there are no known written records that mention Jumba la Mtwana. Based on pottery chronology the site has been tentatively dated to around 1350 – 1450 AD.

An analysis of architectural sequences suggests that the site may have been occupied as late as the 16th century.

Archaeological excavations have been limited in their scope so far though, and it is possible that earlier ceramics were missed in these surveys and excavations.

The nearby site of Jumba la Mtwapa recently yielded much earlier dates for its ceramic assemblages, beginning in the 11th century.

These picturesque ruins, set on an idyllic beachfront against the backdrop of the light turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, may belie a darker secret.

“Jumba la Mtwana”, from Kiswahili, translates as “large house of the slave”, implying that the site was once a participant in the Indian Ocean slave trade.

However, we do not know what the town was actually called over 500 years ago, or why, or when it acquired its modern name.

Remains of Chinese ceramics indicate that the town was indeed tapped into the Indian Ocean trade network, and precious human cargo was certainly one of the export “products” of the so-called “Zanj Coast”.

But social and economic patterns on this coast were also far more complex than many of the simplified later myths associated with these medieval sites would suggest.

At least for the time being, Jumba la Mtwana manages to keep most of its secrets to itself.

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