Why the name: Mombasa?

Mombasa in 1572

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the name of Kenya‘s oldest and biggest port city? Why? I am talking about Mombasa of course, the coastal and beautiful city of Mombasa; the city visited by the famous Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta in 1331, as well as the great Chinese navigator Zheng He in the 1413.

Mombasa_Moi avenue1
Moi Avenue with its tusks, Mombasa today

The earliest recorded mention of Mombasa is in the works of Diogenes, a Greek merchant in the First Century (supported by  Ptolemy). Diogenes reported that he had been blown off course from his usual route to India, ending up in a port town he called Rhapta. Rhapta has never been conclusively identified, but Roman coins have been found on several islands that were part of, or near, what became the Sultanate of Zanzibar, of which Mombasa was a core town. In 1151, the Arab geographer Al Idrisi described it as prosperous trading town. Other pioneers of maritime exploration also visited Mombasa, including the Portuguese Vasco da Gama (1498), Pedro Álvares Cabral (1500) João da Nova (1505) and Afonso de Albuquerque (1507). 16th-century Portuguese voyager Duarte Barbosa claimed, “[Mombasa] is a place of great traffic and has a good harbor in which there are always moored small craft of many kinds and also great ships,

View of Old Town Mombasa (Wikipedia)

The island was first referred to as Manbaça or Manbasa in 1502, when the Sultanate became autonomous from Kilwa Kisiwani. Manbasa is the Arabic form of the Kiswahili name, Mvita, derived from Shehe Mvita, the founding father of the island city (not sure how Mvita made it into Manbasa – another case of a foreigner playing with phonetics, i.e. not hearing well). It is also known as the “Island of Mvita.” Some sources claim that Mvita is actually derived from Mombasa’s violent history over the centuries. The history supposedly earned the city the Kiswahili nickname “Kisiwa Cha Mvita”, or the “Island of War”.

Map of Kenya with Nairobi and Mombasa

Most European travelers referred to it as Mombaz or close forms of the word. While it was a British Protectorate for 2 years between 1824 and 1826, Mombasa was turned over fully to the British Imperial East African Company in 1898. The Sultan of Zanzibar officially leased the town to the British government in 1895 as a follow-up to an 1885 agreement. Mombasa became the capital of the Protectorate of Kenya sometimes between 1887 and around 1906 until Kenya’s capital was moved to Nairobi around 1906. Technically, and legally, the coastal strip that is today the Kenyan coastline remained part of Zanzibar until it was ceded to independent Kenya in 1963.

Nyali beach in Mombasa (Wikipedia)

The town of Mombasa is centered on Mombasa Island, but extends to the mainland via two creeks, Port Reitz in the south, and Tudor Creek in the north. Today as always, Mombasa is a major trade center, and home to Kenya’s only large seaport. Because of its proximity to Zanzibar, Nairobi and the Indian subcontinent, Mombasa is a melting pot of diverse cultures and people. It is the center of the coastal tourism in Kenya. Enjoy this great video on Mombasa, the city of Mvita, named after its great leader and founding father.


Why the name: Mogadishu?

Map of Somalia
Map of Somalia

Have you ever wondered what the name of the capital city of Somalia, Mogadishu, meant? Somalia has been in the news in recent decades, particularly after the humiliation the American army received with Operation Restore Hope in 1993 at the hand of the local proclaimed president-to-be Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and also because of pirates roaming its coasts in the 2000s. The movie Black Hawk Down shows part of this operation with the ensuing Battle of Mogadishu, while Captain Phillips focuses on pirates.

The city of Mogadishu is located on the Indian Ocean coast of the Horn of Africa, in the Banaadir administrative region (gobol) in southeastern Somalia. The name Mogadishu is said to come from the Persian word Maq’ad-i-Shah, which means “the seat of the Shah.” This is a reflection of the city’s early Persian influence. Locally, it is spelled Muqdisho. To locals, the city is also known as Xamar.

Engraving of the 13th century Fakr ad-Din Mosque in Mogadishu
Engraving of the 13th century Fakr ad-Din Mosque in Mogadishu

So where does the Persian influence stem from in a city on the horn of Africa? Well, for starters, the city was founded in the 10th century by Arab traders. However, 2500 years old relics and pictographs were found on rocks in northern Somalia attesting to the area’s ancient occupation. Tradition and old records assert that southern Somalia, including the Mogadishu area, was inhabited in early historic times by hunter-gatherers of Khoisan descent who were later either driven out of the region, or assimilated by other migrants in the area.

Mogadishan medieval ship
Mogadishan medieval ship

In 1331, the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta visited the city when it was at its zenith. He described Mogadishu as “an exceedingly large citywith many rich merchants, which was famous for the high quality fabric that it exported to destinations including Egypt. Batutta added that the city was ruled by a Somali Sultan, Abu Bakr ibn Sayx ‘Umar, who was originally from Berbera in northern Somalia and spoke both Somali (referred to by Battuta as Mogadishan, the Benadir dialect of Somali) and Arabic with equal fluency. The Sultan also had a retinue of wazirs (ministers), legal experts, commanders, royal eunuchs, and other officials at his service.

There appears to have been a strong Persian presence in both Mogadishu and Zeila for a time. A Shi’a influence can still be seen in some areas, as in the southern Somalia veneration of Fatimah, the Prophet Muhammad‘s daughter. Moreover, in the olden days, the city’s textiles were forwarded far and wide throughout the interior of the continent, as well as to the Arabian peninsula and as far as the Persian coast.

Zheng He
Zheng He, Chinese explorer

The Chinese navigator Zheng He visited the region with his expedition from 1413 to 1415.  From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Mogadishu was an important city of the Ajuran Sultanate. The city was governed by the Muzzaffar dynasty. Mogadishu is one of the rare cities on the East coast of Africa which was never conquered by the Portuguese whose attempts to occupy the city failed in the 16th century. However, the Muzzaffar dynasty lost control of the city to the Hawiye Somali when the Ajuran sultanate was defeated in the 17th century.

By 1892, Mogadishu was under the joint control of the Somali Sultanate of the Geledi and the Omani Sultanate of Zanzibar. The Geledi Sultans were at the height of their power. They dominated the southern ivory trade, and also held sway over the Jubba and Shebelle valleys in the hinterland.

In 1905, Italy made Mogadishu the capital of the newly established Italian Somaliland. The Italians subsequently referred to the city as Mogadiscio. After World War I, the surrounding territory came under Italian control with some resistance. Thousands of Italians settled in Mogadishu and founded small manufacturing companies. They also developed some agricultural areas in the south near the capital, such as Janale and the Villaggio duca degli Abruzzi (present-day Jowhar). In the 1930s, new buildings and avenues were built. A 114 km (71 mi) narrow-gauge railway was laid from Mogadishu to Jowhar. An asphalted road, the Strada Imperiale, was also constructed and intended to link Mogadishu to Addis Ababa.

Mogadishu (downtown) in 1936, Arba'a Rukun Mosque to the centre right
Mogadishu (downtown) in 1936, Arba’a Rukun Mosque to the centre right

British Somaliland became independent on 26 June 1960 as the State of Somaliland, and the Trust Territory of Somalia (the former Italian Somaliland) followed suit five days later. On 1 July 1960, the two territories united to form the Somali Republic, with Mogadishu serving as the nation’s capital.

In 1990, Mogadishu fell under the control of rebels who forced President Mohamed Siad Barre into exile. The rebels formed rival factions each recognizing different presidents, and civil war broke out. In 1992, the United Nations sent armed forces led by American forces. After deadly combats, the American forces were defeated and forced to run away by Aidid‘s troops.

Sandy beach in Mogadishu
Sandy beach in Mogadishu

Today, the amazing sandy beaches of Mogadishu with its vibrant coral reefs are prime land for tourist resorts. Since the city’s pacification on 2011, the city is slowly rebuilding, and establishing international trades with other cities and countries. Mogadishu traditionally served as a commercial and financial centre. Mogadishu’s economy has grown rapidly since then. The Port of Mogadishu is the official seaport of Mogadishu, and the largest harbour in the country. Please enjoy this vibrant, reviving, and historical city. Do check out Somaliagenda.com for amazing pictures of Mogadishu and its people.


Chinese presence in Africa in the 13th century and before

Zheng He
Zheng He

I always thought that since the Chinese invented the compass and the gunpowder, they should have been great navigators and explorers. I also always thought that they should have been among the first to navigate around the globe. What an amazing surprise when I learned that the most venerated Chinese maritime admiral Zheng He had reached the horn of Africa before Vasco da Gama, challenging the claim that VdG had been the first on the Eastern side of Africa. Indeed, Zheng He’s great armada rich of more than 300 ships and as many as 30,000 troops entered the coastal town of Malindi in modern day Kenya in 1418. He also visited Mogadishu and Barawa in present-day Somalia, and went as far as the coast Mozambique. It is said that he brought a giraffe from Somalia back to Emperor Yongle (1415).

Giraffe brought from Somalia (AD 1415) painting by Shen Du

There are tribes in Kenya which have clear Chinese ancestry… they descent probably from some of Zheng He’s crew members.  In 1999, a journalist for the New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof, reported a surprising encounter with the Shanga people on Pate island, just off the coast of Kenya. There, in a village of stone huts set amongst dense mangrove trees, Kristof met a number of elderly men who told him that they were descendants of Chinese sailors, shipwrecked on Pate many centuries ago. Their ancestors had traded with the local Africans, who had given them giraffes to take back to China; then their boat was driven onto the nearby reef. Kristof noted many clues that seemed to confirm the islanders’ tale, including their vaguely Asian appearance and the presence of antique porcelain heirlooms in their homes. You can read his account entitled: 1492: The Prequel on the New York Times website.

Lamu island, in Kenya
Lamu island, in Kenya

It is also reported that 7 centuries before the great admiral Zheng He, another Chinese, Du Huan, an officer of the Tang dynasty (618-907) visited the kingdoms of Nubia and Abyssinia (modern Sudan and Ethiopia respectively). He called these countries Molin-guo and Laobosa respectively. A full account of his trip can be found on Chroniques Yemenites. Check out the blog Curiosity killed the Eccentric Yoruba where the author did an outstanding job relating the Chinese presence in Africa, as well as African presence in China.  Trade flourished between East Africa and China. As such, many African products could be found in Chinese courts such as ivory, giraffes, myrrh, zebras, camels, powdered rhinocerous horn (used as prized aphrodisiac), tortoise shell (used to treat consumption) and frankincense and ambergris (used as a tonic to stimulate circulation). Similarly, as said earlier, Chinese artefacts such as porcelain have been found in coastal villages along East Africa. Chinese coins from the Song and Tang dynasties have been found in Zanzibar, and a huge amount were found in the town of Kajengwa in Zanzibar, illustrating trade between China and early East African kingdoms (some from the Song period have also been found in Mogadishu as well as in Kenya).  Chinese archaeologists arrived in July of 2010 to the beaches of Lamu and Malindi in Kenya, in search for a shipwreck from admiral Zheng He’s flotilla. Please watch this great video on the BBC website about the discovery of Chinese ancient coins in Kenya.

The video below tells of Admiral Zheng He’s travel and the size of his armada.