Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement on the East African coast, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located on a small island off the north coast of Kenya, 250 km north of Mombasa City. There are no vehicles on the island, and goods are still moved through the narrow twisted alleyways of the town by donkeys. Visitors arrive at the quayside by boat. Many of Lamu’s architecture dates from the period of Omani Arab rule from 1698 to the mid 1800s, after a previous period of Portuguese rule.
Lamu’s years as an Omani protectorate during the period from the late 17th century to early 19th century marked the town’s golden age. Lamu was governed as a republic under a council of elders known as the Yumbe who ruled from a palace in the town. During this period, Lamu became a centre of poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as trade. Many of the buildings of the town were constructed during this period in a distinct classical style. Aside from its thriving arts and crafts trading, Lamu became a literary and scholastic centre. Women writers such as the poet Mwana Kupona – famed for her Advice on the Wifely Duty – had a higher status in Lamu than was the convention in Kenya at the time.