The oldest and second largest city in Kenya – and the busiest port in East Africa -, Mombasa has its own distinctive style. Hot and humid, and with a distinct Arab feel to it, Mombasa has a colorful history stretching back a thousand years. Invasions, sieges, and trade have all made their mark on the culture of this coastal island city. Known in Swahili as Kisiwa Cha Mvita, Island of War, the town was an important trading center during the 11th century between East Africa and the Indian Ocean trade routes.
Kenyan historians place the founding of Mombasa as around 900 A.D. The town was prosperous enough to be described by the Arab geographer Al Idrisi, who mentioned it in his writings in 1151, and by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited it in 1331. During this period Mombasa emerged as an important trade center with links to Yemen, India, Persia, and China with spices, gold, and ivory as its chief exports.
In 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama became the first known European to reach Mombasa. His visit awakened Portuguese interest in the city. Two years later the Portuguese returned to sack the city. The Portuguese finally captured Mombasa in 1593, building Fort Jesus to ensure their rule. Mombasa became Portugal’s main trading center on the East African coast.
The city came under the rule of the Sultan of Oman in 1698. In 1837 Mombasa was annexed by Sayyid Said, the Sultan of Zanzibar (Tanzania). Zanzibari rule continued until 1898 when the British assumed control of the city. Mombasa became the capital of British East Africa and the sea terminal for the Uganda Railway which was started in 1896. The British introduced Indian laborers who constructed the railroad. After its completion in 1900, they stayed and became a part of this increasingly multicultural, multiracial city. Mombasa under the British sent cotton, cloves, and coffee to Europe and the Americas.