Kenya's most tangibly heady, lively city, Mombasa -- originally Manbasa in Arabic, and known as Kisiwa Cha Mvita, or "Island of War," in Kiswahili -- certainly boasts a more intriguing history than the almost wholly modern landlocked capital. It's a cultural stew of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences, spiced by vague remnants of Portuguese and British colonial periods, although the latter perhaps is still evident only in some surviving architecture. It's a city where palm trees grow from the sidewalks and mosques vie, along with churches, Hindu temples, and Sikh gurdwaras, with modern industrial monsters. The city's indomitable spirit is strongly defined by its coastal location. As an island, it has always relied heavily on its natural harbor, which has sustained centuries of contact with the outside world and a steady stream of visitors, traders, invaders, and exotic rulers who have left their mark and impacted strongly on local culture. It is, in many respects, a deeply cosmopolitan city -- or, as less enthused visitors might remark, a hodgepodge of diverse ethnicities competing for space, business, and your attention.
Mombasa has the distinction of being one of the oldest settlements in East Africa. A town has existed on the island for more than 700 years, and some proof dates Mombasa to a much earlier period. The real intrigue, however, began with the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498. Denied entry to the port, the Portuguese adventurer went on to Malindi, where he was greeted with open arms. From then on, the island city became a target of Portuguese fury, which escalated into all-out destruction on several occasions. So brutal were the Portuguese that contemporaneous historians report that when they attacked, they massacred every living soul, including women, children, and animals, hacked down palm trees and orchards, and set fire to any towns they had targeted. During their reign of tyranny along the coast, they became increasingly hated, to the extent that tyrannical harassment of the Swahili coast became cause enough in the 1580s for local sultans to request the intervention of the Turkish buccaneer Amir Ali Bey; the unstoppable Bey arrived in Mombasa and began building substantial fortifications. Bey might have gained control over the entire Swahili Coast, had it not been for the arrival of a cannibal horde -- the Zimba tribe -- which had been eating its way up the African coast, having already defeated the powerful and ancient island city-state of Kilwa (in what is now southern Tanzania). While Bey was preparing for the inevitable Portuguese attack that would come from the sea, the Zimba amassed on the mainland and besieged the island city. The Portuguese took this as an opportunity to attack, sailing from Goa and arriving in sight of Mombasa on March 5, 1589, and prepared to take advantage of the fact that the Turks had enemies on two fronts. The Portuguese took Mombasa and even allowed the man-eating Zimbas to massacre and eat surviving Swahilis left hiding on the island. The Portuguese installed the sultan of Malindi as a puppet ruler acting on orders from Lisbon. Keen to hang on to strategically situated Mombasa, the Portuguese began building their still-standing Fort Jesus here in 1593, and they remained until the Omanis ousted them in 1698 after an epic siege that lasted more than 2 years. When Fort Jesus finally fell to the Omanis, it pretty much marked the end of Portuguese involvement in the affairs of East Africa. While they still controlled only a sprinkling of insignificant ports in Mozambique (where their influence is still evident today), the power and influence of the Omani (and, later, Zanzibari) Arabs was set to continue with only brief interruptions until the British leased the coast from the Zanzibaris. They made Mombasa the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate from 1887 to 1907.
Sadly, while the city's cultural history is wrapped up in the contours of the architecture and in the nature of its neighborhoods -- particularly in Old Town and around Fort Jesus -- the city itself is widely considered a stinking industrial sprawl, and beyond the relatively tiny historic enclave, there is virtually nothing that is likely to hold your attention for very long.
Bounded by water and linked to the mainland by several causeways and a ferry service, Mombasa certainly possesses something of a time warp sensibility -- and that's despite the office towers, incessant traffic, and gigantic full-color advertising hoardings. Head on to the coastal mainland immediately north of here, however, and the sense of being in an evolving modern world is instantly apparent. It's here, starting with the upmarket suburb of Nyali, that the massive luxury plots, tight security, and, with a handful of exceptions, largely hideous beachfront resorts set the tone. By all means, spend a few hours exploring the old Swahili quarter and visit the infamous Fort Jesus, but if you have any say in the matter and are gagging for a genuine holiday experience, push south to the coastal playgrounds around Diani Beach or head north to Lamu.