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Uncovering the Mnarani Ruins

By Harriet James

In recent travels to the quiet town of Kilifi, my love for history brought me to explore the Mnarani Ruins. The ruins are the remains of an old mosque and two old tombs dating back to the 14th Century. They are about 200 metres from the Mombasa-Malindi road and overlook the Kilifi creek from the southern side.

I arrived with my guide, Moody, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, eager to discover what the ruins had to reveal. Mnarani is open from 7am to 6pm, which meant I had to rush to see everything before closing time. After paying the entrance fee of two hundred shillings, we climbed up the many, tiring steps to the ruins. The chirping birds and the quiet, gentle breeze made me feel like a relic hunter who had discovered a mysterious site. The truth, however, is that the ruins see lots of eager visitors who, like me, hope to learn and take inspiration. It was first gazetted in March 1929 and confirmed as a monument through subsequent legislation. The name Mnarani comes from the Swahili word, mnara, which means pillar. Surrounding towns also bear the name, which proves how socially central the ruins are.

The first stop was  an old well covered with logs, which, according to Moody, was made from coral and was where Arabs washed up before prayers. It fascinated me that there were separate areas of worship for men and women. Next to the well were the ruins of what must have been a great mosque, based on the size of the foundation. I learnt that it was referred to as the congregational or a large Friday and was where the town came to send their duas to Allah. The mosque had enigmatic engravings and beautiful stone carvings. All around were smaller mosques, gates and tombs of noted sheikhs of the time.

Something else that captured my interest were the several giant baobabs overlooking the Indian ocean. Among the Mijikenda, the baobab was a sacred tree where villages made sacrifices to the ancestors and prayed for rain and blessings.

The ruins are also the perfect place to watch the old ferry, the magnificent Kilifi creek as well as the new Kilifi bridge. In low tide, the wreckage of the old ferry, which was once the only carriage between Malindi and Mombasa, can be seen floating. One can also observe the fishermen cast their nets or haul their catch.

The ruins depict how Arabs lived in ancient times in a place that was once a trading hub. Mnarani was destroyed by the Galla tribe in the early 17th Century. In recent years, the pillar tomb has been dismantled and reconstructed as a conservational measure to avoid further collapse. Mnarani also has a snake park where local snake species can be viewed.

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