One of the most beautiful places I have visited in the world is the ancient coastal town of Lamu in eastern Africa upon the Indian Ocean. I could feel the presence in Lamu of centuries of history.
The Swahili Coastal Culture
It is fascinating to learn about the Swahili customs and culture that are borne out of the intermarriage of local tribal culture and Arab traders and travelers from the Middle East.
In the gullies and backstreets of old Lamu, you can both see and smell the colorful culture:
From the flowing robes and dresses of the Swahili people in these portrait photographs to the fragrances of incense and jasmine blossoms, the potent aroma of ginger and coves, the tangy scent of tamarind seeds, and the sweet wafts of fresh halva being made before it is sown and wrapped into reed rusks – all of these fill the senses and transport you to a bygone time.
The Reed Weavers
I visited the local village of Kipungani to observe the reed weavers of this village weave prolific mats and baskets. There was such a sense of community in this small village where everyone knew each other well and the women seemed to be the stability and support of the village.
The Spice Market
The spices at the market are a feast of color and fragrances that just floods the senses. We also tasted so many of these spices in various foods as well as in the local tea which often has cloves or ginger. Adjoining the spice market was the local fish market accompanied by the chatter and banter of haggling vendors and buyers of the daily catch on the local dhows.
Mosque Prayer Time in Old Lamu
Early mornings in Lamu, well before the sunrise, Karim and I would hear the first morning prayer calls in a clear and resonantly robust voice from the tapered turrets of the old mosque.
Throughout the day, these lyrical and beautiful prayers would be recited during the prayer times.
Omar, our guide, who is very devout, would excuse himself for prayer time, after ensuring that he had arranged an activity for us to preoccupy ourselves.
There is such serenity and peace at prayer time and the glowing expressions of the young children as they leave or enter the mosques speaks volumes. The doors of the mosques are magnificent demonstrations of artisanship, a tradition that goes back centuries in Lamu.
Artistry and Artisanship of Arab Doorways
The magnificent doors take such skill and artistry and are simply breathtaking both in their timeless beauty and their glowing pride of craftsmanship. They truly are a patient labor of love.
The presence of these Arab and Swahili doors is illuminated with such thoughtful texture and tone.
There is the deep, dark and rich mahogany texture of the traditional doors, contrasted with some doors made of lighter woods and painted in vibrant primary pastel colors.
The walls in which these doors are embedded also vary and contrast: from smoothly smeared and pasted mud and clay colored walls, to traditional stone masonry walls to the gritty and grainy seaside coral walls which are rich in deep patterns and dancing shadows.
The artisan door makers of Lamu were busy at work when we visited them. They showed us the various tools that they use to craft and carve the intricate designs which are part of a long-held tradition of guildsman-ship that is passed down from father to son through the generations.
When we think of a doorway as a ‘portal’ a purview into a new perspective and venue, then that portal comes with an expectation and a promise, when it stands so majestically and is created with such care and craftsmanship. Omar, our guide, who was very devout, would excuse himself for prayer time, after ensuring that he had arranged an activity for us to preoccupy ourselves.
There is such serenity and peace at prayer time and the glowing expressions of the young children as they leave or enter the mosques speaks volumes.
The doors of the mosques are magnificent demonstrations of craftsmanship and artisanship, a tradition that goes back centuries and a source of great pride.
Visiting the Tate Britain in London after Lamu
This watercolor painting by British painter John Griffiths (1838-1918) is entitled ‘A Sannyasi’.
This was my favorite painting during Karim and my visit to the Tate Britain gallery.
It is difficult enough to work with watercolors because, if you make a mistake, watercolor – as opposed to oil painting – is unforgiving… You cannot effectively correct a mistake once it is made.
Moreover, the fact that this painting retains its vibrancy and clarity after almost 200 years, makes this painting exceptional, in my view.
Finally, I would say that the relevancy of this painting is another lovely quality…
This could easily be a contemporary painting of a man outside a mosque or temple in Lamu.