Ancient City Wall in Kenya May Become World Heritage Site


East Africa could soon get another World Heritage Site, if Kenya’s application to Unesco to have Thimlich Ohinga Cultural Landscape included in the prestigious World Heritage List is approved.

Situated 46km south of Migori town, about 180km southwest of Kisumu town in southwestern Kenya, Thimlich is a 600-year old circular stone wall relatively unknown to many outside the location.

The wall’s uniqueness is that it was built without mortar and is a rare example of early defensive savanna architecture adopted in East Africa. Several smaller walls can be found inside the outer wall and these are believed to have been build to protect individual homes. The massive outer wall protected the entire settlement which stood on a 52-acre piece of land.

The site consists of six enclosures and is a rare example of the first settlements in the region. Most of the wall is still standing, except for a few sections that have been destroyed by the effects of weather and human activity. The 52 acres of Thimlich have 138 sites containing 521 structures. These are concentrated in the Kadem-Kanyamkago areas, Karungu, Gwasi and Kaksingiri Lake headlands, and in Kanyamwa and Kanyidoto areas.

Thimlich’s location is a perfect stopover for visitors to and from the nearby Ruma National Game Park, Gogo Falls or the Macalder gold mines.

To be included in the Unesco list would give the site international recognition and universal protection. Kenya will also gain financially as well as technically through programmes in education and conservation, publicity and international assistance. Once listed, the site would become the property of the world, and anybody can bring to the attention of the conservation fraternity any imminent danger to the site.Believed to have been built in the 14th century, Thimlich was gazetted as a National Monument in 1981.

Due to its historical and cultural importance, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) on behalf of the Kenya government submitted Thimlich Ohinga Cultural Landscape application to the Unesco World Heritage Committee.

In Africa, the only other such structure is The Great Ruins of Zimbabwe, in Zimbabwe, from which the southern African country draws its name. These structures can be compared to the walled cities of the Middle East found in Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Surame Cultural landscape in northern Nigeria.

Thimlich is a good example of stone walls used for communal and centralised system of control, which became common in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya from the 14th century. The wall rises to a height of one metre to 4.2 meters in some parts, quite amazing considering that it is made purely of loose stones. Archaeological records of materials found on the site go beyond 500 years ago. The structures are rich in archeological deposits.

The style and architecture of the stone walls of Thimlich are similar to those of the Great Zimbabwe. They are, however, far much smaller in magnitude but spread over a vast area.

Thimlich Ohinga literally means a “frightening dense forest” in Dholuo language of the Luo, a Nilotic ethnic group that occupied the region in the early 18th century.

Since the current inhabitants of the area arrived only about three centuries ago, it seems most likely that a Bantu community that initially occupied this region built the stone structures.

Abundant rocks found on the in this hilly area provided them with the building stones. During the first quarter of the 20th century, the area around Thimlich started being was abandoned en mass, and no new stone structures were being constructed and consequently some walls were destroyed or disappeared altogether. Thimlich Ohinga is one of the few structures that survived.

The director of Sites and Monuments at the National Museums of Kenya Dr Hassan Wario, said that Thimlich is the only monument in Kenya that has regional implications in terms of historical past. “It is a place where many cultures have passed through and has added value to its outstanding nature.” He was referring to the migrants to the area from Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda, who eventually proceeded on to Tanzania.

If approved by Unesco, Thimlich will join Kenya’s list of World Heritage Sites: Lamu Stone Town, Mount Kenya, Sibiloi National Park in Turkana — rich in fossil deposits — and the Kaya Forests (the Mijikenda sacred forests at the Coast).

The NMK also hopes to have Fort Jesus in Mombasa — built by the Portuguese in 1593 — and the Great Rift Valley Lakes of Nakuru, Naivasha and Bogoria listed as world heritage sites following fresh campaigns.

Dr Isaya Onjala, the assistant director of Sites and Monuments, Western Region, and who has been studying Thimlich for the past 20 years, said that the site and its surrounding is rich in archeological remains. Pottery and bones collected from the site are still being analysed.

The only difference between Thimlich and Great Zimbabwe, he said, is that the latter was built with shaped stones.

For any site to be considered for The World Heritage List, it must have outstanding universal value. Similarly, the site or cultural landscape must be authentic, of immense historical and cultural significance, and the integrity of the site.

There are only 800 sites on the list, despite the fact that the world is littered with thousands of unique sites. France and Italy have 20 per cent of their cultural and historical on list. Few of Africa’s sites are listed and many have been destroyed as a result of population pressure and expansion of farming activities.

Zanzibar Stone Town

In East Africa, other listed sites are Stone Town of Zanzibar, tombs of the Buganda kings, Lamu island town, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Rwenzori Mountains.

The stone Town of Zanzibar is a fine example of Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa. It has retained its urban fabric and townscape through its many fine stone buildings that reflect its particular culture, which has brought together and homogenised different elements of African, Arab, Indian and European cultures over millennia.

Stone Town is an outstanding material manifestation of cultural fusion and harmonisation. For many centuries there was intense trading between Asia and Africa, and this is illustrated in the unique architecture and urban structure of Stone Town.

Zanzibar has great symbolic importance in the suppression of slavery, since it was one of the main slave-trading ports in East Africa and also the base from which its opponents such as David Livingstone conducted their campaign.

Two major cultural traditions merged to form the Swahili civilisation on the East African coast. There was a loose confederation of small coastal city states known as the Zenj bar (Black Empire) which operated in the 8th-10th centuries. The best preserved of these towns is Zanzibar, the name of which is derived from the Perso-Arabic word meaning “the coast of the blacks.”

The Swahili economy was destabilised with the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century. The slave trade, started by the Portuguese, assumed large proportions in the 18th century, when slaves were required in large numbers for the French sugar plantations in the islands of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean.

Kasubi Tombs of Buganda Kings

These royal tombs were destroyed by fire in March 2010, and will have to be reconstructed. The fire destroyed the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga building, the main structure at the site, which contained four tombs.

They are regarded as the major spiritual centre for the Baganda people, the largest ethnic group in Uganda. Four successive Kabakas (kings) of Buganda — Mutesa I (1835-1884); Mwanga II (1867-1903); Daudi Chwa II (1896-1939) and Sir Edward Mutesa II (1924-1969) were buried in the same tomb house at Kasubi. The building is at the core of this nomination. The property, an outstanding example of an architectural style developed by the Buganda Kingdom in the 13th century. The tombs were entered into the Unesco World Heritage List in 2001 because of their uniqueness and importance to humanity.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

The park is located in southwestern Uganda and is part of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, on border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and next to the Virunga National Park on the edge of the western Rift Valley. It comprises 331 square kilometers of jungle forests and contains both montane and lowland forest. It is accessible only on foot. The park is a sanctuary for colobus monkeys, chimpanzees and many birds. It is perhaps most notable for the 300 Bwindi gorillas, half the world’s population of the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas. There are three habituated Mountain Gorilla groups, Mubare, Katendegyere and Rushegura. The Mubare group is fully habituated. The park was entered into the Unesco World Heritage List in 1994.

Also entered into the World Heritage List in 1994, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park on the border between Uganda and the DR Congo is approximately 1,000 square kilometres of land. It has numerous waterfalls, lakes, glaciers, and the third highest peak in Africa, Mt Stanley. The highest Rwenzoris are permanently snowcapped, and they, along with mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya are the only such found in Africa.The Rwenzori are located on the border between Uganda and the DRC. The Congolese side of the mountains are covered by the Virunga National Park (also a world heritage site).

Kaya Forests

These are sacred forests of the Mijikenda people of the Kenyan coast. They are commonly known as Kaya Forests, and were included in the World Heritage List in August 2008. The Kayas consist of 11 separate forest sites spread over the 200km Coastal strip from the South Coast to the North. They feature lush forests and the remains of numerous fortified spiritual villages known as Kayas.

The Kayas’ history goes back to the 16th century, but they were abandoned by the 1940s, are now regarded as the abodes of ancestors and are revered as sacred sites and, as such, are maintained by councils of elders, who still perform rituals for the communities. The sites are inscribed as bearing unique testimony to a cultural tradition and for a direct link to a living tradition.

The Kayas are regarded as sacred by nine ethnic groups that make up the Mijikenda (which literally means nine homes). According to traditions and myths, the forests historically sheltered small fortified villages of the various groups when they first appeared in the region three centuries or more ago pursued by enemies from the North. Kaya means homestead.

Where possible, they were established on hilltops and other strategic locations. When conditions became more secure, local folklore has it that the various groups left the forests’ refuge and began to clear and cultivate outside lands. There are reports of some Kayas being inhabited well into the 20th century. Archaeological studies also suggest a longer period of human occupation than traditions indicate, providing an interesting relationship between myth, folklore and reality.