Lamu Island is a part of the Lamu Archipelago of Kenya. Lamu Old Town, the principal inhabited part of the island, is one of the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is characterized by the simplicity of structural forms enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors. Lamu has hosted major Muslim religious festivals since the 19th century, and has become a significant center for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures. The island is linked by boat to Mokowe on the mainland and to Manda Island, where there is an airport. There are no roads on the island, just alleyways and footpaths, and therefore, there are few motorized vehicles on the island. Residents move about on foot or by boat, and donkeys are used to transport goods and materials.
A port was founded on the island of Lamu by Arab traders at least as early as the fourteenth century, when the Pwani Mosque was built. The island prospered on the slave trade. After defeating Pate Island in the nineteenth century, the island became a local power, but it declined after the British forced the closure of the slave markets in 1873. In 1890 the island became part of Zanzibar and remained obscure until Kenya was granted independence from Great Britain in 1963. Tourism developed from the 1970s, mainly around the eighteenth century Swahili architecture and traditional culture.
Lamu Old Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 base on 3 criterion:
- The architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrate the cultural influences that have come together there over several hundred years from Europe, Arabia, and India, utilizing traditional Swahili techniques to produce a distinct culture.
- The growth and decline of the seaports on the East African coast and interaction between the Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Europeans represents a significant cultural and economic phase in the history of the region which finds its most outstanding expression in Lamu Old Town.
- Its paramount trading role and its attraction for scholars and teachers gave Lamu an important religious function in the region. It continues to be a significant centre for education in Islamic and Swahili culture.