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Island of Mozambique

Island of Mozambique, Mesericórdia Church
Island of Mozambique, Mesericórdia Church / Stig Nygaard, Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

WorldBlue  In short

Step by step the medieval trade town on Island of Mozambique is regaining its former glory. After a century-long decay, this historical town gains from the economical development of Mozambique and turns into exotic tourist destination.

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GPS coordinates
15.0359 S 40.7335 E
Location, address
Africa, Mozambique, Nampula province, Island of Mozambique
Name in Portuguese
Ilha de Moçambique
The 14th century AD?
Period of flourishing
The 16th – 19th century
Roughly 90 ha
UNESCO World Heritage status
"Island of Mozambique", 1991, No. 599

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

Arab trading post

History of this amazing town started many centuries ago. Sometimes around the 13th or 14th-century Arab traders choose it (among many islands) as a trading post with inland Africa. Eastern African trade towns in those times prospered – Africa was rich with natural resources and Arabia, Persia, India had many customers ready to pay for African goods.

Portuguese arrival

Europe was a rising power as well. In order to avoid a meeting with Muslim armies in the Near East, one of the European countries – Portugal – was looking for a way around Africa.

Fort on Island of Mozambique
Fort on Island of Mozambique / Stig Nygaard, Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Explorer, adventurer and (as it turned out later) a ruthless pirate Vasco da Gama was sent by the King of Portugal Manuel I to find this way. He reached the island in 1498 and was surprised to see the civilization after long travel along wild coasts of Africa.

Da Gama and his team were not sure if they would be well received and decided to pretend to be Muslims from Morocco.

Name of Mozambique

According to local tradition, Vasco da Gama was asking locals for the name of the island. Locals responded: "Ali Musa Mbiki" – this was the name of local sultan (pronounced also Musa Malik, Musa Al Big, Mossa Al Bique, Mussa Ben Mbiki).

Dense town on Island of Mozambique
Dense town on Island of Mozambique / Meraj Chhaya, Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Whatever the truth is (there are other theories) the island and later – whole country around it were named Mozambique.

European conquest

Initially Vasco da Gama and his people were well received. But soon after, when they had to meet the sultan, Portuguese were warned that rich, exotic presents are expected. Europeans were not ready for this: they had just despicable glass beads and tin bells.

Governors Palace, Mozambique Island
Governors Palace / Meraj Chhaya, Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

This changed their fortunes. Sultan suddenly was uninterested in his guests and local people became suspicious. Finally da Gama was forced to leave the town.

Soon Portuguese (da Gama himself) conquered the town and it became one of Portugal’s main ports and trading posts en route to India.

The 16th – 20th centuries

First stone building – St. Gabriel Fort – was built on the island in 1507 (not preserved). Soon other buildings followed, Island of Mozambique became an important trade town, fortification and missionary centre.

Dutch attacked the island in 1607 and 1608 but Mozambique withstood.

San Antonio Chapel, Mozambique Island
San Antonio Chapel / Meraj Chhaya, Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Town gradually declined in the 17th century but started to flourish again the the late 18th century, when slave trade became more active. Island of Mozambique became a capital of this Portuguese colony – Portuguese East Africa.

Further decline started in the late 19th century. Suez canal was opened in 1869 – now the island was not needed for ships heading between Europe and Asia. In 1898 the capital of Portuguese East Africa was moved elsewhere – to Laurenço Marques (present day Maputo).

Stone town on Island of Mozambique stood semi-abandoned and almost forgotten for century. Many heritage values have been lost – but town as a whole was preserved almost unaltered. Now it is gradually reconstructed and is increasingly popular tourist destination.

Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, Mozambique - the oldest European building in Sub-Saharan Africa
Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte – the oldest European building in Sub-Saharan Africa / F.H. Mira, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Description of the town

Island of Mozambique is some 3 km long, 200 – 500 m wide. Whole island is covered with buildings, but less than half is built from stone. Major part of buildings are built from straw (macuti). Some 14,000 people live on the island.

Most historical buildings are located in the northern half of island.

Island contains the oldest European buildings in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the most interesting are:

  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte – the oldest European building in Sub-Saharan Africa, built in 1522. One of the rare examples of Manueline (Late Gothic) architecture in Africa.
  • St. Sebastian Fortress – the oldest extant fortress on the island, built in 1558 – 1620.
  • Governors Palace and chapel (São Paulo palace and chapel) – originally constructed as a Jesuit College in 1610, now – a museum.
  • Hospital – enormous building in Neo-Classical style, built in 1877 as the largest hospital building south of Sahara.
  • Bridge – 3 km long bridge to mainland, built in the 1960s. Single lane, only light cars allowed.

There are several more historical churches – Church of the Misericórdia, Church of Santo António as well as several mosques and Hindu temples.

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WorldYellow Recommended books

Mozambique (Bradt Travel Guide)

This new seventh edition of Bradt’s Mozambique remains the most established and only standalone guide to this alluring country. Complete with in-depth coverage of transport, wildlife, history, culture, and accommodation, plus invaluable practical advice and maps, this honest handbook will help you plan the perfect visit. Particularly useful is the selection of reputable local tour operators.

Six Years in Mozambique: Things I Haven’t Told Mom

With $150 and the belief that all children should be given the skills to keep themselves and their loved ones alive, Amy Gillespie set out for Mozambique to meet the Goliath who had whispered to her in the night, “Come find me.” She could not have imagined all that she would witness and experience on her journey… beauty, inspiration, humor; as well as corruption, unimaginable suffering, and shadowy threats from unlikely sources.

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