There are places you visit where history seems to hum in the air. It winds through the trees, the streets, the people…like a winding ribbon trailing through time. Places that seem to be tucked away in the past even as they stand solidly in the present.
Lamu is one of these places. A walk down the streets of Old Town or across the golden beaches tells a multitude of stories. Tales of a bustling trade centre and docked ships ferrying gold, spices, silk and shells. And perhaps if the walls could speak, you would hear laughter, hundreds of years old- giving you a glimpse into large families, zealous barter, beautiful weddings and resounding prayer calls that formed the heart of the island.
Like many settlements or towns by the sea, Lamu was a trade hub. One of the most prominent in East Africa. As such, metals like gold and silver are inlaid into its culture and history. To date, a visit to Lamu is incomplete without a stopover at a silversmith’s workshop.
However, pottery is another key element of the island trade history that is often forgotten by visitors. Dating back hundreds of years, the remnants of antique pottery in Lamu tell their own story and share important information about the people who once sailed to the island and walked through its streets.
Several bowls, plates and basins point to Arabia, China and India in their style. You have pieces done in easily identifiable Sgraffito from the the 11th-13th centuries, lustre ware, Sasanian Islamic pieces, deep crocks from Siraf, vessels that are strikingly similar to creations from Susa and the highlight of this article, porcelain.
The characteristic white and blue of Chinese porcelain can be seen within a number of old structures in Lamu, a tell-tale sign of oriental influence. And beyond the decorative pieces, the island’s interactions with Chinese sailors can be seen and heard in the names of old settlements, certain words within local dialects, basketry techniques and the few remaining descendants borne from intermarriages between Chinese visitors and locals.
Over time fishermen have pulled up pieces of porcelain in their nets and divers have discovered full porcelain jugs from a shipwreck near Shanga speculated to have once been part of Chinese navigator, Zheng He’s fleet for merchant expeditions between 1405 and 1433. Smaller pieces of porcelain are also washed ashore on the Lamu archipelago.
In recent times, Salamu Designs, a small batch store based in Lamu has collected these fragments of porcelain washed ashore and used them to make beautiful rings, cufflinks, earrings and pendants.
The pieces are created by a team led by Lamu artisan Mohamed Omar, a self-trained silversmith. who transforms these broken fragments of the past into wearable art. A truly beautiful concept, that lets you keep a little bit of Lamu’s rich history wherever you go. Definitely worth a visit on your next trip!