Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, retaining its traditional functions. 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 centre for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures.
The town is characterized by narrow streets and magnificent stone buildings with impressive curved doors, influenced by unique fusion of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles. The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas provide a unified visual impression of the town when approaching it from the sea. While the vernacular buildings are internally decorated with painted ceilings, large niches (madaka), small niches (zidaka), and pieces of Chinese porcelain. The buildings are well preserved and carry a long history that represents the development of Swahili building technology, based on coral, lime and mangrove poles.
The architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrate the cultural influences that have come together over 700 hundred years from Europe, Arabia, and India, utilizing traditional Swahili techniques that produced a distinct culture. The property is characterized by its unique Swahili architecture that is defined by spatial organization and narrow winding streets. This labyrinth street pattern has its origins in Arab traditions of land distribution and urban development. It is also defined by clusters of dwellings divided into a number of small wards (mitaa) each being a group of buildings where a number of closely related lineages live.
Attributed by eminent Swahili researchers as the cradle of Swahili civilization,Lamu became an important religious centre in East and Central Africa since the 19th century, attracting scholars of Islamic religion and Swahili culture. Today it is a major reservoir of Swahili culture whose inhabitants have managed to sustain their traditional values as depicted by a sense of social unity and cohesion.