Ilha de Moçambique houses several of the southern hemisphere’s oldest surviving buildings, including the Fortaleza de São Sebastião © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
The town of Moçambique, which occupies the small offshore coral island of the same name in Mossuril Bay, is the oldest European settlement on the east coast of Africa, and also perhaps the most intriguing and bizarre. Measuring about 3km from north to south and at no point more than 600m wide, crescent-shaped Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique Island) was the effective capital of Portuguese East Africa and the most important Indian Ocean port south of Mombasa for almost four centuries prior to the emergence of Maputo, peaking in prosperity during the 18th century when it handled some 70% of the ivory exported from the Mozambican coast.
It houses several of the southern hemisphere’s oldest extant buildings, including the Fortaleza de São Sebastião, the former Convent of São Paulo and a trio of handsome churches. In 1991, the entire island was inscribed as Mozambique’s first (and thus far only) UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of its numerous old buildings and singular architectural cohesion, and it surely ranks as the country’s most alluring urban destination for travellers.
UNESCO-listed Ilha de Moçambique boasts Africa’s oldest European settlements.
Often referred to locally as Ilha (pronounced Ilya), Moçambique drifted towards backwater status over the course of the 20th century, a trend that goes a long way towards explaining why the town centre, a maze of narrow alleys lined with old colonial buildings, has barely changed shape in centuries. But while the architectural landscape is overtly Portuguese, the overall mood of the island has greater affiliations to old Swahili ports such as Lamu or Zanzibar, a kinship underscored by the predominantly African/Muslim human presence.
In the early 16th century, when Ilha de Moçambique became the Portuguese regional capital, the original Muslim population was forced to relocate to the mainland. And there they stayed for four centuries, only starting to drift back across the water after the capital relocated to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in 1898, and again, in greater numbers, in the wake of the Portuguese evacuation of 1975, to give Ilha de Moçambique a strong but deceptive sense of historical continuity, one that has the odd effect of reducing 400 years of Portuguese rule to something of a passing episode.
By comparison with its lamentably run-down state when the first edition of Mozambique: the Bradt Travel Guide was researched, Ilha de Moçambique is currently enjoying a fresh lease of life as a low-key tourist destination. A number of derelict houses have been rehabilitated to serve as hotels, backpackers or restaurants, while the Fortaleza de São Sebastião and other key public buildings have been renovated by UNESCO or affiliated organisations. And where in 1996 there was only one hotel and two restaurants on the entire island, today there are enough cafés, restaurants, boutique shops and lodgings to make the old town a genuinely pleasant place to hang out for a few days.