Kenya's 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Explore these significant sites, which reflect the universal value of Kenya's spectacular beauty, culture, and natural diversity...

By National Museums of Kenya

"Our children may learn about the heroes of the past. Our task is to make ourselves the architects of the future."

Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya

KangaNational Museums of Kenya

Beyond the big five

Kenya is known for its spectacular beauty and a visit offers the experience of a lifetime. Besides the chance to see the big five game animals, the country holds seven UNESCO World Heritage sites – making it second only to South Africa (which has ten) in terms of the number of listed sites in an African country. For a country to be considered a UNESCO member, it has to ratify itself to any number of the existing World Heritage conventions, then follow through by adhering to the mandatory guidelines therein. State parties agree to identify and nominate properties on their national territory to be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List.

Gede Ruins Archeological siteNational Museums of Kenya

UNESCO conventions
The properties identified by a state party must have outstanding universal cultural, historical, natural and archaeological value. Kenya has ratified itself to two of the World Heritage conventions, namely: the 1972 Convention of The Protection of The World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and the 2003 Convention for The Safeguarding of The Intangible Cultural Heritage. The National Museums of Kenya (NMK), as the focal point for the UNESCO in Kenya, was and still is responsible in ratifying the country to these conventions, and managing the seven sites highlighted in this exhibition.

Main gate of Nairobi National MuseumNational Museums of Kenya

The National Museums of Kenya's (NMK) role
NMK undertakes a rigorous research process to gather information on any of the properties under its management before displaying them to the public. The Museums and Heritage Act (2006), states the qualities these properties should possess in accordance with the UNESCO convention(s) guidelines.

The Museum, through its numerous researchers, gathers information from the community of people local to where the property is situated, to get their perspectives and beliefs. Once this information has been deemed pertinent, it goes through a process of refinement before finally being put up as a gazette notice to allow for public opinion/discourse. Afterwards, the Museum takes over the day to day management of the site.

Petrified forest, Sibiloi National ParkNational Museums of Kenya

1: Lake Turkana National Parks 

Being the most saline of East Africa’s large lakes, Turkana is an outstanding laboratory for the study of plant and animal families. The three National Parks serve as a stopover for migrant waterfowl and are major breeding grounds for the Nile crocodile, hippopotamus, and a variety of venomous snakes. The Koobi Fora deposits, rich in mammalian, molluscan and other fossil remains, have contributed more to the understanding of paleo-environments than any other site on the continent. The Lake Turkana National Parks were inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 1997 and are now under the joint management of Kenya Wildlife services (KWS) and NMK.

Breathtaking colors, flora and fauna
Lake Turkana National Parks consist of Sibiloi, the South and Central Islands, covering a total area of 161,485 hectares, all located within the Lake Turkana basin whose total surface area is 7 million hectares. The Lake is the largest desert lake in the world, surrounded by an arid, seemingly extraterrestrial landscape that is often devoid of life.

The long body of Lake Turkana drops down along the Rift Valley from the Ethiopian border, extending 249 kilometers from north to south and 44 km at its widest point, with an average depth of 30 meters. It is Africa’s fourth largest lake, fondly called the Jade Sea because of its breathtaking color.

Koobi ForaNational Museums of Kenya

A discovery site at Lake Turkana
At Koobi Fora, extensive paleontological finds have been made, starting in 1969 with the discovery of Paranthropus boisei. The discovery of Homo habilis thereafter is evidence of the existence of a relatively intelligent hominid two million years ago, and reflects the change in climate from moist forest grassland to the present hot desert.

These and many more discoveries have been made by NMK researchers in partnership with external parties. Today, all research collections are housed in NMK and are available for further research.

Mount Kenya Natural ForestNational Museums of Kenya

2: Mount Kenya National Park and Forest

With its rugged glacier-clad summits and forested middle slopes, Mount Kenya is one of the most impressive landscapes in East Africa. The National Park and Forest, founded in 1949, was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997, and is under the joint management of KWS and the Museum (NMK). The aim was to protect Mount Kenya, along with its wildlife and environment. The natural environment is crucial as a natural habitat for the animal species that live in the area. It also acts as a water catchment area that provides water to Kenya and is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

By Eliot ElisofonLIFE Photo Collection

The second highest peak in Africa
Mount Kenya straddles the equator about 193 km north-east of Nairobi and about 480 km from the Kenyan coast. At 5,199 m, Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa and is an ancient extinct volcano.

By Loomis DeanLIFE Photo Collection

The evolution of ecology
The evolution and ecology of its afro-alpine flora provide an outstanding example of ecological and biological processes, as discovered and studied by NMK researchers. The area also lies within the traditional migrating route of the African elephant population.

Lamu Old TownNational Museums of Kenya

3: Lamu Old Town

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. Lamu old town was gazetted on 20/6/1986 and added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2001.

Lamu Old TownNational Museums of Kenya

Exploring the narrow streets and alleyways
The town is characterized by narrow streets and alleyways that only allow for movement by foot or donkey. The town's architecture and stone buildings are influenced by a fusion of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles.

Unlike other Swahili settlements which have been abandoned along the East African coast, Lamu has continuously been inhabited for over 700 years. Lamu was once an important trading center in Islamic coastal East Africa, dating back to the twelfth century. It is a major reservoir of Swahili culture, whose inhabitants have managed to sustain their traditional values as demonstrated by their sense of social unity and cohesion.

Lamu boasts of several historic sites, including the German Post Office, the Lamu Museum, and the Lamu Fort.

The Mijikenda Kaya ForestsNational Museums of Kenya

4: The Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests

The Mijikenda Kaya Forests consist of 11 separate forest sites, spread over some 200 km along the coast. They contain the remains of numerous fortified villages, known as kayas, of the Mijikenda people. The kayas, created in the 16th century but abandoned by the 1940s, are now regarded as the abodes of ancestors, revered as sacred sites and, as such, are maintained by councils of elders. These sites were inscribed to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008. The Coastal Forest Conservation unit (CFCu) was constituted by NMK to oversee the conservation efforts of these sacred forests.

The Mijikenda Kaya ForestsNational Museums of Kenya

Repositories of the Mijikenda people's spiritual beliefs
Spread out along around 200km of the coastal region of Kenya are ten separate forested sites, mostly on low hills, ranging in size from 30 to around 300 hectares, in which are the remains of fortified villages, Kayas, of the Mijikenda people. They represent more than thirty surviving Kayas.

The Kayas began to fall out of use in the early 20th century. They are now revered as the repositories of spiritual beliefs of the Mijikenda people, and seen as the sacred abode of their ancestors.

VigangoNational Museums of Kenya

Shell spoons used by the Mijikenda community
The forest around the Kayas have been nurtured by the Mijikenda community to protect the sacred graves and groves and are now almost the only remains of the once extensive coastal lowland forest.

Lake NaivashaNational Museums of Kenya

5: The Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley

The Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2011. It is a natural property of outstanding beauty, comprising of three inter-linked, relatively shallow lakes (Lake Bogoria, Lake Nakuru and Lake Elementaita), and covers a total area of 32,034 hectares. Some of the world’s greatest diversities and concentrations of bird species are recorded within these relatively small lake systems. They are jointly managed by Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and NMK.

Lake BogoriaNational Museums of Kenya

Astonishing landscapes
Major tectonic and volcanic events have shaped the distinctive landscape, which is a place for discovery.

Lake ElementaitaNational Museums of Kenya

Wildlife wonders
The lakes have large mammal populations and are recognised as a valuable place for the study of ecological processes of major importance. It's possible to spot black rhinos, Rothschild’s giraffes, greater kudus, lions, cheetahs and wild dogs.

Lake NakuruNational Museums of Kenya

Flamingos, pelicans and birdlife
For most of the year, up to 4 million lesser flamingos move between the three shallow lakes in an outstanding wildlife spectacle. Surrounded by hot springs, geysers, and the steep escarpment of the Rift Valley with its volcanic outcrops, the natural setting of the lakes provides an exceptional experience of nature.

The lakes are home to 13 globally threatened bird species and some of the highest bird diversities in the world. It is the single most important foraging site for the lesser flamingo anywhere, and a major nesting and breeding ground for great white pelicans.

Fort Jesus, MombasaNational Museums of Kenya

6: Fort Jesus, Mombasa: An Architectural Masterpiece

Built by the Portuguese at the end of the 16th century, Fort Jesus stands at the southern edge of Mombasa, over a spur of coral rock. It was kept under Portuguese control for one century, and is testimony to the first successful attempt by Western civilization to rule the Indian ocean trade routes – which, until then, had remained under Eastern influence. This historical site was gazetted on 12/6/1970 and inscribed to the  UNESCO World Heritage list in 2011.

Fort Jesus, MombasaNational Museums of Kenya

Architecture built by the Portuguese
The Fort – built by the Portuguese in 1593-1596, to Giovanni Battista Cairati's designs, to protect the port of Mombasa – is one of the most outstanding and well preserved examples of 16th century Portuguese military fortification, and a landmark in the history of this type of construction.

The Fort’s layout and form reflected the Renaissance ideal that perfect proportions and geometric harmony are to be found in the human body. The property covers an area of 2.36 hectares and includes the fort’s moat and immediate surroundings.

Fort Jesus, Mombasa, bears physical witness, in its structures and subsequent transformations, to the interchange of cultural values and influences between and among peoples of African, Arab, Turkish, Persian and European origin, who fought to gain and maintain their control over this strategic port.

Inside Fort Jesus Museum
The museum holds objects from archaeological excavations at Fort Jesus, Gede, Manda and Ungwana.

Thimlich OhingaNational Museums of Kenya

7: Thimlich Ohinga archaeological site

Thimlich Ohinga cultural site was gazetted as a national monument on 4/6/1982 and added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2018. Thimlich Ohinga refers to a “frightening dense forest” in Dholuo language, a Nilotic group who occupy the region. The stone structure enclosure has walls ranging from 1.0 to 4.2 meters in height, which were built of loose stones and blocks without any dressing or mortar.

Built by communities
Archaeological records of materials found within the site go beyond 500 years ago. Since the present inhabitants of the area arrived probably some three centuries ago, it seems most likely that Bantus – who initially occupied this region prior to the arrival of Luos – first built the stone structures. Abundant rocks on the hilly areas provided them with building materials to meet their security requirements.

Subsequently, communities that moved into this region in the period between the 15th and 19th centuries carried out repair work and modification on the structures. However, all these episodes of occupation and repair did not interfere with the architecture and preservation of the structures.

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, the abandonment of Ohingni started en mass. No more stone structures were constructed, and consequently some stone structures were reduced to mere traces of circumferences or disappeared altogether. Thimlich Ohinga is one of the few stone structures that survived.

Thimlich OhingaNational Museums of Kenya

Purposely selected elongated slabs were used at the gates as lintels to support the weight of the stones above the entrance.

Olorgesailie pre-historic siteNational Museums of Kenya

17 sites on the tentative list

A tentative list is an inventory of those properties which each State Party intends to consider for nomination. In Kenya, 17 such sites have been identified.

Historic Town of GediNational Museums of Kenya

Sites on the tentative list:
1. Mombasa Old Town (1997)
2. Lake Nakuru National Park (1999)
3. Lake Naivasha (1999)
4. Lake Bogoria National Reserve (1999)
5. The Historic Town of Gedi (2010)
6. The Mfangano-Rusinga Island Complex (2010)
7. The African Great Rift Valley - The Marakwet Escarpment Furrow Irrigation System (2010)
8. The African Great Rift Valley - Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site (2010)
9. Aberdare Mountains (2010)
10. The Eastern Arc Coastal Forests (Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Shimba Hills National Reserve) (2010)
11. The Kakemega Forest (2010)
12. The Meru Conservation Area (2010)
13. The African Great Rift Valley - Hell’s Gate National Park (2010)
14. The African Great Rift Valley - The Maasai Mara (2010)
15. The Great Rift Valley - The Kenya Lakes System (2010)
16. The Tana Delta and Forests Complex (2010)
17. Tsavo Parks and Chyulu Hills Complex (2010)

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.
For more information about UNESCO World heritage sites in Kenya, click here.

Exhibit Curator: Joseph Saoli, Marketing Manager, Innocent Nyaga, Marketing Officer National Museums of Kenya. jsaoli@museums.or.ke

Photography: Ibrahim Mwangi, Audio Visual Department, National Museums of Kenya

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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