In the sun-drenched waters of the Indian Ocean, a small coral island sits at the mouth of Mossuril Bay, where the waves melt seamlessly into the sky.
Ilha de Moçambique, or the Island of Mozambique, was used as a harbor and trading center by Arab merchants between the 10th and 15th centuries before Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed on the island in 1498 and claimed it for Portugal.
For nearly 400 years, it was the colonial capital of Portuguese East Africa, positioned on the maritime trade routes for gold, spices, and slaves. By 1907, shortly after the collapse of the slave trade, the capital moved to Lourenço Marques and the island’s population rapidly dwindled. This mass exodus protected it from the ravages of modern development during the 20th century—effectively freezing the island in time.
The entire island was inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991 for its unique architecture—a melding of Arab, Indian, and Portuguese influences—which evolved over its long history as a trading hub.
The island is divided into two parts: Stone Town is the former seat of government, and a fusion of Swahili, Arab, and European influences, and the palm leaf-rooftops of Macuti Town are emblematic of traditional African architecture. Many of the structures in Stone Town—including the oldest standing fortress in sub-Saharan Africa—fell into disuse and require extensive restoration. Macuti town, by contrast, has deteriorated from overcrowding.
While UNESCO and other external organizations have traditionally prioritized the management of the island’s physical landscape, local perspectives on heritage may be more nuanced.
“There is a rich intangible maritime culture at Mozambique Island that is important to the community, but that isn’t reflected in the criterion used to list the World Heritage site,” says Jonathan Sharfman, a post-doctoral associate at New York University Abu Dhabi who has studied the island. “At the same time, the Portuguese fort that is so prominent in the World Heritage narrative is less significant in heritage terms to the people living on the island.”
Because preservation hinges on cooperation from local communities, there is a greater need to include their voices in heritage creation, according to Robert Parthesius, director of the Dhakira–Center for Heritage Studies at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“For many, the pursuit of livelihood takes precedence over the heritage fabric of the buildings that make up the property,” according to a report authored by Parthesius. “For developing countries, it is especially difficult to strike the balance between the conservationist principles of UNESCO and the social and economic development needs of a region.”
World Heritage status has brought certain economic benefits to the island, including expansion of infrastructure and a rise in tourism. While this has created some employment opportunities, many hospitality businesses are not locally owned, and there is still heavy reliance on fishing and local commerce.
“Mozambique Island is at a heritage cross-roads,” says Sharfman, who believes the greatest threat to the island’s heritage is not to its physical structures, but the loss of local history in favor of promoting global narratives.
“There is a strong desire for the creation of locally themed museums, heritage tours, and promotion, and this needs to be taken into consideration to keep the island community involved in heritage management and preservation,” he says. “If local perspectives continue to be sidelined, and local interest in heritage wanes, there may be consequences for survival of both the tangible and intangible heritage of the island.”