Large crowds gathered outside the vast stone structure — the tallest building in Nairobi at the time — with its wood-framed windows and soaring columns, to witness the moment its large doors first swung open to the Jamat.
Situated at the junction of Moi Avenue and River Road, the building’s lofty clock-tower, visible from many streets away, became a new landmark for residents and tradespeople in the growing township, and symbolised the permanent settlement of the Jamat in Kenya.
A full century has now passed since that momentous day. Over this time, the building has contributed to the lasting legacy established by the Ismaili community and its institutions in Kenya’s capital and beyond.
An edifice of history
For Ismailis who grew up in Nairobi, the famous building evokes fond memories. Some still live in the city, while others have moved on to other parts of the world. For all of them, Town Jamatkhana was the starting point as they began their lives in Kenya.
“For any Ismaili who arrived with their bags at Nairobi railway station, their first port of call was Town Jamatkhana,” said Mehboob Habib, who grew up in Nairobi and is now based in Toronto, Canada.
“Even if you didn’t know anyone in Nairobi, it was a place where you could go and know that you would receive some sort of assistance. Someone would take care of you.”
Local residents dubbed the building “Khoja Mosque,” referring to the Ismailis of Indian origin who settled in Kenya in the early 20th century. It still goes by this name in tourist maps and city guidebooks, and was listed in 2001 as one of the country’s heritage monuments.
The Jamatkhana also spurred the growth of businesses in its immediate vicinity. Shops, restaurants, and cafés sprung up on the adjacent road, named ‘Bazaar Street’ at the time for its marketplace atmosphere. It was later renamed Biashara Street, after the Swahili word for commerce or trade.
It became a sparkling feature of the city in more ways than one, especially when lit up on commemorative days, becoming a majestic ‘palace in the sky.’
“On every special occasion; a jubilee, a festival, independence celebrations, or when the Imam visited; the Jamatkhana would be decorated in spectacular lights, and the Aga Khan Band would play,” Mehboob continued.
“People would travel from far and wide — Ismailis and others — just to see the splendour of the lights and hear the band. There was nothing like it.”
For those who were there to witness these moments, and others who lived these through their stories, the Town Jamatkhana has an extra special place in their hearts, for it was here in 1944, that Mawlana Hazar Imam recited the namaz during Eid ul-Fitr ceremonies, at the age of eight.
A multi-function space
It was a remarkable feat of engineering for its time, taking only two years from laying the foundation stone to completing construction. Today, the three-storey Victorian-style building, designed by Virji Nanji Khambhaita, retains much of its original detail.
“The foyer of the building features magnificent arches and moulded ceilings, while an atrium in its centre floods the space with natural light,” described Dr Azim Lakhani, AKDN Diplomatic Representative to Kenya.
“Balustrades are finished in beautifully handcrafted timber. Panelled timber doors sit in arched timber frames and many floors are finished in patterned terrazzo.”
“In time, the landmark building supported the religious and social aspects of the Ismaili Community’s lives,” Dr Lakhani added, “comprising prayer halls, as well as spaces for social events, learning, and administrative offices.”
Soundproof windows on the upper floors absorb the buzz and bustle of the city below, and allow for a serene environment for prayer and meditation.
“The Jamatkhana had a large library stocked with secular and religious books for the Jamat to read there and borrow - a rarity at the time,” said D’jemilla Daya, who was raised in Nairobi and now lives in the UK.
“Many people used to go there in the morning before work to read the newspapers, and children would gather there after prayers to browse the comics.”
As with Jamatkhanas in other parts of the world, this one has evolved in form and function over time, reflecting the changing local context and needs of the community.
In recent years, the building’s spaces have been used for public exhibitions and events, including Rays of Light; Prince Hussain’s Fragile Beauty exhibition; Ismailis in Kenya: a Photographic Journey; and a workshop on the environment chaired by Prince Rahim.
Members of the Jamat also mark important rites of passage here, such as birth, marriage, and death. All events and programmes are organised by volunteers who wish to serve the community and wider society.
“I was fortunate to be married at Town Jamatkhana in 1985, and now I have the opportunity to officiate weddings here,” said Moez Manji, who currently serves as Mukhi Saheb.
“As the present office bearers, we strive to continue a long tradition of service, embodied by the many Mukhi Kamadias and volunteers who have come before us.”
A century of memories
Throughout 2022, the Jamat will celebrate the Centenary year of Nairobi’s Town Jamatkhana, and its historical significance for the Jamat and the country as a whole.
Over the years, Ismailis who attended as children have gone on to make important contributions to business, academia, and civil society in Kenya and around the world, as have their children and grandchildren in turn.
“I’ve heard so many stories centred around Town Jamatkhana, and there must be many more I haven’t heard,” said Nabila Walji, from Edmonton, Canada.
Nabila’s great grandfather opened and managed the popular Ismailia Hotel restaurant across the street, witnessing the comings and goings of people and the steady development of the local area over time.
“When I would visit, I felt a sense of continuity with generations of the past. The legacy of our ancestors in the city is evident in this much-loved building.”
With the rise of ever taller structures and busy streets in the heart of Nairobi, the Jamatkhana’s clock tower continues to represent stability through changing times. Today the building remains a place of peace and solace, offering precious memories for all who walk through its timber doors.
“For a century now, our treasured Town Jamatkhana has symbolised the Ismaili community’s permanent presence in Kenya, along with our contributions to the country’s progress - through the work of our institutions, volunteers, and outreach partners,” said Shamira Dostmohamed, President of the Ismaili Council for Kenya.
“We look forward to working together on plans for the next 100 years.”