KIEREINI: In its heyday, Khoja Mosque was the tallest building in Nairobi

Alibhai Mulla Jevenjee was born in 1856, in Karachi, to conservative Shia Dawoodi Bohra parents who traced their origin to the western Indian State of Gujarat.

After receiving a minimal education and following the death of his father, he embarked on a whirlwind aenture tour across India peddling his wares.

He would later spend some time in Australia as a door-to-door hawker which helped him to perfect his knowledge of the English language. In 1890, Jevanjee settled in Mombasa where he started the first stevedore service for merchant ships calling at the port.

When construction of the Kenya Uganda Railway was started in 1895, Jevanjee was awarded the contract to supply the labour force from India by the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA)ompany. He imported his workforce from the Punjab region of British India.

In total, 31,895 men, comprising Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims were shipped to Mombasa where they worked as labourers and tradesmen.
By the time the railway reached Nairobi in 1899, Jevanjee had entered the lucrative transport and construction business. It is claimed that by 1900, Jevanjee owned 70 per cent of Nairobi and an equally large portion of Mombasa.

In 1906, he donated Jevanjee Gardens to the people of Nairobi as a place of relaxation. The land on which Khoja Mosque stands today was originally owned by Jevanjee.

Popularly known as Khoja Mosque, its actual name is Nairobi Town “Jamatkhana”, meaning “prayer house or mosque”.

Built by the Ismaili community led by their spiritual leader the Aga Khan, construction was completed in 1922. It is situated at the confluence of Moi Avenue and River Road with a side frontage to Njugu Lane.

This is a three storeyed building designed in Victorian style with smooth dressed Njiru stone walls under a Mangalore tiled roof.

Exotic timber

There is an atrium in the centre creating a dynamic and stimulating effect. Balustrades and other wooden components are finished in beautifully handcrafted, polished exotic timber.

Doors are made of polished panelled timber hung in arched timber frames while windows are glazed in steel casements supported by timber frames. Floors are mainly finished in patterned ceramic tiles. The foyer features magnificent arches and moulded ceilings.

There are two modern lifts, one for men and the other for women, serving the upper floors. The building has been known over the years for its wonderful lights display which make it look like a “palace in the sky” during important religious and national celebrations.

The premises are immaculately maintained and careful attention has been paid to retaining the integrity of the original design.

In its heyday, this edifice was the tallest building in Nairobi and it straddled Station Road (current day Moi Avenue) like a colossus. The clock tower acted as a reference point from miles away.

Out of the original 32,000 Indian men who came to work on the railway, the majority returned home, but 6,700 opted to remain in Kenya after completion in 1902.

There was already a nascent community of Indian traders and businessmen along the coastal strip before the railway was built who were hindered from venturing inland by the hostile environment. Completion of the railway made the interior more accessible.

As the two groups of Indians made their way inland, Khoja Mosque became the focal point of new business and it is credited with stimulating the growth of Bazaar Street (present day Biashara Street). It also symbolised the permanent settlement of the Ismaili community in colonial Kenya.

Many dignitaries have visited this iconic building including Queen Elizabeth in 1956. Today, the building is gazetted as a national monument.

SOURCE: BUSINESS DAILY