eSwatini has a fascinating culture going back centuries and its museums reflect its interesting history and traditions.
With the country formerly known as Swaziland being so small, it’s possible to visit the majority of its most fascinating museums in one trip. Here’s Culture Trip’s pick of the best museums in the country.
Umsamo Wesive (National Museum)
Located just behind eSwatini’s parliament in Lobamba, the National Museum is full of interesting displays on eSwatini’s culture, archaeology, craftsmanship, nature and wildlife. There are also displays of traditional Swati attire, ceremonial dress (including the outfits worn by the maidens at the Reed Dance festival) and the elaborate outfits worn by warriors going to battle. The museum is a great starting point for those wanting to learn about the country’s more modern history, with photographic archives showing the journey from the start of colonialism (1879) to independence (1968).
Inside an old cableway station from 1939, you’ll find the Bulembu Museum that contains many items of antique mining machinery. The top floor of the museum focuses on the days of asbestos mining and has a range of machinery from this time – from early medical equipment to film projectors that used arc welding rods instead of bulbs. On the ground floor, you’ll find a timeline showing the history and intermingling of mining and colonialism.
Situated opposite the National Museum, this is a formal garden that was built after the death of King Sobhuza II (King Mswati III’s father) in 1982. The hexagonal memorial park marks the site where his body lay in state – the exact location where his body lay is preserved by a glass mausoleum and guarded around the clock. Photographs are strictly forbidden. Sobhuza II was a hugely celebrated monarch in eSwatini, and in the centre of the garden is a large brass statue of him carrying the phrase ‘Anginasitsa’, which means ‘I have no enemies’. His statue was built facing east, which is symbolic because it is pointing in the direction of Sobhuza’s father’s burial site in the Mdzimba mountains. The memorial park also has a small museum documenting the King’s life with information and photographs.
Ngwenya is the world’s oldest mine, dating back 43,000 years where early settlers mined ochre, or red iron ore. Ochre is still used today in eSwatini to help people communicate with their ancestors, and also in traditional wedding ceremonies. For this reason, the ancient site is a spiritual one as well as being of historical value. After seeing the impressive ancient mine and enjoying its picturesque views, you can visit the Ngwenya Mine Visitor Centre for some more information about the history of the site. Displays in the Visitor Centre explain eSwatini’s geology and its different settlers over the years: from the country’s first inhabitants – the San people – to the first colonists and the modern mining that took place until the late 70s.
Sugarcane used to be one of eSwatini’s most lucrative exports and the Sugarcane Museum, which is located on a working sugar estate called Tambankulu, tells you all about the history of sugar in the country. The displays will take you on a journey through time: explaining how the sugar industry spread across the world over thousands of years before arriving in eSwatini where it became the country’s largest industry. You’ll also be able to learn about how sugar is grown, milled and sold, as well as having a go at crushing cane juice from a 19th century juicing machine.
Mantenga is like a ‘living museum’ in which you will feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The Cultural Village is an accurate replica of a traditional homestead in the 1850s, which you can explore with the help of a local guide who’s on hand to answer any questions you might have about domestic culture and traditions in eSwatini. There are also twice-daily performances (at 11.15am and 3.15pm) where dancers showcase the renowned Sibhaca and other dances while singing together and playing traditional drums. Once you’ve seen the performances and explored the village with its traditional domed grass huts, you can also do a bit of wildlife and bird-spotting as the village is set within a nature reserve with the beautiful Mantenga Falls nearby.
While there’s no museum, Nyonyane Mountain is nonetheless an important geological and historic site in eSwatini. Its 1,110 metre granite peak, known as Execution Rock, is where criminals were executed in ancient times, forced to walk off the cliff edge at spear-point. eSwatini’s first settlers used to live on Nyonyane, and the mountain is also the site of Swazi royal graves. Take a leisurely hike to enjoy the stunning views, or even book a three- or four-hour horseback ride to the summit with Chubeka Trails.