Fort Jesus is a huge tourist destination in Mombasa. It was built in 1591 by order of King Philip I of Portugal (King Philip II of Spain), then ruler of the joint Portuguese and Spanish Kingdoms, located on Mombasa Island to guard the Old Port of Mombasa, Kenya. It was built in the shape of a man (viewed from the air), and was given the name of Jesus. In 2011, the fort was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, highlighted as one of the most outstanding and well preserved examples of 16th century Portuguese military fortifications.
While we walked around Old Town, different individuals would follow up, hoping we’d hire their services as a tour guide. Some said it was dangerous to walk around without a local, insinuating we could get robbed, I guess. At no point did I feel threatened; actually a lot of the people greeted me, probably more curious about me than I was of them.
But there was one extremely persistent guy who we eventually caved in to and he became our guide when we entered Fort Jesus. And, regardless of how common he looked, this guy was like an encyclopedia. He knew Fort Jesus’ history as if he was there building it, defending it, attacking it; he was an authority on its history and if you ever find yourself at Fort Jesus, do get one of the guides. The fort is cool to explore, but it’s really just an old fort that looks like ruins with a lot of cannons, a lot of archaeological items, your typical tourist site. The guides bring the place alive with its rich history.
Since I couldn’t possibly remember everything he told me, I gangk Fort Jesus’ history from Wikipedia. And still this is only a fraction of the legend of Fort Jesus told by the guide.
The fort quickly became a vital possession for anyone with the intention of controlling Mombasa Island or the surrounding areas of trade. When the British colonized Kenya, they used it as a prison, until 1958, when they converted it into a historical monument. James Kirkman was then assigned to excavate the monument, which he did (with a large use of external historical documents) from 1958 to 1971.
The architecture of the fort represents the rough outline of a person lying on their back, with the head towards the sea. The height of the walls is 18 meters. The original Portuguese fort had a height of 15 meters, but the much taller Oman Arabs added 3 meters upon capturing the fort.
The fort combines Portuguese, Arab and British elements, representing the major powers that held it at different times in history. Portuguese and British presence if felt by the presence of their respective cannons. The Portuguese cannons had a range of 200 meters and are longer than the British cannons which had a range of 300 meters. Oman Arabs marked their occupancy with numerous Koran inscriptions into the wooden door posts and ceiling beams. The Muslim tradition of 5 pillars is also portrayed throughout the fort, with a former meeting hall supported by 5 stone pillars to the ceiling.
Some of the historical structures still standing in the fort include Oman House, which was the house for Sultan who governed the East African coast. Others are an open water cistern by the Portuguese for harvesting rain water, and a 76-foot deep well sank by the Arabs, but whose water was too salty to be used for anything but washing.
The fort was designed by a Milanese architect, Giovanni Battista Cairati, who was the Chief Architect for Portuguese possessions in the East. It was the first European-style fort constructed outside of Europe designed to resist cannon fire. Today, it is one of the finest examples of 16th century Portuguese military architecture, which has been influenced and changed by both the Omani Arabs and the British.
Considering it’s a fort, there were cannons everywhere. Holes poked in the wall facing the ocean had cannons pointing out, looking for the enemy hundreds of years ago. Called carronades, these cannons were used to sink approaching ships as well as decimate foot soldiers who made it to the island.
Like the Swahili doors found in Old Town, even Fort Jesus had Swahili doors. The guide explained this Swahili door was installed by the Arabs [as opposed to the Portuguese] and had a chain that ran around the frame representing brotherhood.
The Portuguese also created art on one of the walls, preserving history of what was going on at Fort Jesus over the years. The wal was discovered when some really smart people started excavating the site. They scraped the art off the wall it was on and preserved it for visitors to see.
The fort sits high, but there are some stairs that lead to ground level where the occupants could unload more weapons, ammunition, and of course, slaves. There’s an ammunition room where they stored stuff, but also where they would detain captured enemy and/or slaves. One of the rooms even had one of the walls with a hole in it where someone tried to dig himself out. He didn’t get very far.