Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus information

Location
Mombasa , Kenya
Prices
adult/child KSh800/400
Opening hours
8am-6pm
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Fort Jesus, a Unesco World Heritage treasure, is Mombasa’s most visited site. The metre-thick walls, frescoed interiors, traces of European graffiti, Arabic inscriptions and Swahili embellishment aren’t just evocative, they’re a record of the history of Mombasa and the coast writ in stone. The fort was built by the Portuguese in 1593 to serve as both symbol and headquarters of their permanent presence in this corner of the Indian Ocean.

It’s ironic, then, that the construction of the fort marked the beginning of the end of local Portuguese hegemony. Between Portuguese sailors, Omani soldiers and Swahili rebellions, the fort changed hands at least nine times between 1631 and the early 1870s, when it finally fell under British control and was used as a jail.

The fort was the final project completed by Joao Batista Cairato, whose buildings can be found throughout Portugal’s Eastern colonies, from Old Goa to Old Mombasa. The building is an opus of period military design – assuming the structure was well manned, it would have been impossible to approach its walls without falling under the cone of interlocking fields of fire.

These days the fort houses a museum built over the former barracks. The exhibits should give a good insight into Swahili life and culture but, like the rest of the complex, it’s all poorly labelled and woefully displayed, which, considering it’s the city’s number-one tourist attraction, is fairly scandalous.

Elsewhere within the fort compound, the Mazrui Hall , where flowery spirals fade across a wall topped with wooden lintels left by the Omani Arabs, is worthy of note. In another room, Portuguese sailors scratched graffiti that illustrates the multicultural naval identity of the Indian Ocean, leaving walls covered with four-pointed European frigates, three-pointed Arabic dhows and the coir-sewn ‘camels of the ocean’: the elegant Swahili mtepe (traditional sailing vessel). Nearby, a pair of whale bones serves in the undignified role of children’s see-saw. The Omani house , in the San Felipe bastion in the northwestern corner of the fort, was built in the late 18th century. It was closed at the time of research, but used to house a small exhibition of Omani jewellery and artefacts. The eastern wall includes an Omani audience hall and the Passage of the Arches, which leads under the pinkish-brown coral to a double-azure vista of sea floating under sky.

If you arrive early in the day, you may avoid group tours, but the same can’t be said of extremely persistent guides, official and unofficial, who will swarm you the minute you approach the fort. Some of them can be quite useful and some can be duds. Unfortunately, you’ll have to use your best judgement to suss out which is which. Official guides charge KSh500 for a tour of Fort Jesus or Old Town; unofficial guides charge whatever they can. If you don’t want a tour, shake off your guide with a firm but polite 'no', otherwise they’ll launch into their spiel and expect a tip at the end. Alternatively, you can buy the Fort Jesus guide booklet from the ticket desk and go it alone.