Fort Jesus, Mombasa

When I think of Kenya, I think inland, but Kenya has a short coastline that faces the Indian Ocean. Kenya’s oldest city, and its now-second largest city, Mombasa, is on that coastline and a trip to the sea shore seemed like a good idea.

There are local flights between Nairobi and Mombasa, but there is also a new train line that runs between, built as a development project by China. I am fond of train travel, so that was my choice.

My understanding of the Kenyan-Chinese deal is tentative, but apparently China has lent the project funding amount to Kenya, and Kenya is going to pay it back over several years. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

In the meantime, the train is very comfortable – air conditioning, smooth ride, comfortable seats, plug-ins for laptops, phones, iPads, etc., and fold-down trays for snacks and computers. Fares are inexpensive, even in first-class, although expensive is a relative term.

Among the benefits of train travel is watching the scenery. The scenery on the way to Mombasa was not dramatic, but had moments of interest – a cultivated landscape, a shanty town, baobab trees in a sisal farm, and, as we were passing through Tsavo National Park, a few elephants in the distance.

The Chinese railroad deal included the Mombasa train station, which is also very modern and benefits from being new.

Taxis and buses are off to the right in an organized lot with security. My taxi driver took me through Mombasa’s arches on the way to my hotel.

It’s July here. Kenya, which is an equatorial country, is hot, so, after checking in, cooling off was my first priority. “Karibu” means “welcome” in Swahili.

By now, it was late afternoon. I was only going to be here for a day and a half, and I wanted to use my half day. Fort Jesus is a major landmark in Mombasa, so I made that my objective for the afternoon. As is frequent, there are guides available. Hiring a guide is a discussion in itself, but I have had pretty good luck with it. It was here that I met Hamila, who turned out to be a great guide.

The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama arrived in Mombasa in 1498. According to the flyer, “his relations with the townspeople deteriorated rapidly,” and after a week (!) the Portuguese captain sailed on to Malindi, further north, and established their base there.

Mombasa has a beautiful, natural harbor, and it attracted the attention of the Turks, who proceeded to build a fort here in 1589. This disturbed the Portuguese in Malindi, who feared for the security of their trading route, so they attacked and captured Mombasa and the Turks’ fort in 1593.

Fort Jesus was begun in 1593 by the order of King Philip I of Portugal, who had several titles, including King Philip III of Spain and Duke of Milan – this was the era of the Hapsburg Empire, and family members were given a variety of titles. His goal was to protect the Mombasa harbor, now in their possession, and their trading routes.

The Portuguese, who were sailing under the flag of the Order of Christ, named their harbor fort Fort Jesus. It was designed by an Italian architect from Goa, with multi-angled corners, reflecting the latest in military design in the late 1590s, sitting on the edge of a coral ridge. Blocks to build the fort were cut from the coral ridge, and this is visible throughout the fort.

In 2011, Fort Jesus was declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site as “an outstanding and well-preserved example of a 16th century Portuguese military fortification.” The fort had opened the first time as a historical monument previously in 1960.

Fort Jesus was occupied by the Portuguese, leaving Malindi behind. The people living in Mombasa, having rejected the Portuguese once before, were not excited to have them back. The Sultan of Mombasa stabbed the Portuguese captain in 1631, and took control of the fort, but eventually the Sultan abandoned Mombasa (one account says he became a pirate,) and the Portuguese reoccupied the fort in 1632.

The Sultan of Oman sacked Mombasa in 1661, but did not attack the fort, perhaps thinking it was too strong. However, in 1696, having built up their navy, the Sultan of Oman laid siege to the fort.

The Portuguese were trapped in their fort, dying of starvation and the plague. The siege lasted from 1696 to 1698, when the fort fell to the Omani.

The current entrance to Fort Jesus, Mombasa, Kenya.

Entrance (above) and main corridor in the Passage of the Arches.

The Passage of the Arches was used to receive deliveries – human or supply – by boat. The Passage of the Steps (below) was used to reach the gun platform, overlooking the entrance to the harbor.

These wall drawings were made by the Portuguese sailors. I expected that they would have been drawn during the siege, but the sign says that they date from the early 1600s.

The Omani maintained control of Fort Jesus for most of the next two hundred years, with interludes for mutiny, brief Portuguese occupation, and the five-year rebellion and independence by Omani governor.

During the Omani control, the walls were made higher, and rooms were built, now known as the Omani House. And doors were added, notable because the style is distinctive, tall, heavy, and decorated with stylized flowers, lotus, palm tree branches, and chains.

The Omani, perhaps taking a page from their own book, created a well and cistern to provide water inside the fort.

The Omani House was built to accommodate meetings and entertainment of guests, with seating around the perimeter.

Above, the Omani House and a Plumeria tree, which has a lovely fragrance.

In the courtyard of the fort, there is the ruin of a foundation for a chapel, built during Portuguese times, and probably dismantled to reuse the stone during the Omani occupation, and the skeleton of a juvenile Humpback whale, which was sort of a display/nonsequitur.

After exploring Fort Jesus, Hamila and I decamped to a nearby coffee house to cool off (well, me) and enjoy some refreshment. I had iced coffee. Hamila had hot tea. We also agreed to meet the next morning to explore more of Mombasa.

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