Kenya // The Coast //

Fort Jesus

For all its turbulent past, Fort Jesus, a classic European fortress of its age, is today a quiet museum-monument. Surprisingly spacious and tree-shaded inside its giant walls, it retains a lot of its original character, despite having been much repaired over the centuries. The curious angular construction was the design of an Italian architect and ensured that assailants trying to scale the walls would always be under crossfire from one of the bastions.

The best time to visit is probably first thing in the morning. Look out for the restored Omani House, in the far right corner as you enter the fort. Avoiding head contact with the lintel, climb up to the flat roof for a wonderful view over Mombasa. Interesting in their own way, too, are the uncomfortable-looking, wall-mounted latrines, overhanging the ditch just south of the Omani House, which would presumably have been closed in with mats. It is immediately obvious that Fort Jesus was not so much a building as a small, fortified town in its own right. The ruins of a church, storerooms, and possibly even shops are up at this end and, to judge by some accounts, the main courtyard was at times a warren of little dwellings. Captain Owen described it in 1824 as “a mass of indiscriminate ruins, huts and hovels, many of them built wherever space could be found but generally formed from parts of the ruins, matted over for roofs.”

Most of the archeological interest is at the seaward end of the fort, where you’ll find the Hall of the Mazrui with its beautiful stone benches and eighteenth-century inscription. A nearby room has been dedicated entirely to the display of a huge plaster panel of wall paintings, made with carbon and ochre by bored Portuguese sentries. Their subjects are fascinating: ships, figures in armour (including the captain of the fort wielding his baton), fish, and what seems to be a chameleon. Illiteracy precluded much writing but, oddly enough, there’s nothing obscene either. The small café above the room with the wall paintings serves first-class lime juice, and the museum restaurant, behind the ticket office, has a lunch dish each day and various snacks.

Fort Jesus Museum

The museum, on the eastern side of the fort where the main soldiers’ barracks block used to be, is small, but still manages to convey a good idea of the age and breadth of Swahili civilization, and also has a decent display of Mijikenda ethnography (see The Mijikenda peoples). Most of the displays are of pottery, indigenous or imported, some from as far afield as China and some of it over a thousand years old. A number of private collections have contributed pieces and there’s probably still a wealth of material in private hands. Look out for the big carved door taken from the Mazrui house in Gazi and also the extraordinary whale vertebra used as a stool. The museum has a good exhibit on the long-term project to recover as much as possible from the wreck of the Santo Antonio de Tanna, which sank in 1697 while trying to break the prolonged Omani siege of the fort. Some seven thousand objects have already been brought to the surface, but the bulk of the ship itself remains nine fathoms deep in the harbour.