When in Mombasa, you have to visit the Portuguese-built Fort Jesus – it’s such a basic thing to do, I wonder why I’d never done it all these years. Last week while in Mombasa, I decided to head over to Barka Restaurant to have dinner with some friends and colleagues from Modern Coast: Hashmi, Isaac and Dennis. They are my type of company. After dinner, they take me on a drive to Mombasa Old Town for a site seeing experience. Yes—past 11:00 p.m. Originally inhabited by Arab, Asian, Portuguese and British settlers; the ancient Islamic architecture of buildings here represent Mombasa’s olden trade culture. We pass by one of the oldest mosques in the coast: Mandhry. They also show me the Fish market, right next to what used to be Mombasa Port back in the day. It’s so refreshing to cruise these thin streets in no congestion at this hour. On our way to the famed lighthouse we pass by Fort Jesus and I decide that I have to return here the next day when it’s open.
At the lighthouse, we join a couple of other people who come out to the open site to view Indian Ocean atop massive cliffs overlooking the vast oceanfront. It’s such a cool and cheap chill plan. All you need to do is come here with your car, get parking, have good company, booze or some smokes and make sure you don’t jump into the water. While sitting on a short wooden bench, close to the cliff and safe – I gaze into the dark of night as I devour the cool and sharp breeze, sometimes sprinkling salty water into my face. It’s the first moment I come terms with my life problems over the past few weeks and find myself saying to my company, “I wish I lived in Mombasa. I would always come here and just chill to watch my troubles sail away”. Watching three lighthouses across the ocean blinking red, yellow and green signals takes me right back into the pages of The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald was such a great writer whose might was in juxtaposing imagery to life situations. In the book, Gatsby would always stare at the lighthouse’s green light late at night as if it’s uniformed light was the only thing that could ever unite him and Daisy. But it’s flickering would never stop, meaning they would never unite.
On the next day, I am accompanied with my colleagues Sharon, Maureen and Tint to Fort Jesus in the early afternoon, right after grabbing yummy Masala Fries at Tarboush Restaurant. We are welcomed into Fort Jesus by a swarm of tour guides. We clash with the one who sticks to us despite our snobbishness – “we just came to see this place, we don’t need much more info,” Tint tells him. He asks us to pay him 1000 bob for sharing extra info on the fort. “We paid 800 bob in total to all come in, how can we pay you more than that?” I want to know. We settle on 300 bob.
Fort Jesus was built, between 1593 and 1596 by order of King Philip I of Portugal, to guard the Old Port of Mombasa. From above, Fort Jesus’s shape is said to be resemble the shape of a man. If it were a man, he had a strategic view of the ocean and all the ships that were docking into Mombasa. Here is where soldiers would spot enemy ships or pirates and use the cannons to bomb them so as to mainly protect Mombasa trade. It was vital for anyone with an intention of controlling Mombasa Island and trade to try gain possession of Fort Jesus.
Captured by Oman Arabs in 1698, Fort Jesus became a government prison in 1958 when the British colonized Kenya. It was later declared a national monument with its museum being built and open to the public in 1960—even before Kenya gained independence. Yo – this place is old.
While at Fort Jesus, enjoy the extraordinary architecture—perfect for taking pictures and staring into the ocean from a strategic angle. Play with the cannons – imagine how they must have been guarded, and a danger to operate then. Visit the museum section to see ancient furniture, architecture and utensils. I really loved to see a 17th century chair, made in India in Portuguese style, used as a chair of the state by the 19th century Sheikh of Siyu Bwana Mataka Bin Mubarak Al Famau and his son Sheikh Mohammed, the last upholders of independence of the coast against the Sultan of Zanzibar. I also enjoyed to see the Portuguese wall paintings of Fort Jesus, which were painted in carbon black and red oxide on the plaster of a revetment wall in the bastion that was located directly behind the museum. This was the work so unknown soldiers or sailors who were stationed in the Fort in the 17th century.
Designed by a Milanese architect: Giovanni Battista Cairati, the then Chief Architect of Portuguese possessions in the East, Fort Jesus was the first European-style fort designed to resist cannon fire constructed outside Europe. Today, it still is one of the most admirable 16th century architecture.