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Fort Jesus The Most Visited Unesco World Heritage Treasure in the World

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A firm structure by the sea shore which has stood the pounding from the high waves and the gun fire for centuries. Fort Jesus was captured and recaptured at least nine times between 1631, when the Portuguese lost it to the Sultan of Mombasa, and 1895 when it fell under British rule ordering it conversion into a prison. The British had not seen such a magnificent and strong structure in the area hence the conversion assured them that no one would escape the dungeon. Mind you the Portuguese had refurbished it in 1693 and built more fortifications, subsequently making it harder for the fort to fall.

A final project which was 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. 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.

It is today arguably the most visited Unesco World Heritage treasure in the world. 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 wrote on stones. These days the fort houses a museum, which would ideally give a good insight into Swahili life and culture but, although a big part of the complex is poorly labelled and woefully displayed. Despite this, the fort is unmissable.

The Mazrui Family had it part of history around the fort and a hall was named after them, 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. 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 artifacts. 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 are planning a tour to the fort it good to you arrive early in the day, as you may avoid group tours, but the same can’t be said of the guides, official and unofficial, who will offer you tours 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 judgment to source out which is which. Official guides charge KSh500 for a tour of Fort Jesus or Old Town while the 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.

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