Accredited as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, Fort Jesus Museum is a Portuguese fort that was built in Mombasa in 1593 and is considered one of the most exceptional examples of 16th century Portuguese military fortifications in the world. A visit to the fort provides a fantastic introduction to the history of Mombasa and the wars that took place between the Muslim Arabs and the Christian Europeans for control of the area.
The fort is located 490 kilometres (304.5 miles) from Nairobi on Mombasa Island and is positioned to guard and protect the Old Port of Mombasa from invasion. Built under the orders of King Philip the first of Portugal, the fort was designed by a Milanese architect named Giovanni Battista Cairati and is built in the shape of a man lying on his back when viewed from air.
Fort Jesus was built to secure the safety of the Portuguese living on the East Coast of Africa. Fort Jesus bears testimony to the first successful attempt to Western civilization to rule the Indian Ocean trade routes, as until then had remained under Eastern influence.
After completion the fort quickly became a vital asset when desiring to control Mombasa Island and the surrounding trade routes and was won and lost 9 times during various battles for the control of Kenya between 1631 and 1875 before finally resting with the British. It is said that no other Fort in Africa experienced as much turbulence as Fort Jesus due to its vitally strategic positioning.
Once built, the fort was altered by the controlling national and today is shows clear elements from the major powers that held it, including the British, Portuguese and the Oman Arabs. The British and Portuguese influence is seen in the various cannons found on the Island while the Oman Arabs marked their occupation with Koran inscriptions into the wooden door posts and ceiling beams. A Muslim influence can also be seen throughout the fort in the use of the 5 pillars and is seen most clearly in the former meeting hall that is supported by 5 stone pillars that reach to the ceiling.
Between 1837 and 1895, the Fort was used as barracks for the soldiers. When the British protectorate was proclaimed in 1895 the fort was used as a Prison until 1958 when it was then declared a National Monument. Today the fort is open as a museum and visitors can explore the island and view some of the historical structures that are still in existence including Oman House where the Sultan who governed the East African coast stayed. An open water cistern which was used by the Portuguese to harvest water can be seen, as well as a 76-foot deep well that was sunk by the Arabs.
During a wander through the museum visitors can also view various artefacts, pottery and ceramics from the era when Mombasa was a stopping point for slave trade and commodities. Exhibits also include the Portuguese frigate; Santo António de Tanná which sank off Fort Jesus in 1698 during a siege.
A Swahili Cultural Centre housed in the museum at the Fort was established in 1993 to train Kenyan youth in traditional Swahili crafts; more importantly the training also includes business management, enabling the youths the skills needed to become self employed.
The Mombasa Butterfly House recently opened to the public and has a live butterfly exhibit which presents a paradise of tropical butterflies in a natural environment, where you can learn about the biodiversity of butterflies and how it’s connected to local communities.
The museum is open daily from 08h00 - 18h00.