This 16th-century fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site, stands as the most frequented attraction in Mombasa. Its meter-thick walls, adorned interiors, remnants of European etchings, Arabic inscriptions, and Swahili adornments are not merely aesthetically captivating; they are a living tapestry of Mombasa’s history etched in stone. Visitors can ascend the battlements and explore the shaded grounds of this historic site.
Built in 1593 by the Portuguese, the fort served as both a symbol and the nerve center of their enduring presence in this corner of the Indian Ocean. Ironically, the construction of the fort marked the start of the decline of Portuguese dominance in the region. Over the centuries, it changed hands at least nine times, with Portuguese mariners, Omani soldiers, and Swahili uprisings shaping its history. In the early 1870s, it finally came under British control and was repurposed as a prison until it was transformed into a museum in 1960.
This fort was the last masterpiece crafted by Giovanni Battista Cairati, whose architectural legacy can be found across Portugal’s eastern colonies, from Old Goa to Old Mombasa. It stands as an exemplar of period military design, making it virtually impervious to attack when fully manned, thanks to its intricate network of intersecting fields of fire.
Within the fort’s compound, the Mazrui Hall is a noteworthy attraction, adorned with fading flowery spirals on a wall crowned by wooden lintels left behind by Omani Arabs. Other chambers within bear witness to the multicultural naval heritage of the Indian Ocean, with Portuguese mariners’ graffiti juxtaposed with Arabic dhows and the graceful Swahili mtepe, known as the ‘camels of the ocean.’ The Omani house in the San Felipe bastion, built in the late 18th century, features a small fishing dhow outside and houses a modest exhibit of Omani jewelry, weaponry, and artifacts. The eastern wall encompasses an Omani audience hall and the Passage of the Arches, a corridor leading beneath the coral stone walls to a breathtaking view of the azure sea beneath the endless sky.
Central to the fort’s complex is a museum showcasing artifacts recovered from 42 Portuguese warships sunk during the Omani Siege of 1697. These relics, ranging from encrusted earthenware jars to Persian amulets and Chinese porcelain, provide a glimpse into the maritime history of the region. Regrettably, the labeling and presentation of these treasures leave much to be desired, yet the fort remains a must-visit attraction.
Arriving early in the day may help you avoid crowds on group tours, but you’ll likely encounter both official and unofficial guides eager to offer their services as soon as you approach the fort. Some guides can be informative, while others may not meet your expectations. You’ll need to exercise your judgment to distinguish between the two. Official guides typically charge KSh1200 for a tour of Fort Jesus or the Old Town, while unofficial guides may ask for varying amounts. If you prefer an independent exploration, you can purchase the Fort Jesus guide booklet at the ticket desk and explore at your own pace.