August 15, 2008

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus is a Portuguese fort built in 1593 by order of King Philip II of Spain ( King Philip I of Portugal ), then ruler of the joint Portuguese and Spanish Kingdoms, located on Mombasa Island to guard the Old Port of Mombasa, Kenya. It was built in the shape of a man (viewed from the air), and was given the name of Jesus, after Shaikh Isa Bin Tarif Al Bin Ali Al Utbi conquered the fort in 1837 after being asked for assistance by Sayyid Saeed Bin Sultan Imam of Muscat [1]. The name Jesus in Arabic means Isa, therefore it means the Fort of Isa ( Isa Bin Tarif ). Isa Bin Tarif , Chief of the Al Bin Ali Al Utbi Tribe , is a desendant of the Original Utub who conquered Bahrain [2]. The Al Bin Ali were a politically important group that moved backwards and forwards between Qatar and Bahrain, they were the original dominant group of Zubara area [3].

Between 1631 and 1875 the fort was won and lost nine times by the nations contesting control of Mombasa. It was declared a historical monument in 1958. Today it houses a museum.

The fort was designed by an Italian architect, Jao Batisto Cairato, who was the Chief Architect for Portuguese possessions in the East. Today, it is one of the finest examples of 16th century Portuguese military architecture, which has been influenced and changed by both the Omani Arabs and the British[4]. The fort quickly became a vital possession for anyone with the intention of controlling Mombasa Island or the surrounding areas of trade. When the British colonised Kenya, they used it as a prison, until 1958, when they converted it into a historical monument. James Kirkman was then assigned to excavate the monument, which he did (with a large use of external historical documents) from 1958 to 1971 [5].

And now my observations
Fort Jesus was one of the few 'tourist attractions' I have visited in East Africa where the majority of the visitors I observed were African. This bespeaks a larger problem with tourism dependency (although tourism is a HUGE revenue generator, this in itself is tied to larger problems of economic inequity and lopsided power relationships). Therefore it was extremely refreshing to see loads of primary and secondary school students touring the grounds and museum, notebooks in hand, to write down and absorb the knowledge presented.


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