Fauz, a lanky gentleman from Lamu, pointed to the fort’s wall, drawing my attention to a feature I’d almost overlooked.
“Do you see? Most of the wall is coral, carved in place. Then the Portuguese built on top of this. And the British on top of that. “
The thick, crenellated walls of Fort Jesus were, it would seem, just like the rest of Mombasa. Foreign addition, upon foreign addition, built upon a solid, local base - yet all blended into one fascinating whole.
The first couple segments of this year’s summer journey – Mombasa and Zanzibar – shall comprise my “Taste-of-the-Swahili-Coast” tour and, more importantly, connect the dots with my exploration of Oman back in October.
Almost from the beginning of my days as a history student (then teacher), I have found myself most interested in the times when, and the places where, cultures mix and mash, the blurry borders where “civilizations” rub against each other and usually overlap. The Indian Ocean was, and is, such a zone - one of the greatest examples of such, really! This massive horseshoe of warm, clear waters (punctuated by the enormous wedge that is India) is bound
by Africa, the Middle East, South and South-East Asia, and Australia. Powers from further afield, China and then various European empires, also came into the picture. Through trade and political wranglings, the coastal cultures of the Indian Ocean World developed as a rather heady mix.
For a variety of reasons, I have become particularly fascinated with the story of the Omani empire that emerged in the late seventeenth-century, spreading across the northern-western and western shores of the Indian Ocean. The founders, Muslim Arabs from the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, brought portions of Iran and India under their wings and even more dramatically much of the African coastline of what is now Kenya and Tanzania. While the empire dissolved in the mid/late nineteenth-century, the Omani connections with this part of Africa remain strong.
The Omanis weren’t the first Arabs (or Muslims for that matter) to ply the waters on the African coast. Earlier encounters, stretching back to the ninth-century, had already laid the groundwork for a culture that came to be known as Swahili (a word that itself stems from the Arabic word “sahil”, or coast). The mix of Arabic and Bantu that is KiSwahili provided a lingua
franca for the coastal region; Islam became the dominant (but not the sole) religion. The Omanis, however, intensified this cultural diffusion by bringing the whole coastline under one political authority - inadvertently, providing a conduit for Africans and Indians back towards the “middle eastern” corner of the empire.
It was easy to see the impact of this exchange while traveling in Oman. Music, dance, food, all clearly showed influence from other parts of the Indian Ocean, and especially from East Africa. You could see it to in the faces of the Omanis; many clearly had mixed heritage. At one point, the capital of the empire was even moved to Zanzibar (my next stop) – but I will save that story for a later entry.
Mombasa is a classic example of the Swahili cultural stew, so a wonderful starting point for my “tour”. And within Mombasa, there could be no better place to begin my explorations than Fort Jesus, on the tip of Mombasa Island, looking out into the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese established the fort in 1593, as a response to the Ottomans who, also trying to assert their presence on the Indian
Ocean, had established a fort a few years earlier. (See, I can connect almost anything to Ottoman history!) The Portuguese were successful in pushing out the Ottomans and establishing a Christian outpost; thereafter, they remained a major presence in Mombasa for almost a century (minus a few years when the local Swahili Sultan captured the fort). The Portuguese influence on Mombasa is particularly clear in what remains of the old town clustered at the base of Fort Jesus; I’ve seen similar architecture in other former Portuguese holdings, such as Melaka in Malaysia. I’m sure I’d say the same of Goa in India (someday I will get there!). But the Portuguese lost the city and fort to the Omani Arabs in 1698, after a nearly three-year siege. For nearly two centuries, Mombasa would remain in the Omani sphere of influence – and that, too, is visible in the houses that line the narrow streets of the old town, an influence layered upon the Portuguese, layered upon an earlier version of the Swahili blend (African/Arab/Indian). Just like the wall at Fort Jesus.
The next imperial force to covet – and then capture – Mombasa’s strategic harbor and location on the trade
routes was Britain. The British, after gaining control the city in the waning days of the Omani Empire, took Fort Jesus and eventually converted it to a prison. Now, since Kenya gained independence, it is simply a monument to the melting-pot history of the area.
Leaving Fort Jesus, I lost myself in the narrow streets of the old town. Perhaps due to this being low season (if this is “winter, I’ll take it!), I saw no other tourists. I walked between wooden and coral buildings in various states of dilapidation and renovation. There were mosques, some churches, even a major Hindu temple. I listened to children reciting and laughing in Saturday morning Qur’an reading classes. I wandered into the market, smelling (and tasting!) mangos, passion fruits, and Zanzibari oranges. Spices were piled in bright mountains. Merchants called out to me to look, just look (“Looking is free!”), at their wares.
In the late afternoon, I returned to my hotel. I am lucky enough to have a balcony facing the ocean, with a view framed by palm trees. As I sat on the balcony, breathing in the salty Indian Ocean air, I began to understand why so many
peoples would have come to conquer or simply settle here.
It’s definitely my kind of place. A masala of a city!
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