Fort Jesus is a Portuguese fort designed by an Italian architect, Jao Batisto Cairato, who was the Chief Architect for Portuguese possessions in the East. It was built in 1593 on Mombasa Island to guard the Old Port of Mombasa. Built by the Portuguese at the end of the 16th century at the southern edge of the town of Mombasa, over a spur of coral rock, and kept under their control for one century, Fort Jesus bears testimony to the first successful attempt by Western civilization to rule the Indian ocean trade routes, which, until then had remained under Eastern influence.
It was built in the shape of a man (viewed from the air) and given the name of “Jesus” in an obvious religious reference. The Fort’s layout and form reflected the Renaissance ideal that perfect proportions and geometric harmony are to be found in the human body. The property covers an area of 2.36 hectares and includes the fort’s moat and immediate surroundings. Between 1631 and 1875 the fort was won and lost nine times by the nations contesting control of Mombasa.
When the British colonized 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 James Kirkman was then assigned to excavate the monument, which he did (with a large use of external historical documents), from 1958 to 1971. Today it houses a museum. In 2011, the fort was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, highlighted as one of the most outstanding and well preserved examples of 16th-century Portuguese military fortifications
The architecture of the fort represents the rough outline of a person lying on their back, with the head towards the sea. The height of the walls is 18 meters. The original Portuguese fort had a height of 15 m, but the much taller Oman Arabs added 3 m upon capturing the fort.
The fort combines Portuguese, Arab, and British elements; these being the major powers that held it at different times in history. The Portuguese and British presence is preserved in the presence of their respective cannons. The Portuguese cannons had a range of 200 meters and are longer than the British cannons which had a range of 300 meters. Oman Arabs marked their occupancy with numerous Koran inscriptions into the wooden door posts and ceiling beams. The Muslim tradition of 5 pillars is also portrayed throughout the fort, with a former meeting hall supported by five stone pillars to the ceiling.
Some of the historical structures still standing in the fort include Oman House, which was the house for Sultan who governed the East African coast. Others are an open water cistern by the Portuguese for harvesting rain water, and a 76-foot deep well sank by the Arabs, but whose water was too salty to be used for anything but washing.