Historic Sites at the Coast

Historic Sites in Mombasa County

The ruins of Mombasa are of both Portuguese and Swahili origin. The popular Portuguese remains include Fort Jesus, overlooking the entrance to Mombasa Harbour; Fort St. Joseph, guarding the entrance to both harbours; redoubts threatening the approaches and the entrance to the Kilindini Harbour; and the sunken remains of a Portuguese warship, almost certainly the Santo Antonio de Tanna, a 2-gun frigate that was sunk before Fort Jesus during the siege of 1697.

Map of Coastline along Kwale and Mombasa Counties.  Image Courtesy
Map of Coastline along Kwale and Mombasa Counties. Image Courtesy

15. Fort Jesus

During the 16th Century the Swahili towns remained generally independent of Portugal’s control and under the government of their traditional Shirazi ruling families. However, due to Portugal’s disruptive commercial policy, the 16th Century was a period of decline. During the second half of the century a new oceanic power, Turkey, made two brief appearances on the Swahili Coast and succeeded in inciting local revolts against the Portuguese. After defeating the Turks, the Portuguese decided to consolidate their power in East Africa by keeping a permanent garrison in order to ensure continued control on their dominions. The construction of Fort Jesus of Mombasa began in 1593 to the designs of Jao Batista Cairato, an Italian architect in the employ of Portugal in India. This is a heavily fortified building with elaborate outworks, moats and salients to counter the effectiveness and accuracy of the new projectiles. The salients were so arranged that any bastion could come to the aid of the other by means of crossfire. Its plan consists of a central court, with bastions at corners. Gunports and turrets were placed to control entering ships, and the main street.

Image of Fort Jesus on Mombasa Island. Image Courtesy

16. Santo Antonio de Tanna

Santo Antonio de Tanna was a Portuguese India fleet’s frigate that was sank on October 20, 1697, in front of Fort Jesus, after it came under unshakable attacks from the Omanis’ occupying it at the time. It was discovered in late 1960’s and subsequent excavation was carried out between 1976 to 1980 by a team of local divers and the Nautical Archaeology Society. More than 15,000 artefacts were recovered from the ‘trenches’, indexed, and displayed at Fort Jesus. It was one of the early maritime excavation done in Kenya and amongst the few successful nautical excavations in Africa. The Santo Antonio de Tanna Wreck, which was gazetted in 1977 as a national monument, is Kenya’s first-rate wreck diving site.

17. Smaller Ruins near Fort Jesus

The remains of interest of Swahili origin in Mombasa include the Mazrui Cemetery opposite Fort Jesus, the mosque ruins and graves (including Ahehe Mvita’s tomb) in the Alliaina Visram School, Mbaraki Pillar and the mosque ruins at the end of the new Nyali Bridge and at Balu’s Garage. Still to be seen on the grounds of Coast General Hospital are the ruined remains of a mosque, of which only the southern wall and the well located just behind the wall survive.

18. St. Joseph’s Fort

More impressive for its history rather the site itself, the decrepit St. Joseph’s Fort perched on the very edge of a coastal coral bluff within Mombasa Golf Club, along Mama Ngina Drive, is thought to predate Fort Jesus. It is thought to have been originally build by Ali Bey, the influential Turkish buccaneer, who arrived in Mombasa in the early 1500’s. He marshaled the Zimba Tribe to quell the early attempts by the Portuguese to rule Mombasa. Ali Bey built this Fort in 1550 alongside one at Ras Serani, to defend himself and his Turkish comrades. Later that year, the Portuguese arrived in force and effortlessly crushed Ali Bey. The Portuguese enlarged Ali Bey’s Fort and renamed it Fort St. Joseph. They also built a small chapel dubbed as Nossa Signora das Merces. A few yards from the Fort, they burrowed an underground passage which, as legend has it, runs to the central courtyard of Fort Jesus. The outlet, if one ever existed, has never been discovered. Although the fort is in a broken-down state of disrepair, this is undeniably an outstanding historic landmark of Mombasa. A trip here is easily combined with an outing at Mama Ngina Drive Park found 1 km down the road.

St. Joseph's Fort along Mama Ngina Street.  Courtesy of The Star
St. Joseph’s Fort along Mama Ngina Street. Courtesy of The Star

19. Mbaraki Pillar

The usual route from Mama Ngina Drive waterfront Park is through Nyerere Avenue, that commences at Likoni Ferry in the south area of Mombasa Island and terminates at Makupa Causeway in the northern tip of the Island. Shortly after leaving Mama Ngina Drive, one may be interested in exploring Mbaraka Pillar, 3 kms away, found in the the southwestern part of the Mombasa Island, at the entrance of Mbaraki Creek. Mbaraki Pillar is a 14 ms free-standing tower constructed around the 1400 AD, which appeared in ancient Portuguese maps as an ‘ancient pyramid’. Some argue that the Mbaraki Pillar dates to the late 17th Century, because it was illustrated on maps of 1728 but not those of 1636. West of this medieval obelisk is a close by mosque, build around 1890. The base of this tall monument, almost certainly a tomb, is square and hollow, with a low arched doorway, once recessed, in its north side. Above, the hollow tower rises to its great height. Rectangular slits ascend the tower in four uneven rows; close to the top there is an offset course, above which are four arched openings in line with the four rows of slits. Above these rise four inward curving stone supports that uphold three stepped squares of masonry. At the summit is a round-topped finial. It is located in the area generally known as Kilindini; east of Likoni Ferry.

Mbaraki Pillar on Mombasa Island. Image Courtesy of Life in Mombasa