Construction of the massive structure –named Fort Jesus– was begun by the Portuguese in 1593 following the design of an Italian architect, it’s built in the shape of a human figure, and Jesus apparently did little to protect the Portuguese invaders as they tried to maintain control over the following 140 years or so.
Over the course of its first few centuries, possession of the fort changed hands nine times between the Portuguese and Omani Arabs to control what was then –and remains today– an important Indian Ocean trade route. It’s an imposing figure, and getting to it back then was not particularly easy. Facing the open sea, it’s surrounded by a long reef which managed to take out quite a few ships. The fort itself is built on a thick foundation of natural coral.
There was plenty of raping and ravaging –the order of the day, of course– for which the ambitious 27-year-old captain of the fort, Francisco de Seixas de Cabriene was eventually given the Order of Christ by the Portuguese King after he saw to it that a massive number of locals were executed –some women and young children were spared– for their uppity behavior.
Omani Sultans laid siege again in the waning years of the 17th Century, and after most of the Portuguese inside the fort died of starvation and plague, the fort fell in 1698, and after one more brief intrusion in 1727, the Portuguese left for good.
Soon after the British took over in the latter part of the 19th century, it was turned into a prison. If you ever make it here, be sure to visit the waiting room for those sentenced to hang. After several days in total darkness in a hole hollowed out from the coral foundation, death probably didn’t seem like such a bad option.
It’s been a museum since 1958, and absolutely worth a visit. Admission for non east-African is 1200 KES / 11 EUR (July 2016), and I would strongly suggest you accept the services of any one of the number of registered guides who will swarm you as you approach. The 1000 KES or so will be a terrific investment, and includes a tour of the Old Town which begins just opposite of the fort entrance. One of the main buildings houses a large exhibit room which is also worth a look, and provides a great escape from the heat.