dhow One of the most memorable things about Mombasa has always been the smell of salt as the breeze comes off the ocean. Driving down from Nairobi and catching the first glimpse of the ocean through the trees, smelling the salt air, and knowing that I was back on the coast are memories that I will never forget. If you have been there then you know what I am talking about. If you haven't, I hope that you have the opportunity someday to experience it firsthand.


Mombasa has the distinction of being one of the oldest settlements in East Africa. A town has existed on the island for over 700 years and some proof exists that would date Mombasa long before that. Stories exist from as early as the 12th century, but the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498 started everything rolling. After a brief and seemingly amiable meeting, de Gama was not allowed to enter the port. He left after a few days and went to Malindi, where he was greeted with open arms.

The Portuguese showed up again in 1505 and took the town. The fighting took the lives of 1513 Mombasa defenders and 5 Portuguese attackers. After looting Mombasa and setting it on fire, they left and did not return for 15 years. The Portuguese looted the town again in 1528 and twice more in the 1580s. Two years after the last attack, Mombasa went on the offensive and attempted to conquer Malindi. The Mombasa attackers were massacred and the town fell shortly thereafter in a counterattack by Malindi, which turned Mombasa over to the Portuguese. The Portuguese began construction on Fort Jesus, which was finished in 1593.

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus, now a museum, became the focal point of the island. In the years between 1631 and 1875, the fort changed hands nine times. In 1631, the townspeople revolted and killed every Portuguese on the island, but the Sultan of Mombasa had no real support and the Portuguese reoccupied Fort Jesus and consolidated their control. The Omanis, who had been steadily gaining strength, took the town and laid siege to the fort from 1696-98. The Santo Antonio de Tanna sank in 1697 while trying to break the siege (and the museum holds numerous relics recovered from the ship). After 33 months Fort Jesus again changed hands, with most of the defenders having died from starvation or disease.

Old Town

A mutiny by the African soldiers in 1728 resulted in the Portuguese gaining control for what would be the last time. A year later the fort was again besieged and the Portugeuse surrendered, permanently ending their rule over Mombasa. The Omani overlords, who were of the Mazrui family, declared their independence from Oman. Civil war in Oman prevented much of a reaction, but the Battle of Shela in Lamu forever changed the balance of power. Fearing a reprisal from Mombasa, the Lamu victors invited the Sultan of Oman to occupy Lamu. From there, he continually attacked Mombasa, but did not gain control until the Swahili tribes invited him in after a dispute with the Mazruis.

British influence grew in the region and they crushed a mutiny lead by the fort's commandant in 1875. England then leased the coastal strip from the Sultan of Zanzibar and turned the Fort Jesus into a prison until 1958.

Mombasa Today

Modern Mombasa is a wonderful blend of new and old. It has modern port facilities and it also has Old Town. It offers Moi International Airport and it also offers Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese in 1593 (the fort, not the airport).

Mombasa Island is only about four by seven kilometers, making a thorough exploration possible. The original settlement was located at Mzizima, near the old Nyali Bridge, and not Old Town as might be thought. Sixteenth century beads and eleventh century Iranian bowls have been recovered from the area.

A good starting point is Fort Jesus, which is placed in its historical context in the preceding section. Strategically placed to protect the Old Harbor and overlook Old Town, the fort is an imposing and fascinating presence. During its often bloody history, it underwent a number of changes, including heightening the walls, adding more effective cannon, and generally improving the fort's position.

Inside Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus is currently a museum, headquarters for the regional services of the National Library, and an extremely comprehensive research library on coastal history. It contains a number of fascinating displays, with the obvious one about the history of the fort itself. It also contains an exhibit of artifacts from a Portuguese gunner which sank in 1697 while trying to break an extended siege of the fort. The fort also hosts lectures on various topics (at least it used to) and was even the stage for an enjoyable evening of Macbeth.

Old Town gives visitors a taste of what Mombasa used to be like. I had an Arab friend who lived in Old Town and who was good enough to show me some of the places less frequented by tourists. The further you go into Old Town (away from the fort), the more you can enjoy its winding streets and interesting architecture. Most of Old Town dates back only to the nineteenth century, although the Mandhry Mosque was finished in 1570 and the Basheikh Mosque is claimed to date back to around 1300. There are also some ancient tombs toward the north end of Old Town. Some of the shops in Old Town offer some fabulous buys. My parents were able to get a huge, intricately carved brass serving tray for much less than it would have cost elsewhere (many locals prefer more modern, lighter metals for such purposes).

The more modern section of Mombasa mixes business with pleasure. Offices and stores sit next to each other, and there are a number of small restaurants with good food. The one thing the island does not have are the beaches that many seem to expect. For those it is necessary to go either north or south to the mainland.

Tusks on Moi Avenue

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