How shows by shore are keeping Fort Jesus alive

A view of the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

A light and sound show with lasers, holograms and fireworks at Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa has been showcasing the castle’s 400-year-old turbulent history for months now.

The family shows are staged every weekend, where about 700 people are taken for a journey through the fort’s half a century epic diary.

The organisers - Jays Pyrotechnics Fireworks and Pyrotechnics Company - stage two 40-minute shows starting at 7pm. By that time mosques nearby have concluded prayers. With the muezzins silent, the fort lights up with special effects.

By that time, guests are settled, some sipping their complementary madafu as they listen to the introduction on what the show they are about to watch is all about.

Then the northern wall lights up with a vivid fluttering of the Kenyan flag, accompanied by a rendition of the national anthem. All rise and sing along.

Three Lumen projectors begin the show by portraying life before the fort was constructed, then takes viewers through the specifications, fortifications, plan and bulwarks that rendered the fort supposedly impregnable.

“It was built in the shape of a man, as viewed from above, and the local Swahili were gang-pressed into providing labour for the two for the 20 years required to complete the fort,” the narration indicates.

Viewers are then taken through the deaths, suffering, sieges and tortures that have been part of the fort’s history since 1593, with accompanying theme music depicting some of the most ominous moments residents have had to face.

There are triumphs as well, like when the fort was successfully defended. “Nine times Fort Jesus was captured and recaptured before it fell to the British, and was converted to a prison.”

A recital of how the 50 to 70 Portuguese soldiers held out against the invading Omanis, guarding the fort with their lives to the last man follows. According to the story, hunger and disease ravaged the diminishing force. At that time, a handful of loyalist residents had taken refuge at the fort.

A menacing hologram of Sultan Yusuf bin Hassan, who had been christened Dom Geronimo, watches over the fort from a column on the fortification. His revolt and massacre of the Portuguese garrison in 1590 was a turning point of the Portuguese’ fortunes at the fort.

The narration also showcases periods of peace that marked the industrial and trade revolution.

Pestilence and pandemics that plagued the fort are also showcased.

The fort was converted to a prison during WWI. It was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2011.

Today it remains one of the most outstanding and best-preserved examples of a bygone era of military fortifications.

“You get an uncanny sense of the past when you get within these walls,” says the narration, as the mood of the past is re-enacted.

It adds: “We should take a moment to reflect on the lives and times of those who have lived and died within the fort.”

The show is designed by Jayshree Suchak and Zameer Noorali. Jayshree is a renowned pyro-technician, while Zameer is a master projection artist. The two have been a part of Hollywood and Disneyland productions respectively.

“Our intention is to bring to life a journey of this enchanting realm of history in 3D projection mapping, hologram, lasers, fire, water and designer fireworks,” says Zameer, adding that residents have shown tremendous support for the show.

“We have had to heavily subsidise for tourists because of the steep levies restricting them from museums such as Fort Jesus.”

The company is planning similar shows in Diani, as well as street holograms to showcase culture in Mombasa.

Fort Jesus may be the most popular cultural as well as historical attraction to the Coast. Built, in 1593 by the Portuguese, Fort Jesus, with its majestic splendour, restored and resplendent cannons facing out to sea, is still guarding the old port Mombasa and the island symbolically.

But long after the guns fell silent and the carnage, bloodshed and sieges came to an end after decades of fighting to control the fort, culture triumphed in the end, leaving it as a historical monument documenting the civil revolution of the East African coast.

Today visitors to the fort can view, besides the obvious quintessential Portuguese architecture, artefacts from an era that represents slavery, when Mombasa was the main holding point before Africans from the mainland were sent to Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

Lights are seen during a show at Fort Jesus. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

The main courtyard includes new structures constructed during the restoration. There is the museum, the curators’ offices, a ticketing office as well as bathrooms.

The Swahili culture is also a major aspect of the fort, which is a museum under the UNESCO Heritage programme, with a cultural centre.

The museum displays collection of artefacts that include ceramics of Persian, Chinese, Arab and Persian origins. It also stocks weaponry, instruments and earthenware from East Africa.

The fort is designed to have five bastions, reflecting the military architectural style of the 15th Century, with the original layout that has survived for centuries despite the varied occupations and subsequent restoration attempts.

Fort Jesus remains an outstanding and best-preserved example of a bygone era of military fortifications.

Tour of facility

Residents and visitors are charged a fee for visiting the fort. There are guides who take them on a tour of the facility. A tour of the fort takes up to three hours.

The fort bears the hallmarks of the turbulence marked by hostilities and a history of violence.

Its history, from the time it was established as a garrison to 2011 when it was declared a world heritage site, reads like a movie. It was attacked by Omani Arabs between 1696 and 1698, then used as barracks for soldiers between 1837 and 1895. When the region was proclaimed as a British protectorate on July 1, 1895, the fort served as the territory’s first prison.

The most heartrending story associated with the fort is its infamous siege of 1696. Omanis surrounded the fort, which had a garrison of only 50 Portuguese soldiers guarding it as well as several hundred loyalist African slaves.

Disease ravaged the soldiers as they were holding out against the invaders. A captain, nine men and a priest were all butchered.

By the time reinforcement arrived, the fort had already been captured by the Omanis, who controlled it for nearly half a decade.

Today, many cultural extravaganzas and presentations have been held at the fort, which is preserving history for generations to come.