Walking into the newly refurbished Fort Jesus feels like stepping into a well-kept ancient Omani city. Fort Jesus’ Oman House, Mazrui Hall and the museum recently got a makeover. Early this year, the government planned to use Sh1 billion for the face-lift. Now, the squeaky staircase has been replaced by a steady traditional wooden hand-carved design. Carved wooden doors with gold-plated knobs welcome visitors to the historic building.
Fatma Twahir, principal curator at Fort Jesus, says Oman-Swahili architecture had wooden balconies rather than metal ones.
‘‘Also wooden doors are the most outstanding aspect of Swahili architecture. This is the true depiction of an ideal Oman house,” she said.
Inside the building , the air is soothing. Fatma says the Oman room is the only one with air conditioners.
Historic information and displays showing Omani activities give visitors a glimpse of the rich culture of the merchants who once ruled Mombasa.
There is an exhibition of Omani jewellery, weaponry and other artefacts.
‘‘We have also added Oman trading items brought by Oman Arabs to East Africans,” she said. Artillery used by Omani soldiers during the rebellions, as the fort changed hands at least nine times between 1631 and the early 1870s, are on display. Framed pictures of the Sultans of Oman adorn the exhibits room. The Kenyan coastal strip was ruled by the Sultan of Zanzibar who descended from Oman until around 1900. The Sultanate of Zanzibar was created after the death of Said bin Sultan, who had ruled Oman and Zanzibar as the Sultan of Oman.
Besides the historic events, Oman Arabs’ modern way of life has been showcased. Mannequins of women dressed in traditional attire and men in an ankle-length gown called a dishdasha (national dress for men) stand in a curved glass. Silver necklaces with gemstones hang beautifully on the gypsum board.
The gemstones are from Asia, Yemen and Africa, as Oman traded with them for centuries. At the back of the hall is a cannon with an inscription of the name of Sultan Sayyid Khalifa bin Said of Zanzibar. It was used for reinforcement and has been brought as an exhibit. There is a television with continuous running videos of the modern Oman history.
“Tourists are curious about this Oman House that maybe the only one outside the Sultanate of Oman,” said Fatma.
Relations between Oman and Kenya date back to the 17th century when Mombasa and other coastal cities were occupied by the Sultanate of Oman.
Traces of architecture and culture from Oman are still evident in Mombasa. Some of the residents also trace their ancestry to them.
The curator says that Oman ministers and sailors who recently visited the house recognised their village homes in the pictures at the exhibition. ‘‘It was amusing and fulfilling,’’ she said.
The renovated Mazrui hall also offers more information on the early merchants.
“Before, we only had a few shells and corals. We have also created a ‘baraza’ where rulers used to sit to discuss issues affecting the monarch. The red cushions with the Arabian fabric were all brought in by the Oman,” said Fatma, adding that the hall can now hold more visitors after reinforcement of the upper floor for watching historical movies.
The cannon—a type of gun —was also repainted, mounted and held by wooden structures.
Before, collections of archaeological artifacts were poorly labelled and displayed. But now they are in new cabinets and are labelled in English, Kiswahili and Arabic.
There are also ceramics of Chinese, Persian, Arab and Portuguese origin, as well as a collection of East African earthenware, weaponry and instruments.
The renovation was supervised by the Embassy of Sultanate of Oman in Nairobi, in collaboration with the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts. More renovations are expected in various heritage sites at Coast including the Vasco da Gama Pillar, and the Old British Customs House.