My earliest childhood memories include forts and castles. The structures were reference points for giving directions in the city or historic landmarks to explore. For a child exploring a fort, a measure of bravery was always involved, climbing uneven stone steps with no guardrails in a time that pre-existed liability lawsuits. I had no context for the who, what and why this structure existed. It was just fun!
But a fort tells a larger story, a story that bleeds into today – commerce, conquest, the movement of ideas, goods, language and people.
We like to visit one such fort. On Bahrain’s northern coast, decades of painstaking excavation and restoration have revealed layer upon layer of story. Pottery from the age of Abraham, coins from the Roman empire and chinese porcelain for the resident elite during Portugal’s age of global maritime dominance – all displayed at the Qala’at Al-Bahrain [Bahrain Fort] Museum. This fort doesn’t stand alone in history. It was one of many that, during the centuries of Portugal’s corner on trade, dotted the coast of Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the coasts of Asia. These are the Portuguese Forts, marking the first empire that was truly global.
On Africa’s east coast, across from northern Madagascar, a small island protrudes into the Indian Ocean. It is connected to Mozambique’s mainland by a short causeway. The Portuguese Fort of Saint Sebastian dominates the island, but sits preserved and fairly remote in the global scheme of things. As a child, it was a fort to explore and then find a cheap meal of fresh fish to enjoy afterwards. That’s what this region is to many – a remote, tropical locale for good seafood and perhaps some pristine beaches with a little colonial history thrown in.
Today, in the shadow of colonialism and civil war, a devastating reality is unfolding. The ever-present movement of people and ideas (and weapons) has inaugurated a chapter of terror. I sit on the beach in Bahrain, on a coast where Portuguese ships sailed by on their way to Africa’s coast. I sit on my vibrantly colored woven beach mat, which I purchased in the early 2000s on the side of the road in a small Mozambican town called Moçimboa de Praia. A few years after that purchase, my husband and I honeymooned 75 miles to the south of Moçimboa at one of Mozambique’s many luxurious eco-resorts.
In 2017 Moçimboa de Praia was overrun with violent religious militants, killing, and displacing thousands. Extremism has been fermenting, a growing stench in the land. Two weeks ago another town nearby was attacked by this growing force of people questing for power, displacing thousands upon thousands who fled to the bush or narrowly escaped by boat in a rescue operation reminiscent of World War II’s Dunkirk rescue. My humble beach mat reminds me that their story is not remote and distant, a people unknown to the world. Their story is connected by invisible threads to the millions around the world who have had to flee their homes, who have suffered the murder of a loved one, who are wondering what good the future could possibly hold. Those who need a safe fortress.
No manmade fortress or armaments can quell the unrest in a heart thirsty for power or scheming for relevance. These fortresses that dot the globe are vestiges of kingdoms that did not last. But these places are not forsaken. God is near. God is here.
The LORD is good – indeed, he is a fortress in time of distress, and he protects those who seek refuge in him. Nahum 1:7