Keshm [Queixome, Qeshm, Qishm], Persian Gulf | Red Sea, Iran
The Fortress of Keshm is nowadays in an advanced state of ruin, though numerous imposing structures still attest to its past configuration: an irregular medium-scale quadrilateral with corner bastions, one of them containing the entrance, with a vaulted antechamber preceding the elbow-shaped access to the interior. The very thick walls provided a wide and functional chemin-de-ronde, with a parapet along its length marked by cannon embrasures. In the wall section facing the sea a number of vaulted annexes can be seen. Artillery could be placed on top of them, enhancing fire coverage of the beach. The centre of the courtyard contains a large rectangular cistern (13 x 3,6 x 4.6 metres) with capacity for about 215 cubic metres of water; vestiges remain of its vaulted roof, now in ruins. The location of the old moat can still be discerned outside around the fortress.
Known historical sources suggest that the fortress was built from the ground up between 1621 and 1622. However, recent field work suggests another possibility. João Campos, who conducted a planimetric survey of existing walls and reconstituted the fortress’s plan, suggests that a fort existed previously on the site and that its structures were strengthened, enlarged and raised in 1621 under the direction of captain Rui Freire de Andrade. According to that author, visible structural differences reveal two major construction phases: the oldest, which he labels Manueline (around 1521 or later), determined the shape of the space with round bastions on the corners; the second, a century later, served to reinforce and modernise the existing structure (in the first phase, as he noted, the material and its implementation show similarities with the second construction phase at Hormuz, begun in 1515, and use the characteristic ochre stone from Gerum, which would have had to brought from there – this naturally places the pre-existing fortress in a Portuguese context; in the 17th century campaign, the stone used is of local origin, in line with the emergency situation when the work was carried out). The author also mentions the rounded form of the bastions, which may be vestiges of intermediate work supervised by the military architect Inofre de Carvalho in 1558-1560 during his stay in Hormuz.
Other writers had already suggested the existence of an earlier fortification, among them Francisco Bethencourt and more recently Pedro Dias. The latter, based on studies by Campos, conjectures three construction stages: the first, “which defined the defence space and the first strong points”, another which increased wall thickness and height and the last, in 1621, for consolidation. He refers to the royal letter dated 27th January 1616 warning the viceroy of India of the need to protect Hormuz’s water sources and informing that the superintendent of that state’s fortresses, António Pinto da Fonseca, would be travelling there. The same historian asserts that the construction of “a wall measuring 680 paces with bastions on the ends and smaller ones along it” was recommended, adding that this was only accomplished in 1620. But he does not identify which specific part of the overall structure is referred to. Despite these authors’ contributions, several questions remain regarding the historical reading of the fort’s construction process. They will only be definitively answered by fieldwork and more thorough documental research (note that only recently were architectural studies conducted that went beyond mere reference). Yet a number of questions persist. First, several documentary accounts assert that there was no fortification whatsoever at Keshm in the early 16th century. This is otherwise one of the places which the vizier Cojeatar proposed to Afonso de Albuquerque the construction of a fortress in 1507, trying to dissuade him from his preference for the city of Hormuz. For this reason, various personages visited the site: “the other day, António de Noronha arrived and went with two pilots to the island of Keshm to see the port from which the Moors brought water to the city; he said to Afonso de Albuquerque that the island had a broad area by the shore, where the king had some old ruined houses and that the water taken thence to Hormuz came from some remote wells inland and that the island was surrounded by shallows” (Albuquerque, 1990, p. 104). When construction of the Hormuz Fortress resumed after 1515 many Portuguese and workmen from other nearby regions arrived and the conditions for storing and shipping water may have improved, along with the port. But this favourable situation did not justify building any fort at Keshm. The violent uprisings in Hormuz in 1521 and 1522, along with later pirate raids, may have led to the construction of a small bastion or tower near the water sources supplying that city, though documentary sources reveal nothing in this respect. On the other hand, in 1621 an order by King Filipe to build a fort at Keshm, which was equivalent to declaring war on the shah of Persia, implies that if there were any pre-existing structures, they were most likely insignificant or in ruins.
Period accounts make no mention of the fact that the Persian troops who defended the wells in 1621 occupied or made use of fortified structures near the beach. The Portuguese forces, when they landed, set up a provisional camp and dug a defence trench: “they lodged themselves by making tents from sails and ordered many casks unloaded and filled, using them to make a trench in part of the field which protected the camp from sea to sea” (Andrade, 1940, p. 96). Descriptions of the construction work carried out in 1621 likewise say nothing about the reuse of any structures. The work overseen by Freire de Andrade was actually conducted in two phases: the first involved building the precinct and bastions, while the second involved strengthening that structure and increasing the walls’ thickness and height. Note in this regard that the allusion to an “old wall” in the report on Freire de Andrade’s efforts must be duly put into context, as it seems merely to refer to an initial stage of the ongoing project: “The captain major sought to strengthen the fort so that soldiers might fight with fewer risks and problems, so he ordered a stone and mortar wall four palms wide built, separated ten palms from the old wall, crossing both walls with walls of the same proportional width so that when the spaces were filled, the result would be strong and spacious. Nine palms were added to the old wall’s height all round and served as a parapet, in which slanted arrow-slits were made” (Andrade, 1940, p. 130).
Lastly, any reading of the fort’s surviving structures must take into account eventual work done after the Portuguese left. For example, Nadir Shah is known to have ordered the restoration of Keshm Fortress in 1741.
Whatever the case, the work carried out in 1621 and 1622 was ambitious and in practical terms gave form to the fortification known today. The imminent Persian attack and hurried construction of the fort dictated its construction rules and characteristics. The Portuguese had long experience in the use of pre-fabricated structures and quick building techniques, and also in adjusting intended functions to available materials, making use of local construction methods. These skills and knowledge were applied at the Keshm Fort. The urgency driving the project meant that a relatively quick construction method was required; the result also had to be sturdy enough to absorb impacts from modern artillery. A compromise solution between faster and more lasting techniques was therefore implemented, using wooden formwork whose inside spaces were filled with stone and a binder that set into a hard military cement: “the captain ordered large masts and planks brought from the fleet, which were used to make four very sturdy bastions. These were filled in to a height of four fathoms, with walls eight palms thick made of stone and a very fine blue clay which served to bind like lime” (Andrada, 1940, p. 96). The wall sections linking the bastions seem to have been built in the same fashion from the base to the level of the chemin-de-ronde. On the upper level, starting at that walkway, the thickness of walls and parapets along the perimeter decreased to “five palms in width”, using “stone and lime”. The four bastions were named after the Mother of God, Holy Spirit, Saint James and Saint Anthony and were equipped with three 24-calibre artillery pieces each. Around the fortification a moat was dug “four fathoms deep down to water level, and 20 paces wide’ (Andrada, 1940, p. 96). At the October 1621 council in Goa governor Fernão de Albuquerque stated that “Rui Freire built a fort at Keshm made of boards and stone and clay, with bastions and some artillery’ (Couto and Loureiro, 2007, p. 95).
Anglo-Safavid forces captured the fort in 1622. It was visited in December of that year by an Italian traveller, Pietro Della Valle, who left the following impressions: “Keshm is not a fortress, it’s a pigeon coop [...] I therefore greatly admire the valour of their captain Rui Freire and the Portuguese who were inside and defended it for so long, even though the besieging Persians did not have artillery” (Brancaforte, 2008, p. 204). Della Valle may not have been mistaken about the Portuguese soldiers’ bravery, though regarding the attackers’ firepower he did forget to mention the significant help from the English who arrived in the first month of 1622 well equipped with artillery for both land and sea operations. Also, he did not understand the role and effectiveness of such medium-sized forts built according to a standard plan, which served defence purposes during different periods in many other locations marked by a Portuguese presence around the world.
In 2002 the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation offered the Iranian authorities a project to restore the fort.