The dense forest in the area may help to explain the enigma of GEDI. This large, thirteenth- to seventeenth-century Swahili town was apparently unknown to the Portuguese, despite the fact that they had a strong presence only 15km away in Malindi for nearly a hundred years, during a time when Gedi is judged to have been at the peak of its prosperity. Baffingly, Gedi, sometimes spelled Gede, is not mentioned in any old Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili writings and it has to be assumed that as it was set back from the sea and deep in the forest its scale and significance were never noticed.
The ruins are confusing, eerie and hauntingly beautiful, especially in the late afternoon. Even if you’re not that interested in historical sites, don’t miss this one. Forest has invaded the town over the three centuries since it was deserted, and baobabs and magnificent buttress-rooted trees tower over the dimly lit walls and arches.
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Gedi has a sinister reputation and local people have always been uneasy about it. Since 1948, when it was opened to the public, it has collected its share of ghost stories and tales of inexplicable happenings. Some of this cultural baggage may derive from the supposed occupation of the ruins in the eighteenth century by the Oromo (probably ancestors of the Orma, who live along the Tana River). At the time, the violent and unsettled lifestyle of the Oromo was a major threat to the coastal communities. Even today, Gedi tingles spines easily, particularly if you are on your own. James Kirkman, the archeologist who first worked at the site, remembers: “when I first started to work at Gedi I had the feeling that something or somebody was looking out from behind the walls, neither hostile nor friendly but waiting for what he knew was going to happen.”
The more time you spend at Gedi, the further you seem from an answer to its anomalies. The display of pottery shards from all over the world in the small museum shows that the town must have been actively trading with overseas merchants, yet it is 5km from the sea and 2km from Mida Creek; and the coastline has probably moved inland over the centuries, so it might previously have been even further away. At the time, with the supposed Oromo threat hanging over the district, sailing into Mida Creek would have been like entering a lobster pot. The reasons for Gedi’s location remain thoroughly obscure and its absence from historical records grows more inexplicable the more you think about it.
The town is typical of medieval Swahili settlements. It was walled, and originally covered just under a quarter of a square kilometre – some 45 acres. The majority of its estimated 2500 inhabitants probably lived in mud-and-thatch huts, on the southern, poorer side of town, away from Mecca. These have long been overwhelmed and dissolved by the jungle. The palace and the stone town were in the northern part of the settlement. When the site was reoccupied at the end of the sixteenth century – archeologists have established that there was a hiatus of about fifty years – a new inner wall was built, enclosing just this prestigious zone.
It’s easy to spend hours at Gedi, and rewarding to walk down some of the well-swept paths through the thick jungle away from the main ruins. In the undergrowth, you catch spooky glimpses of other buildings still unexcavated. ASSETS, the Arabuko Sokoke Schools and Ecotourism Scheme, has built a nature trail and an observation platform, high in a baobab tree overlooking the palace. With patience you may see a golden-rumped elephant shrew. Gedi also has monkeys, bushbabies, tiny duiker antelope and, according to local legend, a huge, mournful, sheep-like animal that follows you like a shadow down the paths. Watch out for the ants that have colonized many of the ruins, forming seething brown columns and gathering in enormous clumps. Be careful where you put your feet when stepping over walls and try not to stand on the walls themselves: they are very fragile.
The Palace and around
The Palace, with its striking entrance porch, sunken courts and honeycomb of little rooms, is the most impressive single building. The concentration of houses outside its east wall is where most of Gedi’s interesting finds were made and they are named accordingly: house of the scissors, house of the ivory box, house of the dhow (with a picture of a dhow on the wall). If you have been to Lamu, the tight layout of buildings and streets will be familiar, although in Gedi all the houses had just one storey. As usual, sanitary arrangements are much in evidence: Gedi’s toilets are all of identical design, and superior to the long-drops you still find in Kenya today. While many of the houses have been modified over the centuries, these bathrooms seem original. Look out for the house of the sunken court, one of the most elaborate dwellings, with its self-conscious emulation of the palace’s courtyards.
The Great Mosque
Gedi’s Great Mosque, one of seven on the site, was its Friday mosque, the mosque of the whole town. Compared with other ruined mosques on the coast, this one is very large and had a minbar, or pulpit, of three stone steps, rather than the usual wooden construction. Perhaps an inkling of the kind of people who worshipped here – they were both men and women – and their form of Islam, comes from the carving of a broad-bladed spearhead above the arch of the mosque’s northeast doorway. Whoever they were, they were clearly not the “colonial Arabs” long believed by European classical scholars to have been the people of Gedi: it’s hard to believe that Arabs would have made use of the spear symbol of East African pastoralists.
Near the mosque is a good example of a pillar tomb. These are found all along the coast and are associated with men of importance – chiefs, sheikhs and senior community elders. The fact that this kind of grave is utterly alien to the rest of the Islamic world is further indication that coastal Islam was distinctly African for a long time. Such tombs aren’t constructed any more, although there’s one from the nineteenth century in Malindi. It looks as if the more recent waves of Arab immigration to the coast have tended to discourage what must have seemed to them an eccentric, even barbaric, style. The dated tomb close to the ticket office gives an idea of Gedi’s age. Its epitaph reads 802 AH – or 1400 AD. Also by the office, the museum exhibits various finds from the site, including imported artefacts such as Chinese Ming vases and even Spanish scissors.