When travelling through Kenya, you can’t ignore the marvellous national parks and game reserves, inhabited by countless fascinating animals. The mosaic of wildlife inside Kenya’s borders is what makes this country a famous tourist destination. However, Kenya has another, equally enchanting side: the coast. Donned with paradise-like beaches, it’s a wonderful leisurely end to an active holiday. But if you look just a little bit beyond the beach, you will find a rich coastal culture that goes back a thousand years.
After enjoying a Safari in interior Kenya, the coastal town of Mombasa is a wonderful place to exhale with a cocktail in hand. But Mombasa also has a rich history where centuries of trade and all kinds of cultural influences have shaped the Swahili culture, including the national language of Kenya, appropriately called Swahili. The language reflects Kenya’s colourful history; it incorporates words from Arabic, Portuguese and even German origin. Swahili is now spoken all over East Africa, and even as far as the Congo.
A walk through Mombasa Old Town reveals the heart of the Swahili culture. The narrow streets can hardly accommodate cars, but all the more people and donkeys. The high houses provide shade from the scorching Mombasa sun; the heavy wooden doors are beautifully carved and inscribed with Arabic text from the Koran; Islam is the dominant religion alongside the Kenyan coast. On the veranda’s, old men in traditional Muslim attire chat the day away sharing a pot of spicy coffee.
At the edge of Old Town, facing Mombasa bay, stands Fort Jesus; built by the Portuguese who conquered the city in the 16th Century. They held on to the fort until the British colonialists turned it into a prison. The fort is open for viewing; inside is a museum narrating the history of the fort and its occupants. The canons used to keep attackers at bay still proudly stand facing the sea.
Travelling alongside the Kenyan coast, there are countless other reminders of the cultures that once ruled the entire coastline. A must-see is the ruins of Gedi, an Arab-African settlement built in the 14th Century. There are many such ruins on the North coast of Kenya, all the way into modern day Somalia, but Gedi is one of the very few that have been maintained as a public historical site open for viewing.
The town has fascinated archaeologists since its discovery. Gedi seemed to have been a wealthy, thriving town, given the precious artefacts that were dug up including Ming China porcelain and countless other objects indicating Gedi’s wealth. However, there is no official historical record of Gedi, which makes the place all the more intriguing.
The name Gedi is a Galla word meaning “precious”. The Galla were a nomadic people from Somalia, who conquered all settlements on the Northern Kenyan coast in the 17th century and who baptised Gedi and ruled it until the late 19th century. They then lost their position of power to the Arabs, who reoccupied their original territories.
The historic site is on the Mombasa-Malindi road, sixty-five miles from Mombasa and ten miles from Malindi. Gedi is a fascinating place to visit, more so because the ruins are up to today shrouded in mystery; the actual reasons for its foundation, as well as its destruction, are not known. Surrounded by modern-day villages built of wood, mud and stone with all the hustle and bustle of the local inhabitants, Gedi is an oasis of peace; overgrown with all kinds of trees, plants and flowers. There are friendly and well-informed local guides available at a small fee, but the map of Gedi is self-explanatory, and you can easily discover the city by yourself.
The ruins are clearly indicated, identified by their architectural style, such as the mosques, or the artefacts that were found in or near the structures; names like ‘The house of the Iron Lamp’, ‘The house of the Ivory Box’, ‘The house of the Scissors’, ‘The house of the Venetian Bead’ fuel the imagination. In the silence that now enfolds the once thriving town, you can hear the echoes of the voices of centuries ago. While walking through the ruins, it takes only a little imagination to see the veiled women walking through the streets, hear the children play at the water well and sit with the Sultan while he receives trade delegations. In the museum built adjacent to the ruins, the found artefacts are exhibited alongside an overview of coastal Swahili culture.
The structures at Gedi include 8 mosques, more than a dozen houses, a palace and an Amfi-theatre-cum-law-court. Gedi was surrounded by a wall, and it seems like the city was deserted, then later reoccupied, because there is a second wall built at a later date that encircles a smaller part of the town. This wall incorporated some of the walls of existing houses. The artefacts that were found in the ruins, such as Chinese porcelain and Venetian glass, indicate that Gedi was a wealthy city that traded with Portugal, Italy, China, India and the Arab world; which makes its absence in official historic records all the more intriguing.
There are several theories to the downfall of Gedi. Some say the river changed its course, so the water wells dried up, forcing the inhabitants to move. Others theorize that the Portuguese brought the deadly Black Plague, with no known cure, wiping out the population. A dispute or invasion that caused the inhabitants to fled or evacuate is another theory. But whatever it may be that caused Gedi to fall, its ruins are strong reminders of how powerful it once was, and how it influenced a culture that exists to this day.
For more information on Gedi Ruins, call the museum in Watamu on telephone number 042-32065 or call the National Museums of Kenya headquarters in Nairobi: 020-374213 or go to their website: http://www.museums.or.ke. Entrance fee for tourists is 200 Kenya Shillings; Under 16’s pay only 100 Shillings. For locals and residents the price varies from 20 to 60 Shillings.
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