28 December 2022

Gedi – Kenya’s Hidden History Revealed

The thirteenth century was one of turmoil. The crusades were in full swing, the Mongol empire under Ghengis Khan swept forever westwards while Marco Polo turned his own eyes towards the east.

Meanwhile in Kenya, East Africa, a group of enterprising people began to build a settlement which would endure for over three hundred years. Gedi, a sophisticated coral-brick built town belies the perception many have about this part of Africa - and its architecture - before the arrival of Europeans. Take a look at Kenya's hidden history revealed.

Gedi is one of Kenya's great little known treasures, an astonishing vanished metropolis lying at the heart of the immense Arabuko Sokoke forest sixty miles away from Mombassa, Kenya’s second city. It is moreover a site of enormous mystery, an archaeological enigma that to this day creates intense discussion between historians. Who built in and why did they leave?

Now only the stones remain, protected, it is said, by the spirits of those who once lived here.  These people, whose names are hidden from history, were a sophisticated group to say the very least. As well as building their town which housed over three thousand people at its height, this creative community traded with the then known world.

Gedi (sometimes written Gede) was excavated over a ten year period from 1948. In addition to the objects made in Africa the archaeologists discovered beads from Venice. There were scissors which had been made in Spain. Europe was obviously not an unknown to Gedi’s inhabitants, at least in the sense of trade routes.

Furthermore, coins and a Ming vase from China were discovered – as well as a lamp from India. These were people who traded on the global market and who had a lifestyle to match. There is a palace in Gedi and a number of large stone houses. There was also a mosque (above) to meet the religious requirements of its Arab-African inhabitants.

There is one small vital piece of evidence which dates the town at its height. A stone slab was discovered with worn but still readable Arabic inscriptions (below).

It was erected in AH 802 as a tombstone. The Christian Era year? 1399 – the year Henry IV of England was crowned.

Of course, the stone dwellings were not built for the average Gedian. Yet the indoor bathrooms with overhead basins to flush toilets and the prerequisite drainage system would have shamed many a medieval European castle or palace.

They would have benefited from the excellent town planning too. The streets too had drainage in the form of gutters and were laid out at right angles.

A number of wells ensured that the population had plenty of water. In fact as well as being vital in sustaining this community, water, in the form of the sea, provided the coral from which the houses were built.

No one knows for sure why the town was abandoned but the best educated guess is that it was as a result of warfare.  The occupants were forced to leave and abandon their home forever. Yet even today those who live in the vicinity warn strongly against the desire visitors may have to take away a small souvenir. The spirits are watching, they say – and those who steal will be punished.