We have heard of many renowned ancient sites across the world, including the majestic Machu Pichu, and the huge pyramids of Egypt, but today there are still some ancient sites that are off the radar of the mainstream media. And one of them is the ancient ruins of Gedi, Kenya’s ‘Machu Pichu’, which was first discovered by a British colonialist John Kirk in 1884 and was rediscovered in the 1920s. The 44-hectare of ancient ruin is tucked within the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest just 110 km north of Mombasa. The Mijikenda tribe who lives close to the site in the coastal region regards it as a sacred place guarded by their ancestral spirits.
Historical Context Of Gedi Ruins - Kenya
What makes this site enigmatic is its ancient remnants dating back to the 11th century composed of the original foundations of the coral stone houses, eight mosques, pillar tombs, and a palace. Out of the 44 hectares of the ancient ruins, only 12 acres are believed to be excavated. Visitors who come here will definitely enjoy the peaceful setting and lush green surroundings adorned with huge baobab trees. One can also admire the very well-structured ancient town which is made up of a distinct inner and outer wall. Thanks to the artifacts collected, archeologists believe that the inner wall was where the elites lived, while the outer wall consisted of mud-clad houses, where live middle-class families. And those who lived outside the two walls were peasants of that society. Such type of medieval coastal settlement is also seen throughout southern Somalia to Vumba Kuu located at the Kenyan-Tanzanian border, but among these the Gedi ruins are the most intensely excavated site to date.
One of the distinctive architectural elements discovered along the Swahili coast is the presence of the pillar tombs, suggesting that these civilizations might have been in close contact with the Gedi. One can also see a dated coral tomb with an Arabic script engraved with the date 1399, and just close to it there is the colossal mosque, a 164-feet deep well, and chambers with no windows and doors, which were probably used to store precious items such as golds and jewels. The locals believed that this place is inhabited by ancient spirits, and some even believe that whoever will disturb these structures would be cursed. But beyond these beliefs and myths, the Gedi civilization was once a prosperous civilization.
A Prosperous Civilization
Another observation regarding the Gedi’s ruins is its strategic location along the coastal region which made it an important trading center. Its architecture and excavated artifacts including pottery, Chinese coins, Venetian beads, a porcelain bowl, an iron lamp, and cowrie shells show that the city was once prosperous as early as the 11th century up to its abandonment in the early 17th century (scholar Stephane, Pradines). As per archeologist James Kirkman, the excavated cowrie shells at the storerooms might have been used as the main currency in Gedi. Another proposed currency used at that time was the use of beads, but its value gradually declined in the 15th century.
The presence of artifacts related to pottery production, metalworking, weaving cloth, and fishing further suggests that Gedi was a flourishing medieval society. And there was possibly salt production that might have been practiced by the civilization. It is clear by now that the coral architecture at the site was created by using limestone mortar indicating that there were local trades associated with construction and masonry among different settlements around Gedi. Further observations suggest that Gedi’s economy was also reliant on agriculture, horticulture, and livestock. Thanks to the painstakingly archeological excavations, archeologists have detected the presence of crops such as bananas, figs, coconuts, millet, and livestock including cattle, chickens, and goats, which were very important for trading.
Why Were The Gedi Ruins Abandoned?
While there are many speculations about the abandonment of the Gedi ruins, scholars have put forward different theories based on many factors. It is believed that the Gedi’s population thrived in the 15th century and saw a decline in the late 16th and 17th centuries. One of the main theories is the presence of the ambitious Portuguese colonists in the 16th century who wanted to monopolize the trade with their armed intervention in the region. And this might have contributed to the abandonment of the town. In addition to this, there were many raids recorded, for instance, in 1589 there was the Wazimba raid along the coast, including the Galla raids and migrations from Somalia as well. These events might have also contributed to the abandonment of the Gedi settlement.
What To See At Gedi?
The best way to explore the ancient site is by taking a guided tour to learn more about the medieval civilization and the artifacts discovered. Thanks to its location (within Arabuko-Sokoke Forest), visitors can find the nature trail network comprising about 40 plant species and lesser ruins dotted throughout the forest. One can also spot some fascinating bird species including Turacos, kingfishers, and African Harrier Hawks.
- Opening Hours: 7:30 am - 6:00 pm