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Gedi Ruins, Kenya - Explanation, Facts And History

The historic site known as Gedi is on the Mombasa-Malindi road, sixty-five miles from Mombasa and ten miles from Malindi. It consists of the ruins of a fifteenth century Arab-African town, typical of a number of such towns up and down the coast of East Africa but the only one which is maintained as a place of public display.  During your trip to Kenya for a safari, beach vacation or alternative adventure, a day historical or educational trip can be arranged.

Tell Me About The History of Gedi Ruins Located Between Mombasa and Malindi, Kenya?

Gedi was founded in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, reached its apogee in the middle of the fifteenth century, and was finally abandoned in the early seventeenth century.

The actual reason for its foundation is unknown, but it is most likely to have been the result of a dispute, followed by an emigration from Malindi. It was of no political or major commercial importance and is ignored by Portuguese, Arab and Swahili sources. However, the quantity of porcelain found shows that it must have had a large and relatively prosperous population.

In the sixteenth century something seems to have happened which brought its life temporarily to an end. All over the surface areas are pockets of exclusively fifteenth century porcelain, showing that in the sixteenth century only part of even the closely built up area was occupied. It is possible that Gedi was destroyed by the Mombasa punitive expedition, which was sent against Malindi after the destruction of Mombasa by Nuno da Cunha in April 1529, in which the people of Malindi had cooperated. If Gedi had been in ruins during the second and the third quarters of the fifteenth century, the period of the Portuguese headquarters at Malindi, it is unlikely to have been mentioned by them.

However, from the numerous shreds of porcelain, it is clear that it was occupied in the late sixteenth century. Both reoccupation and final desertion were due to the same cause: the southern advance of the nomadic Galla from Somalia. In the course of the seventeenth century all the Arab African settlements on the mainland between the Juba River in Somalia and the area of Mtwapa, fifteen miles north of Mombasa, were abandoned.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the Galla were in decline: attacked by Somali and Maasai, they were no longer able to hold the country they had conquered. As they fell back or disintegrated, Arabs from Lamu, under the protection of soldiers from Zanzibar, reoccupied Malindi and other old sites on the coast.

The name Gedi, or more properly Gede, is a Galla word meaning "precious" and is also used as a personal name. It is either the Galla name for the town which they destroyed or the name of the last Galla leader to camp on the site. The true name may be Kilimani, the Quelman of the Bertholet map of 1639.

Sir John Kirk, the British Resident of Zanzibar, visited Gedi in 1894. It was then forgotten for fifty years, but in 1927 was gazetted as an historical monument and received a few desultory visitors. In 1939, valuable work was done by the Public Works Department in cementing together the crumbling walls of the more important buildings.

In 1948 Gedi was declared as a National Park, an archeologist was appointed as Warden and excavations were begun, which were continued until 1958. Responsibility for its administration was taken over by the Museum Trustees in 1969.

A Walk Through Gedi Architecture

The area excavated comprises the northwest corner of the town, with the Great Mosque, the Palace, a private mosque and the largest concentration of houses. Outside this area a few houses and mosques and the line of the inner town wall have been cleared. The original town covered an area of about forty-five acres, but it is probable that only part of this area was ever built up and the poorer dwellings would have had mud and wattle walls, roofed with palm leaf or grass thatch. A wall about nine feet high, with three or more gates, surrounded it. Subsequently, probably at the time of the reoccupation in the late sixteenth century, a new wall was built enclosing a much smaller area. This wall had more of the character of a barricade and frequently, as near the Dated Tomb, incorporated in its line the walls of existing houses.

Building material consisted of coral rag, red earth and coral lime. The coral was taken from the prehistoric coral ridge, which underlies the site, and the red earth was found in pockets overlying it. The most convenient way to see the town, after looking at the Dated Tomb, is to take the path, which goes over the town wall near the Fluted Pillar. The Great Mosque will then be in front of you, with the Palace and houses on the right. Go through the Great Mosque to the Palace, then round the houses, and eventually you will come back to the ticket office. Return to the point near the Fluted Pillar where you started, but turn left and follow the path, which will take you past the House of the Dhow to the South Gate on the Inner Wall. The path continues along this wall then turns out to the Outer Wall and back to the southwest corner of the Inner Wall. From there you follow the Inner Wall, pass behind the Palace and out to the North Gate, returning to the ticket office via the small Museum.

Gedi's Dated Tomb - The Dated Tomb consists of a large oval tombstone with an epitaph incised in plaster, partially erased but sufficiently legible for the date A.H. 802/A.D. 1399 to be read. The importance of the tomb is that it provides a fixed point in time to which the other buildings at Gedi can be related.

Gedi's Tomb Of The Fluted Pillar - Next to the Dated Tomb is the Tomb Of The Fluted Pillar. This is one of the forms taken by the pillar tombs, which are found all along the coast of East Africa. They are said to be phallic, although Arabs or Africans do not often recognize this significance. It is possible that they are related to the naturalistic phallic pillars found on graves of the Hamitic people of Ethiopia and Somalia, or to the monolithic pillars of Madagascar. In either case they are evidence of African elements in the Arab culture of the coast.

Gedi's Great Mosque - The Great Mosque, built in the middle of the fifteenth century and rebuilt a hundred years later, is a typical East African congregational mosque or Jumaa. The plan is rectangular with three doors in each of the long walls. It is approached through a courtyard with a well, conduit and cistern at the north end and an octagonal pillar tomb at the southeast corner. Beyond the courtyard is a covered veranda, with a small store and a flight of steps going up to the roof from which the call to prayer was given. In the north wall of the mosque, the Mihrab, once decorated with porcelain bowls, shows the direction of Mecca. To the right of the Mihrab stands a Minbar, or pulpit, of three steps. The roof was supported oil three rows of six rectangular pillars, the middle row running down the center of the building and obscuring the view of the Mihrab. This is a curious arrangement, only found in East Africa. The square niches in the pilasters along the walls arc for lamps. Below the rectangular pillars can be seen the square pillars of the original mosque. The partition wall cutting off the rear three bays was probably a final modification when the roof had partially collapsed and only part of the mosque was being used. Outside the mosque on the west is another veranda, which is an addition.

Gedi's Palace - At a distance of a few hundred yards from this side of the Great Mosque is the Palace, which, with its Annexe, covers an area of about a quarter of an acre.
The main entrance consists of a pointed arch on a platform, approached by a flight of steps with a bench on either side, which leads down to a sunken court. Sunken courts, which served as reception rooms, are a feature of the domestic quarters at Gedi. In the floor of the court are two sumps for rainwater. These are found in all the streets and courts of the town, and sometimes also in the rooms. To the left of the reception court is a large well and an open court. In the middle is a sump with a larger hole than the rainwater sumps, and the court was probably used for washing clothes.

A passage leads from the reception court to the audience court. This is a rectangular court running in front of the main block of the Palace, with platforms on east, south and west sides. Originally there was a flight of steps in the middle of the platform on the south side, but this was covered up when the Palace was extended, and the platform was widened and raised. In its final state, as seen today, there is a bench along the east end where the judges would sit, protected until midday from the sun by the wall behind them.
Between the reception court and the audience court is a small apartment. It includes a lavatory, which is typical of the lavatories at Gedi, consisting of two small cubicles with a low partition wall between them. In one was the pit with a square hole and a urinal channel; in the other a washing bench with two cavities for bowls in an upper tier, and a divided seat used as a bidet in the lower.

The main block of the Palace consists of an outer room with two pairs of rooms behind it. The outer room has a cupboard and niches for lamps in the pilasters framing the door leading to the inner rooms. In the walls can be seen rows of holes for pegs for hanging carpets. Between the two rear rooms is a chamber without a door. This was the strong room for storing valuables and would have been entered by a small trap door high up in the wall, approached by a ladder. One or two of these stores, with access from one of the bedrooms, are found in every house. All were empty, which is evidence that Gedi was evacuated rather than stormed.

Behind the main block are two wings. The east wing includes an open court surrounded by rooms, which were probably used for storage. On the west side of the main block a door led into the western wing, which has a sunken court at the north end, probably the women's reception room. On one side is a bench with a shelf for cakes and sweets, and in the north wall a door, subsequently blocked, where peddlers could bring their goods. Built into the wall near the southeast corner was a large jar. In the bottom was found a cornelian bead, which had been cross-bored and so could never be threaded. In front of the entrance from the west wing was buried an earthenware pot, used to house a Fingo or charm. It was believed that a guardian spirit or jinn could be induced to take up residence in the pot, by an appropriate ritual. If anyone should enter with evil intentions, he would be driven out of his wits. Similar pots have been found buried below the floor of other rooms in the Palace and also in front of the northwest gate of the town.

In the rear of the main block is a domestic court with a small well and kitchen. This could be approached from either wing but not directly from the main block.

On the opposite side of the Audience Court to the Palace is a blank wall with a bench on the inside and a door at the west end. This door is the public entrance of the Audience Court and is reached by a passage between the wall and the Annexe. Beside this entrance is a group of tombs, including a hexagonal pillar tomb, which is one of the best preserved on the coast. It was once ornamented with porcelain bowls but curio hunters have removed them all.

Gedi's Annexe - The Annexe is unlike any other structure at Gedi and may have been the Women's Quarter. It consists of four apartments, each with outer room, inner room and lavatory, and four open courts. At the back of one court are two rooms of uncertain use, possibly servants' quarters. They had apparently fallen into ruin and the door into them had been blocked. A pile of mortar in the corner of the court shows that the wall was being plastered when the site was abandoned.

The story of the Palace would appear to be as follows. A building consisting of the earlier audience court, the main block and the west wing was constructed in the early fifteenth century. In the second half of the century it was extended and the Annexe was built. At the end of the sixteenth century a project of renovation was in progress, which was interrupted by the desertion of the town.

Gedi Houses - Fourteen large houses in recognizable condition have been cleared, ten of them in the main excavated area. The oldest surviving in its original state is the House of the Cowries, built at the end of the fourteenth century. Some of the others are probably not much later, but were modified in the course of the fifteenth or at the end of the sixteenth century. Two of the latest are probably the House of the Cistern and the House of the Scissors. All houses were single storied. Gedi, unlike Lamu, Pate and old Malindi and Mombasa, was essentially a country town. The roofs were of lime concrete, sometimes with square tiles on the under side, carried on squared mangrove poles. The longest span at Gedi is eight feet, which is about the greatest length for which mangrove poles of sufficient girth to carry the heavy roofs were easily obtainable. The floors were also of lime concrete, sometimes heavily ballasted with coral chips. Cut coral blocks were used for edging of doorways and steps, sometimes of the fine-grained live coral from the sea. The pointed arch, often with two vertical stones above the apex on one side, called the inverted Y is characteristic of the coasts of Kenya and northern Tanzania. It may be of Indian origin and evidence of the increased Indian contacts of the fifteenth century.

Gedi House Of The Cowries - The original style, represented by the House Of The Cowries, consisted of a long narrow court in front, a long room with a lavatory at the end, a second long room and three smaller rooms at the back (store, bedroom and kitchen). Subsequently this plan was changed by dividing the middle room into two and making a house of one long room and two suites of two rooms each, presumably for the two wives with whom the man of the house was living at the time. The kitchen was either omitted or, in the larger houses like the House of the Iron Lamp, formed part of the domestic court to which access was provided from the outside and from one of the suites. The final alteration was a change in shape of the frontcourt from a narrow rectangle, suitable only for social life, to a wide rectangle, which could have had a commercial or industrial use.
Household utensils may be seen in the Museum. The kitchenware and eating bowls of the lower classes were of local earthenware: cooking pots, jars, lamps, eating bowls, beakers, and miniature toilet jars. The upper classes persons who lived in the houses would have used Chinese porcelain bowls and dishes and stoneware jars or similar vessels in glazed earthenware. Other finds, except glass beads, were few: small iron knives, bronze eye pencils and glass bowls and bottles. The people who lived at Gedi were neither luxurious nor cultured, but had most of what contributed in their day to good living. 'Colonial and comfortable' would be an apt expression of their way of life.

House Of The Porcelain Bowl - Leaving the Palace, the first complete house is the House Of The Porcelain Bowl, a small three roomed structure with no court and an outside lavatory, built over the ruins of a large house which had been destroyed by fire. Attached to it is a pair of rooms, which may have been a shop. In the bedroom of the house was found a large blue and white bowl of the mid-sixteenth century, and among the ruins of the wall of the shop the lid of a dark olive-green fifteenth century celadon jar with a lotus tassel on the top. Both bowl and jar may have been fixed in the walls.

House Of The Cistern - Beyond is the House Of The Cistern, a large building with a square court in front and a cistern room used as a bathroom. On the wall of the outer room are a number of graffiti, including a magic square of sixteen numbers and some sketches of dhows. The cistern room is a common feature of old-fashioned Arab houses, but this is the only example found at Gedi. It seems to have been an amenity that was being introduced at the end 'of the sixteenth century. The coral tile roof is original, but the rafters are modem. There is no drain from the cistern and the step inside was used when cleaning it out. It was filled from outside by a: channel in the wag.
Behind the House of the Cistern are two enclosures used as mausoleums; then the main street running across the town and out through the North Gate. Towards the end of the life of the town the street was interrupted by cross walls of obscure purpose.

House Of The Paneled Walls - Leading off the street, going north, is the House Of The Paneled Walls, with two large courts in front of it, a door between the two middle rooms and two lavatories.

Mosque Of The Long Conduit - On the opposite side of the street is a small mosque, the Mosque Of The Long Conduit. In the cistern were found a Chinese porcelain bowl of the mid-sixteenth century and an Islamic polychrome plate, probably early sixteenth century. On one side of the frame of the Mihrab were scratched several times the Arabic words "Kullu Taam", meaning "all food'. These are the opening words of Quran III 93, which deals with the food that is lawful for Muslims. They may be the idle scribbling of a boy when the mosque was being used as a school. It is clear which part of the Koran had the strongest appeal for him.

At the mosque another street turns off to the left at right angles, parallel to the street behind the Great Mosque. Both streets were laid out in the earliest days of the town and it would appear that Gedi was a deliberate creation, not a haphazard aggregation of houses. On the wall opposite the wall with the fig tree growing on it, are a number of graffiti, including a lion, a bird and what may be a barber's chair or the end of a bed. Along this street are the House of the Cowries, the House of the Scissors and the House of the Ivory Box. In all these, evidence of disorder was found, showing that some persons had delayed their departure too long. The well shared by the House Of The Scissors and the House Of The Ivory Box is interesting; it shows the old dangerous type of well with the top at ground level and on which the drawer of water stood, converted into a 'safety first' type with a parapet.

Other Gedi House Titles - Going through the House of the Ivory Box there are the entrances of two houses on the left. The House Of The Iron Lamp is one of the older houses of Gedi and was originally approached from a courtyard, which was subsequently appropriated by the House of the Scissors. The iron lamp was found in the front room under the debris of the roof. Beyond, is the House Of The Venetian Bead, a later add on. On the floor were found a Small celadon dish with volute edges and a necklace of shell beads with a single glass bead of a type, known as a Rosetta bead, made in Venice. The bowl was probably set in the roof and the necklace was dropped on the day of the panic.

Turning left at the comer of this house, the street between it, and the destroyed House of the Chinese Cash runs on between the House of the Paneled Walls and the House of the Cistern.

At the end of the back wall of the House of the Venetian Bead is a door leading down a passage into the House Of The Sunken Court. This house is part of the same block as the House of the Iron Lamp and is one of the most elaborate at Gedi. The passage opens into a small lobby with seats round the sides, from which access to the reception court is provided. An intercommunicating room provides access to the reception court from the kitchen, without the necessity of going through the house. In the outer room is a stand for a jar of drinking water, with a shelf for cups below it. These occur in many of the houses and are an embellishment of the primitive stand with a cavity for a jar, which can be seen in the Palace Annexe.

The return to the entrance can now be made by taking the street which runs between the House of the Cistern and the House of the Paneled Walls. Before reaching the gap in the wall, the House of the Long Court and the House on the Wall can be seen on the right. The House Of The Long Court had been burnt. The House On The Wall is an old building that had been partially incorporated in the wall.

At the Fluted Pillar a path turns off to the left. Following this, the House of the Dhow and the House of the Double Court, two houses in a single block are seen on the right with a large tomb in front. The House Of The Double Court was later divided into two, making three residences in the block with a large open court in ad8ition, probably a store. In the plaster of the outer room of the House Of The Dhow there is an incised picture showing the launching of a boat, while in the plaster of the outer room of the inner court of the other house are a kite, a dhow, a bird and other scribbling.

Near the House of the Dhow, the Inner Wall strikes in from the Outer Wall and, incorporating the walls of some large houses, passes round the outside of the Mosque Of The Three Aisles. This is a small mosque with two rows of pillars and the largest well at Gedi. Beyond it is a length of wall with square ports for firearms and the South Gate of the Inner Wall. In the gate are circular spy holes from which the approach to the wall may be observed. Further along the wall a square bastion has been added with a gun port and splayed sides to cover an angle of the wall. A path has been cut out to the line of the Outer Wall and then back to the Inner Wall near the southwest corner.

On the Outer Wall are the remains of a small mosque, the Mosque On The Wall. The Inner Wall continues northwards through another house, the House On The West Wall, of the typical composite type comprising two, possibly three residences. The wall passes behind the Palace and then turns north to meet the Outer Wall near the Mosque of the Long Conduit. Before reaching the mosque, however, a path is seen going out to the North Gate on the Outer Wall. This is a typical East African town gate, consisting of a chamber, probably unroofed, built across the wall to serve as a check post for strangers nearing the town. Outside is a wide and shallow ditch. On the counterscarp may be seen some large holes for a stockade, which had been burnt. Turning to the right the small museum is reached, where some of the finds from the excavations can be seen. Others are in the museum at Fort Jesus, Mombasa.
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