Lost Cities – Gedi

Continuing this series of Lost Cities (https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/lost-cities-xanadu/ for the first one) today I would like you to take you on a trip to the east coast of Africa. I know we don’t tend to go there much in this blog, so I thought this was a perfect opportunity to pay a visit. Where are we off to, you will be wondering? Well, today we are having a look at the ruins of the city of Gedi – or Gede depending on the spelling. This town is of medieval origin and seems to belong to the Swahili cultures of the area, however as the middle ages developed the influence of the Arabic expansion in Africa becomes apparent. Why am I referring to Gedi as a lost city? There are a few reasons. The first one ans perhaps most obvious is that, like with Xanadu, the settlement in currently in ruins. And this leads us to point 2: Gedi was abandoned by the locals, and we are still a bit unsure as to why exactly, particularly considering this seems to have been a remarkable settlement. Amongst the archaeological find we have Ming pottery, Venetian glass and even what seemingly is a flushing toilet! Another reason why I count Gedi into this list, is because there is virtually no record of it in the historical sources. Considering the heavy influence of the Portuguese during the Age of Discovery in these area, it is interesting to know they didn’t really acknowledge this place…Yet the archaeology seems rather clear: Gedi was a mighty town. So, where abouts exactly is what remains of Gedi? The location is in the Eastern coast of Kenya, in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, and nearby the towns of Watamu and Malindi. The ruins excavated originally rediscovered in the 1920s, and it quickly became one of the most thoroughly excavated Swahili sites in the stretch that goes from southern Somalia to the Kenya-Tanzania border – there are 116 in total. Thankfully, it was made into a historic monument in 1927, and the status was elevated to that of a protected monument in 1929 following the looting of Chinese porcelain found in the site.  Nonetheless, and technically speaking, the location of Gedi had been known to non-African people since the 19th century. The British Sir John Kirk – explorer and companion of the renown Dr Livingstone, went to the site during his visit from Zanzibar. The first proper excavations were carried out in the 1940s under supervision of archaeologist James Kirkman, and were concentrated on the core buildings. This also led to the proclamation of the forest around it as a national park in 1948. The excavations around the mosque took precedence for the decades that followed, becoming this the key feature of research papers published on the subject, and hence enhancing the Arab influence in the area. As an example, the paper: “The Arab City of Gedi, The Great Mosque, Architecture and Finds” relates the vast majority of the information known about this building and the city itself. The author was, of course, Kirkman himself. Although seemingly forgotten and unknown to the colonist of the area, Gedi was known to the Mijikenda people, particularly the Giriama tribe one of the largest communities amongst the Mijikenda) who revere the site as a sacred place. This culture believe strongly in spirits and the otherworldly; despite the Islamic influence in the area, they still think there is a connection between Gedi and the spiritual world. Regarding the material culture of the site, we have a fair amount of stuff left. There is blatant evidence that Gedi was a walled town, with an inner and outer wall comprising an area of 45 acres. The walls alongside with the majority of the buildings here were made from coral stones extracted from the Indian ocean. They all seem to be one storey of height and there is a plurality of buildings, not just houses. Amongst these feature the already mentioned mosque, as well as a palace. Due to its location and growth, Gedi has been understood to be a trading centre, particularly with routes and commerce in the Indian Ocean. The period of occupation for the site has been dated thanks to carbon analysis of the remains and finds to the 11th century, and it seems the city was already abandoned by the to abandoned by the 17th. However, there are evidence of settlement in the vicinity of Gedi since the 6th century by different tribes and Swahili people. The estimated population of the city at its peak is of 2500, so perhaps not the greatest number one could think of but given the location it was certainly an important settlement. Gedi prospered and increased numbers until the early stages of the 16th century thanks to trade. And here comes the issue, you see, because it is likely that the most easily explained for the depopulation of the town had to do with its commercial nature. By the 16th century, the presence of Portuguese merchants in the area was extensive, and it is known that their monopolisation of trade led to the general decline of the local activities. Perhaps Gedi was one of the affected towns along the coastline as more and more Portuguese colonists established themselves a little further north. In addition, the Tanzania-Kenya border has traditionally been an area of conflict. There are mentions of raids from Somalia, and the evidence suggest the Galla people – or more commonly known these days as the Oromo –  from Ethiopia seem to have also been a likely contender for the depopulation of Gedi, which is a theory supported by Aylward Shorter in his study of the East African Societies. Currently, the site remains under the care of the National Museums of Kenya, and it is open to the public for touristic visits. However, the archaeological work is still ongoing. In fact, since the 90s, the investigations on Gedi have grown in interest and depth. The current works are attempting to understand the settlement beyond the narrow frame of its Arabic development and the mosque itself. Works by Stephane Pradines and Lynn Koplin have focused on other buildings found in the site which are seemingly mud thatched properties built between the inner and outer walls. This is helping reshape the history of the site as a socio-political body with an important urban development and not just a religious site of one kind or another.Another item of investigation and that comments on the economic importance of the settlement is the abundance of cowry shells. It has been speculated that, perhaps these were a form of currency amongst the people of Gedi, which would make sense considering the evidence for these shells been used as legal tender indifferent areas of Africa throughout history. However, as you can see there is still a lot of work to be done in Gedi as a whole. As usual, African cultures seem to be right at the bottom of the list of things to be investigated, and that needs to change. Hopefully as the years come by I may be able to revisit this post with bran new and up to date information on the site and see that wonderful remains from the middle ages all over the world are taken proper care of.  

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