The Gedi Ruins, located on the coast of eastern Kenya, are a historical and archaeological site of great significance. With a history dating back to the eleventh or twelfth century, the Gedi Ruins have been the subject of numerous excavations and studies, shedding light on the development of Swahili culture, the organization of Indian Ocean trade, the spread of Islam, and the political and economic ties between Swahili communities.
The site comprises 45 acres, divided by an inner and outer wall, and features a variety of structures, including mosques, houses, tombs, and a palace. The Gedi Ruins offer a unique glimpse into the past, offering insight into the daily lives of the people who once inhabited this thriving ancient city. From its grand architecture to its abundant artifacts, the Gedi Ruins stand as a timeless treasure of the Kenyan coast.
History of Gedi Ruins
The Gedi Ruins are a historical and archaeological site located on the coast of eastern Kenya, near the town of Malindi. The site was once a thriving Swahili city that flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries before being abandoned in the 17th century. The ruins were rediscovered by colonialists in the 1920s and have been the subject of intensive research and excavations since the 1940s.
Evidence suggests that the settlement of Gedi occurred sometime in the 11th or 12th century and was likely founded due to the city’s participation in trade. The adoption of Islam by the inhabitants in the 12th century is marked by the presence of three superimposed mosques in the city’s northern area, which were constructed during the 12th to 14th centuries. Urban development at Gedi expanded primarily to the north, west, and south until the 15th century when the population began to shift around the Great Mosque.
Gedi’s population and prosperity peaked during the 15th and 16th centuries but began to decline in the late-16th and 17th centuries. The abandonment of Gedi and many other coastal sites north of Mombasa has been attributed to various factors, including the Portuguese attempts to monopolize trade, a drop in the water table, a raid by the Wazimba people in 1589, and Oromo migrations and raids from Somalia. Today, the Gedi Ruins are a popular tourist destination and are considered sacred and spiritual by the local Mijikenda people.
History of Occupation
The history of occupation at Gedi has been extrapolated from excavations and historical documents that pertain to its material culture, architecture, and the known history of trade linking the Swahili Coast with the regions adjoining the Indian Ocean. The settlement of Gedi occurred long after the emergence of the earliest settlements along the Swahili Coast with the intensification of trade in the 6th century. The earliest evidence of occupation at Gedi is a grave marker that has been radiocarbon dated between 1041 to 1278, placing the original settlement of the site sometime in the 11th or early 12th century.
Gedi’s participation in trade is believed to contribute to its founding and later development into a city supporting an estimated population of 2,500 inhabitants at its peak. Despite the absence of historical documents specifically mentioning Gedi, it is considered one of the most important sites along the coast. Before the construction of the outer wall in the 15th century, the city initially developed in the northern section of the modern site. The adoption of Islam by the inhabitants in the 12th century is marked by the presence of three superimposed mosques in the city’s northern area, which were constructed from the 12th to the 14th century.
From the 11th through the 14th centuries, urban development at Gedi expanded primarily to the north, west, and south, with the eventual population shifts around the Great Mosque during the 15th century. Gedi’s population and prosperity peaked during the 15th and into the 16th century until it and many other coastal sites began to decline in the late-16th and 17th centuries. Gedi was abandoned by the middle of the 17th century.
The presence of the Portuguese from the 16th century has been considered one of the primary factors in Gedi’s eventual abandonment with their attempts to monopolize trade and due to armed intervention. However, a drop in the water table seen with the deepening of the well next to the Great Mosque, a Wazimba raid along the coast in 1589, and Oromo migrations and raids from Somalia may have been additional factors in the abandonment of Gedi ruins and most of the mainland coastal sites north of Mombasa.
The Gedi ruins are located in the ancient Arabuko-Sokoke Forest on the coast of eastern Kenya and consist of 45 acres (18 hectares) of an ancient town divided by two walls. The inner wall encloses 18 acres (7.3 hectares) and contains the urban core of the site, including two mosques, a palace or Sheikh’s house, four large houses, several clustered houses, and four large pillar tombs. The outer wall encloses the remaining 45 acres (18 hectares) and contains a mosque and several other unidentified structures.
Most of Gedi’s structures were domestic residences made of thatched-roofed mud buildings concentrated between the inner and outer walls. However, the only surviving buildings were constructed using coral stones extracted from the Indian Ocean. All the buildings at Gedi are single-story structures, with walls and other coral structures constructed similarly using lime mortar. The site also has a well-established infrastructure, with streets laid out in a grid pattern and sumps and lavatories in many primary buildings.
Non-utilitarian design elements, such as square framed pointed archways for doorways and carved or inlaid spandrels and architraves, can also be found in the buildings. The inner and outer walls were constructed using similar methods, with the outer wall measuring nine feet high and 18 inches thick and believed to have been constructed in the fifteenth century. The inner wall, built in the sixteenth century, is believed to have been constructed due to the Portuguese presence along the coast and contains gun ports, indicating its defensive purpose.
Material culture refers to the physical objects, artifacts, and remains produced and used by society. At the Gedi ruins in Kenya, archaeologists have uncovered numerous artifacts, including beads, ceramics, and coins, that provide insight into the trade, economy, and daily life of the site’s inhabitants.
Beads are abundant at Gedi, with cowrie shells, cane glass beads, and wound and pressed glass beads being the most common. These beads likely served as a currency, with cowrie shells being the most widely used. The presence of Chinese porcelain, Islamic glazed ware, and locally produced earthenwares among the ceramics found at Gedi suggest the site’s involvement in the Indian Ocean trade.
Coins, particularly cowrie shells and Chinese coins, have also been found at Gedi. The use of cowries as currency is supported by their historical use in various parts of Africa. Their abundance at the site suggests they may have been the primary form of currency used by the residents of Gedi.
Other material cultures found at Gedi ruins include iron objects, such as lamps, boxes, and scissors. The recovery of these items, particularly iron objects, suggests the presence of trade and the availability of luxury goods at the site.
Overall, the material culture found at Gedi ruins provides valuable information about the site’s role in trade and its economic and daily life. The presence of a diverse range of artifacts, including beads, ceramics, and coins, speaks to the site’s involvement in the Indian Ocean trade and the wealth and prosperity of its inhabitants.
The Gedi Ruins are a fascinating and important historical and archaeological site on the coast of eastern Kenya. With a history dating back to the eleventh or twelfth century, the Gedi Ruins offer a unique glimpse into the past, revealing the development of Swahili culture, the organization of Indian Ocean trade, the introduction and spread of Islam, and the political and economic ties between Swahili communities.
The well-preserved ruins, including mosques, houses, and tombs, showcase the architectural skills and styles of the ancient inhabitants. At the same time, the various artifacts, such as beads and ceramics, found at the site provide valuable insights into the material culture of the time. The Gedi Ruins are a testament to the region’s rich history and cultural significance and continue to be a source of fascination and study for historians and archaeologists today.