Much is yet to discover about the Ruins of Gedi. The ancient town on the Kenyan coast gained weight as prosperous Swahili city-state throughout Africa’s Middle Ages. The bulk of its wealth Gedi originated by its importance as a coastal town in the Indian Ocean trade system. From the 7th century, trade networks linked this part of Kenya to merchant centres as far away as India and Oman. From these harbours, merchant ships would sail to East Africa, exchanging cotton and ceramics for ivory and slaves.

Along the way, Arab and Indian merchants settled down along the Kenyan coast. As a result, exotic exchange gave birth to an unique Swahili culture, characterised by Islam inspired architecture and, for dinner, delicious chipati bread. Typically, Swahili language is a fusion of Bantu speech enriched by Arab, Hindi, Persian and Portuguese loanwords.

However, turning back to the ruins, ‘Gedi’ is not a Swahili word at all. It were the Oromo who founded Gedi in the 11th century and gave the city its name (meaning ‘precious’ in their language). Known for being fierce horsemen, the Oromo built this complex as a command centre for future raids. Over the years, as new settlers came in, Gedi was redefined. By the fifteenth century, the city has turned from a military outpost into a luxury resort.

Jewellery from exotic places

In the centre of the city stood the royal palace. Here the sheikh – alternately Swahili or Arab – housed with his two or three wives. The royal family had their own private toilets – still standing today -, whereas their servants had to use the public bathrooms. Not far from these facilities was the royal court. In this room Gedi’s nobles discussed politics and legal issues. Important matters they had agreed upon, together with the city’s revenues and other official documents, would be put away in a safe. As of today, a hole in the courtroom’s wall still indicates the place where the strongbox once stood. As a matter of fact, the key of the safe is excavated and visible for visitors.

Moving along the ruins, the remnants of the city’s mosque stand out. The house of prayer was the place where Gedi’s citizens would count their blessings. Most of the 3.000 residents were merchants. And for them, business was doing well. Excavations show that artefacts from exotic places found their way to Gedi: Venetian glass, Spanish silverware (robbed, of course, from Peru), Indian jewellery and even Chinese coins. It may well be that more treasures lie hidden under bricks and vegetation. The giant baobab trees, some of them over 500 years old, are silent witnesses of what happened to the once prosperous city.

Gedi’s mysterious decline

During the 16thcentury, Gedi suddenly fell apart. Some suggest that a terrible outbreak of plague (brought along by rodents on Arab ships) wiped out the population. Others say that, because of global warming, the city’s wells dried up, forcing citizens to search for new water resources in the forest. Either way, these challenges were aggravated by the arrival of Portuguese pirates.

Counting on force rather than merchandise, the Portuguese shot their way into the Indian Ocean trade network. Violent clashes between Portuguese, Arab and Indian sailors severely disrupted business. It seemed that, for Gedi, not only the wells, but also the city’s income dried up. Today, the same can be said about the financial support for further excavations. Large parts of the city are still buried underground, leaving us only to guess what lies beneath…

Travelling through Kenya’s Middle Ages