Mystery of abandoned trade centre that is Gedi ruins

Monday November 04 2019

Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed plays with monkeys at Gedi Ruins in Kilifi County on August 26, 2019. The area is a tourist attraction site. PHOTO | CHARLES LWANGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP


About 800 years ago, Gedi in Kilifi County was one of the largest and most prosperous towns along the East African coast — until it was abandoned at the beginning of the 17th century.

Its ruins, now managed by the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), are located near Watamu, 16 kilometres south of Malindi. It was an important Swahili-Arab settlement.

They were discovered in the thick forest by colonialists in 1884 when Sir John Kirk, a British resident of Zanzibar, visited the site, although excavations did not begin until 1948, under the supervision of archaeologist James Kirkman.

Interestingly, the rubble from finely crafted stone buildings, mosques, palaces, mansions, toilets, wells and tombs still stand today in the 45-acre tract surrounded by the expansive Arabuko Sokoke Forest.

Among the important items excavated from the site and now on display are pottery, glass, beads and coins, which provide evidence of the city's prosperity.



Archaeologists say the city was planned in such a way that it had banks, law courts, guest houses, a palace and streets, judging from the remains of the inner and outer wall along with coins, the sultan’s palace and mosques.

Each year, about 60,000 tourists visit the ruins for leisure, education and prayers due to its rich archaeological value, the 500 year-old baobab trees, mosques and tombs believed to have supernatural powers.

Mr Mbarak Abdulqadir, Gedi’s NMK curator, says the town was founded in the early 12th century and grew steadily, until it was abandoned for unclear reasons at the beginning of the 17th century.

“Its abandonment is partly attributed to invasion by the southward movement of the Galla, a rustic tribal group, and the absence of fresh water,” he says, adding, “Today all the wells in Gedi have turned brackish."


Mr Abdulqadir says “Gedi” is a Galla word meaning “precious”, and is also a name among the Cushitic Oromo ethnic group found in Kenya and Ethiopia.

“Therefore, Gedi might be the Galla name for the town which they destroyed, or the name of the last Galla leader to camp at the site. Its real name might be Kilimani,” he added.

Before the medieval town was abandoned, he said, it was an important commercial centre that exported ivory, gold, leopard skins, tortoise shells and ambergris.

Apart from the museum, there is the natural forest, which is home to birds such as the Sokoke scops owl and animals like dik-diks, golden-rumped elephant shrew and monkeys.

The ruins also offer tourists an opportunity to admire about 250 species of butterflies at the Kipepeo Butterfly Project, which markets pupae farmed by the community living around the Arabuko Sokoke Forest.


The Kipepeo Butterfly Project helps locals to conserve the forest as they generate income by marketing the butterflies, moth pupae, other live insects as well as honey and silk.

Inside Kipepeo House, which began as an experiment more than 25 years ago, live butterflies hatched from pupae are exported and displayed in insect parks in Europe and America.

In addition, tourists also have a chance to visit a snake park that contains pythons, cobras, green mambas, black mambas, and puff adders enclosed in cages and glass boxes.

One of the snake handlers says most snakes were captured in villages and homes due to wildlife-human conflict caused by human encroachment on the Arabuko-Sokoke forest.

There is also a pool in which visitors can see tortoises, monitor lizards and other non-poisonous reptiles.

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