Last updated on October 31st, 2019
“Please! Tell Everyone we are here!”
These were the parting words that my guide said to me as we finished the fascinating tour of the Gedi Ruins near Watamu, Kenya on the country’s Indian Ocean coast. After three hours of touring the site with him, I could understand why. Other than a local school group, I was the only tourist there.
Unlike Machu Pichu, Pompei or Angkor Wat, the Gedi Ruins are not yet on the major tourist route radar – which in this case was to my benefit. I strolled peacefully alone past ruins of mosques, a palace and merchants’ homes, all photogenically dotted with tropical greenery. Taking photos without any people wasn’t a problem, because there weren’t any-for now. Despite the many resorts along the coast not far away, I was the only visitor that morning.
The Gedi Ruins are just outside the town of Watamu which is about a two hour drive along the coast north of historic Mombasa, or about a one hour drive south from the coastal town of Malindi. My gateway to the area was Malindi which was an easy one hour flight from Nairobi’s Wilson airport. I was here on a beach holiday to enjoy the soft white sand and the warm Indian Ocean currents on Jacaranda Beach after a two week citizen science program in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
Besides relaxing in the sand and surf, I was also interested in seeing some of the local sights, and the Gedi Ruins were at the top of my list. My hotel (the Alawi Boutique Hotel) set me up with a driver, and a thirty minute ride on bumpy dirt roads took me to the site entrance. I could have explored on my own, but for a small fee, a narrated tour with local guide and expert Badi Badi brought the history to life.
Learning About the Gedi Ruins
A settlement was first established here in the 11th-12th century and thrived until its mysterious end in the middle of the 17th century. The site was rediscovered by colonialists in the 1920’s and became a protected Kenyan monument in 1929 and a national park in 1948. Today it is also on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List, waiting to be granted full UNESCO status and the privileges and protection that come with that.
As I walked around the half formed ruins and listened to my guide describe the sights, a picture of a very advanced culture began to emerge. This had been a thriving and highly prosperous community of 2500 people that was part of an important East Africa maritime trade route in the middle ages and during the renaissance period of European global exploration. The residents here had practiced their own version of a global economy – archaeologists have discovered goods from as far away as China, Indonesia, India, and Europe.
Punctuating the orderly patterns of crumbling stone buildings were stately baobab trees and colorful orange flame trees, their roots breaking through the foundations and adding an uneven texture to the walking paths. However, the vegetation could not distract from the carefully laid out grid pattern in which the town had been built.
Not surprising, the wealthy elite and the ruling class lived inside the inner walls of the city in large stone houses made of coral stone that had been carted from the coast about three kilometers away. A second wall also encircled the town, and presumably, the not so wealthy lived here outside this wall in thatch houses that have not survived the passage of time.
We passed through the remains of the imposing arched entrance that marked the palace complex, the home of the town’s ruling sheikh. As the largest and grandest building in the city, the palace had a number of anterooms, courtyards and residential rooms, the outlines of which were still visible under the fallen leaves and tree trunk roots.
Islam had been adopted by the residents along this coastline in the 12th century and this was clearly demonstrated by the presence of the Great Mosque nearby. With its three rows of tall pillars which would have supported a high roof, this would have been a very grand building indeed. The site has at least two other mosques, all built and used during different historic periods when the city was populated.
The original Swahili name for the town had been Kilimani, or, “place that is hilly”. I was told that when the Oromo people also settled in the area, they renamed it Gedi, meaning “precious water and green pastures”. In fact, evidence of sophisticated water usage can be seen all over the site. There is a huge, 60 foot deep well next to the Great Mosque as well as other wells around the city. The town architects also laid out sumps that collected rain water and put in lavatories in the stone buildings. My guide pointed out that one merchant’s houses also had a bathing tub and a swimming pool (as well as a “bank” for safeguarding valuables).
Clearly, like the other cultures that Gedi was trading with in the 15th and 16th centuries, many of the residents here seemed to be quite prosperous. Archaeological digs have found Venetian glass beads, Chinese porcelain and even Spanish scissors. Yet despite what appeared to be a well off and successful community, Gedi was abandoned and empty by the middle of the 17th century, and archaeologists are still not sure why.
My guide Badi Badi eloquently described three possible theories for the city’s downfall. One possibility involves the town being caught in the middle of warring factions – a disagreement between the sultan of Mombasa who did not favor the Portuguese explorers and the sultan of Malindi who did accept the Portuguese Vasco de Gamma and his fleet. Or, an internal war between the Swahili people and the more nomadic Oromo people.
A second theory for abandoning the city proposes that the fresh water table dropped and as a result, became brackish and undrinkable. With all the deep-and now dry-wells still evident on the site today, underground water was clearly an important resource, and once it was gone, survival would have been challenging.
The third theory suggests that foreign diseases, and primarily the plague, infected the residents. This would have been viewed as a curse on the community and the best way to deal with that was to abandon the area.
As with other such sights, what was once lost was found again. Ultimately, the jungle grew over the man made structures, but eventually, Gedi descendants rediscovered the remains and began to treat is as a sacred shrine. They would go there to pray for rain or for health or for children my guide told me, and desecrating the site resulted in dire consequences. Today, Gedi is still considered holy by the local community.
Because of its sacred significance, when the archaeologist James Kirkman wanted to excavate in the 1940’s and 50’s, the local elders were not pleased. My guide went on to tell me stories about Kirkman’s dig being cursed. Some of the Swahili youth that worked with him died mysteriously he said, while others went mad and others then boycotted the dig. The guide’s story went on to say that one night during a tremendous storm it sounded like a big tree had fallen, but then the next day, no fallen trees were found. After that, Kirkman no longer spent the nights at Gedi and the site gained a reputation for being haunted.
Whether it is cursed, or haunted, or just not very easy to get to, there was no doubt that Gedi is not getting very many tourists. The nearby museum built in 2000 with European Union funds was at one time an imposing building, but now looked like it could use some help. Inside, some of the rooms held interesting examples of the artifacts found on the site, representing many centuries of occupation. Another room held a large humpback whale skeleton, an unusual specimen for here I thought. I was told that the museum was also setting up displays for educational purposes.
As a historic site with over 500 years of stories to tell, Gedi certainly makes a good classroom. In fact, while I was the only tourist there that morning, a large group of local school children came just as my tour was finishing up. I watched as they moved from spot to spot, listening intently to the teacher’s lecture and diligently taking notes.
As my driver took me back to my hotel, I contemplated my day’s outing. Once again, going off the beaten path had been worth it and led me to a unique experience. I may have had the site to myself, but I decided that as long as the next generation continues to visit and learn about Gedi, then there is no risk that it will fall into anonymity again.
What is the best way to visit the Gedi Ruins?
The Gedi ruins are under the care of the National Museums of Kenya. There is currently no website specific to Gedi. Your local area hotel can set you up with a tour or transportation to and from the site. I highly recommend touring the ruins with one of the local guides. My guide Badi Badi was excellent. He is a local boy that has studied tourism and has been a guide at Gedi since 2006. He also gives tours in German. Other guides there also speak Italian.
You can read my related story about my beach stay on Kenya’s coast at An Italian Kenya Beach Holidays Experience.
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Thanks for visiting.