A small sign on the dusty red earth side road suggested the way to Gedi. By the small gateway, one that would not have looked out of place in a suburban British driveway, stood a small concrete ticket office where I parted with the 500 Kenyan Shillings (£3.60/$6) entrance fee and my heavy rucksack.
Inside the Arabuko Sokoke forest
The National Monument of Gedi lies handily about 4 kilometres off the main north-south coastal highway between Mombasa and Malindi, close to the resort town of Watamu. From Mombasa’s urban scrawl I past scrub vegetation and newly planted oil palms. All of the area would have been tropical forest. The remaining forest, now part of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve, looked a little tired and eaten from the road, battling encroachment from farming and housing stock. Even so, it holds the title for the largest area of remaining forest in East Africa.
A Kenyan Ankor Wat, Gedi sits within the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, aged trees casting shade over the ruined coral stone buildings of the Swahili city. Gedi flourished from the thirteenth century, a Muslim city of 2,500 people trading with the world’s great maritime nations. Four centuries on, the city was abandoned, and wasn’t rediscovered until the 1920s.
Alone with the ruins
No one is really sure why Gedi was abandoned, though it may have resulted from the advance of other nearby cities. The doubt lies in the lack of evidence. There isn’t a single written record that refers to Gedi. The information available at Gedi’s on site museum (included in the entry cost) thus comes from archaeological research, particularly that which took place between 1948 and 1958 when the country was still Britain’s Kenya Colony. The archaeologists found large quantities of locally produced pottery, as well as goods from China and Venice, pointing to active trade with world powers of the time.
As much as I could discover, I was the only visitor. I shook off the offer of a guided tour to wander around alone and experience the solitude of the site. The ruins cover an area of 45 acres, nestled in between trees, now very much part of the forest again. At the knee-high ruins of the outer wall that surrounded Gedi I hear rustling among the fallen leaves of the undergrowth, as if I were being watched. Remaining still, and keeping quiet, a group of endangered golden-rumped elephant shrews hopped rabbit-like around me in the leaf-litter, under the hanging lianas, their long noses twitching in search of insects. About the size of a small rabbit, their ginger and black fur glinted in the dappled light, a long thin naked rodents tail following behind. The Arabuko Sokoke forest is not only precious for the ruins of Gedi, it is the only place this species of elephant shrew can be found. Indeed, it is thought Gedi could well mean precious in Orma, the language of a local tribe.
The heart of the city, surrounded by a number of mosques, houses, and burials, is the palace complex. So little is known about Gedi that even use of the term ‘palace’ is questioned, though it seems likely from neighbouring cities that a sultan-like figure ruled.
It is at the palace that the ruins are at their best and most picturesque. The complex remains clear of the trees that make imagining the city so difficult, but for one large tree that acts as the support for an aerial platform giving views over the city. The additional entry cost goes to fund a local school. The palace walls climbed to heights way above my head. While monumental gateways arched over me, sunken courtyards brought me to below ground level. At the same time guenon monkeys sat about the area, foraging one small area at a time. It is at the palace that it is easiest to get a sense of what the city was, and how rich Gedi must have been. Simply getting enough coral stone from the nearby ocean must have been a massive undertaking, with it taking modern conservators two weeks to collect one ton of the stone. Gedi represented for me a demonstration of a strong Africa, unrelated to European colonialism, and the tip of the iceberg of Africa’s forgotten wonders.