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The ruins of Gedi, an Arab-African settlement built in the 14th Century.

Gedi seemed to have been a wealthy, thriving town, given the precious artefacts that were dug up including Ming China porcelain and countless other objects indicating Gedi’s wealth. However, there is no official historical record of Gedi, which makes the place all the more intriguing.

The name Gedi is a Galla word meaning “precious”. The Galla were a nomadic people from Somalia, who conquered all settlements on the Northern Kenyan coast in the 17th century and who baptised Gedi and ruled it until the late 19th century. They then lost their position of power to the Arabs, who reoccupied their original territories.

The historic site is on the Mombasa-Malindi road, sixty-five miles from Mombasa and ten miles from Malindi. Gedi is a fascinating place to visit, more so because the ruins are up to today shrouded in mystery; the actual reasons for its foundation, as well as its destruction, are not known. Surrounded by modern-day villages built of wood, mud and stone with all the hustle and bustle of the local inhabitants, Gedi is an oasis of peace; overgrown with all kinds of trees, plants and flowers. There are friendly and well-informed local guides available at a small fee, but the map of Gedi is self-explanatory, and you can easily discover the city by yourself.

The ruins are clearly indicated, identified by their architectural style, such as the mosques, or the artefacts that were found in or near the structures; names like ‘The house of the Iron Lamp’, ‘The house of the Ivory Box’, ‘The house of the Scissors’, ‘The house of the Venetian Bead’ fuel the imagination. In the silence that now enfolds the once thriving town, you can hear the echoes of the voices of centuries ago. While walking through the ruins, it takes only a little imagination to see the veiled women walking through the streets, hear the children play at the water well and sit with the Sultan while he receives trade delegations. In the museum built adjacent to the ruins, the found artefacts are exhibited alongside an overview of coastal Swahili culture.

The structures at Gedi include 8 mosques, more than a dozen houses, a palace and an Amfi-theatre-cum-law-court. Gedi was surrounded by a wall, and it seems like the city was deserted, then later reoccupied, because there is a second wall built at a later date that encircles a smaller part of the town. This wall incorporated some of the walls of existing houses. The artefacts that were found in the ruins, such as Chinese porcelain and Venetian glass, indicate that Gedi was a wealthy city that traded with Portugal, Italy, China, India and the Arab world; which makes its absence in official historic records all the more intriguing.

There are several theories to the downfall of Gedi. Some say the river changed its course, so the water wells dried up, forcing the inhabitants to move. Others theorize that the Portuguese brought the deadly Black Plague, with no known cure, wiping out the population. A dispute or invasion that caused the inhabitants to fled or evacuate is another theory. But whatever it may be that caused Gedi to fall, its ruins are strong reminders of how powerful it once was, and how it influenced a culture that exists to this day.

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