Ruins of Gedi
|Ruins of Gedi|
The ruins of Gedi are a historical and archaeological site in Eastern Kenya, adjacent to the town of Gedi (also known as Gede) in the Kilifi District and within the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. The Gedi ruins are located 10 miles (16 kilometres) south of Malindi, 65 miles (105 kilometres) north of Mombasa, and 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) from the Indian Ocean.
Gedi is one of many medieval Swahili-Arab coastal settlements that stretch from Mogadishu, Somalia to the Zambezi River in Mozambique. According to Thomas Wilson who conducted a spatial analysis of the Swahili Coast sites in his article “Spatial Analysis and Settlement Patterns on the Eastern African Coast,” there were 116 known sites stretching from Southern Somalia to Vumba Kuu at the Kenya-Tanzania border. However, since the rediscovery of the Gedi ruins by colonialists the 1920s, Gedi has been one of the most intensely excavated and studied sites, along with Shanga, Manda, Ungwana, Kilwa and the Comoros.
Its location along the coast and association with similar sites along the Swahili Coast had made it an important trade center. Although there is a lack historical documents specifically associating Gedi with Indian Ocean trade, it has been considered to have been one of the most important sites along the coast. Gedi’s architecture and an abundance of imported material culture including pottery, beads, and coins provide evidence of the cities rising prosperity over the course of its occupation from as early as the eleventh century to the sites abandonment in the early-seventeenth century.
The Gedi ruins make up a site consisting of 45 acres (18 hectares) that lies in the primeval Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. The site is relatively flat and irregularly shaped consisting of the walled town and its outlying area. The walled portion of the town is further divided by its two walls, with an outer wall enclosing 45 acres (18 hectares) and an inner wall enclosing 18 acres (7.3 hectares). All the standing buildings at Gedi are made from stone, are one-story and distributed unevenly in the town, while large open areas in the settlement had contained earth and thatch houses.
Within the inner wall there are two mosques, a palace or Sheikh's house, four large houses, several clustered houses, and four large pillar tombs comprising the urban core, while the inner wall also encloses within its structure four houses and three mosques. Between the inner and outer walls few stone structures have been identified with the exception of two mosques. Immediately beyond the outer wall there is one mosque and there are also several unidentified structures.
Gedi also has a hinterland consisting of several smaller sites made up of either solitary mosques and tombs or several houses. The sites of Shaka and Kilepwa are nearby with Kilepwa more adjacent to Gedi, residing on an island in Mida Creek and consisting of three stone houses. There is also an isolated mosque at the west end of the creek, a mosque at Watamu, and a mosque and tombs at Kiburugeni.
In addition to being divided by the inner and outer walls, which created an urban core occupied by the sites foremost buildings and areas of occupation between and outside of the outer wall, Gedi has a well-established infrastructure. Gedi’s structures appear to be formally arranged in accordance with a grid pattern layout to the site’s streets. Additionally the site contained sumps to collect storm water and lavatories in many of its primary buildings.
The majority of Gedi’s structures were domestic residences made of thatched-roofed mud buildings concentrated between the outer and inner walls; however, the only buildings that survived to the present were constructed using coral stones extracted from the Indian Ocean. Although several of the buildings predate the fourteen century, coral became a more common construction material for important structures and elite residences during that time period. All the buildings at Gedi are single-story structures. The walls and other coral structures were constructed in a similar manner using lime mortar with most foundations no greater than one foot in depth and filled with stones. Where foundations were used, they tended to be no wider than the wall they supported. In addition to the functionality of construction methods at Gedi, there are several examples of non-utilitarian design elements. Doorways for the buildings consist of square framed pointed archways, with tombs and mosques containing spandrels and architraves that have been carved or inlaid with porcelain.
The inner and outer walls were constructed similarly with the outer wall measuring nine feet high and 18 inches thick, which was also coated in plaster. The outer wall is believed to have been constructed during the fifteenth century. The construction of the inner wall has been attributed to the Portuguese’s presence along the coast in the sixteenth century, while the presence of gun ports has been used to infer that the walls were not constructed earlier. However, the practicality of the walls as defensive fortification is unclear, since according to Kirkman the walls and gates surrounding the town have no significant strength, which seems to conform to a proposal that the walls and the layout of buildings were used to maintain social barriers. Although the inner wall has a more obvious defensive function and despite the absence of gun ports and the questionable strength of the outer wall, it has nonetheless been credited as being a fortification.
The mosques at Gedi contained wells and washing facilities, which would have been used for cleansing prior to worship. However, they were not constructed with minarets used for the call to prayer, which was more characteristic in other regions. Gedi’s mosques were typically laid out with anterooms flanking the central room, which had a roof supported by wood beams resting on square stone pillars. The isles created by the pillars obstructed the view of the mihrab, which were situated on the north walls in the direction of Mecca.
At Gedi, two of the mosques have been dubbed “Great Mosques.” The mosque traditionally known as the Great Mosque is a rectangular building located within the inner wall, which was built during the fifteenth century. The Great Mosque has three entrances and three rows of pillars in the central room supporting the roof. Above one of the entrances is a relief of a spear point flanked by a shield on its spandrel, while on the east entrance the architrave is engraved with a herringbone pattern. The structure also has one of the deepest foundations with its 21 inch wide walls extending four feet into the subsoil.
The second Great Mosque resided in an older portion of the city, which was inhabited from the eleventh century and located to the north of the walled city. The structure that is standing was constructed in the fourteenth century on top of two earlier mosques from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The mosque measures 26 metres (85 feet) in length along its north-south orientation.
The pillar tombs at Gedi, which consist of masonry based structures topped with a pillar or column, are part of an architectural style of the medieval Swahili Coastal settlements. A common feature on the pillar tombs at Gedi are decorative recessed panels. Although there are four large pillar tombs at Gedi, the “dated tomb,” located within the inner wall, stands out from the rest since it has on Arabic inscription for the date A.H. 802 (A.D. 1399).
The surviving residential buildings at Gedi are all located within the inner wall and are representative of the living conditions of the elite members of Gedi society, since the majority of the population lived in the mud thatched dwellings outside the city’s core. The four largest houses include the House on the Wall, the House on the West Wall, the House of the Dhow, and the Large House. A cluster of smaller houses adjacent to the palace or Sheiks residence includes the House of the Chinese Cash, the House of the Porcelain Bowl, the House of the Cistern, the House of the Two Rooms, the House of the Paneled Walls, the House of the Scissors, the House of the Venetian Bead, the House of the Sunken Court, the House of the Cowries, the House of the Iron Lamp, the House of the Iron Box, and the House of the Well.
Although the houses at Gedi vary in size, their number of rooms, and their layout, the basic house at the site is a three-room structure, which usually contained a forecourt and domestic court. With the three-room layout, there was usually a long main room with two storage and sleeping quarters towards the back of the house. One of the back rooms usually had a storage compartment near the roof with access through a trapdoor. Latrines, usually located toward the back of the main room, were also present in many of the houses, while wells were present in the courtyards of some of the houses. One of the oldest stone houses dates to the fourteenth century and has a long narrow sunken court, which contrasts the wider and deeper courts found in houses constructed during the fifteenth century. The entrances of houses have a greater deal of variability in the configuration of their passageways, since many of the houses were highly concentrated and laid out to maximize the use of available space.
The palace, which housed the city’s sheikh, had a large central room with two anterooms, each containing its own courtyard. A series of residential rooms were accessible from the main hall. There were also two additional courts, the audience court and the reception court, which were accessed through different gates.
The Gedi ruins were first discovered by colonialists in 1884 after a British resident of Zanzibar, Sir John Kirk, visited the site. However, the ruins remained obscured until their subsequent rediscovery in the 1920s, when the site began to gain attention from the British East African Government. Gedi was made a historic monument in 1927 and after looters began removing Chinese porcelain inset as architectural decorations, the site was declared a protected monument in 1929. In 1939, the Kenya Public Works Department began restoring structures that were at the greatest risk of collapse. Further site restoration, primarily clearing vegetation overgrowth, was conducted during a series of archaeological excavations led by James Kirkman from 1948 to 1958 who was appointed warden of the site after Gedi and the surrounding forest was declared a national park in 1948.
In 1969, stewardship for Gedi was turned over to the National Museums of Kenya and is currently administered by the museum’s Department of Coastal Archaeology. In 2000, the construction of a museum funded by the European Union concluded, which features a permanent display on Swahili Culture.
Gedi has been the focus of archaeological surveys and historical studies beginning with initial excavations at the site in the late-1940s and has since been one the most intensely studied sites along the Swahili Coast. The significance of the ruins has been largely used to assess the sites role within the region in association with other sites to provide insight into the development of Swahili culture, the organization of Indian Ocean trade, the introduction and spread of Islam, and the political and economic ties between Swahili communities through their cultural remains and their spatial relationships.
Early excavations and surveys
Excavations commenced at Gedi in 1948 under the supervision of James Kirkman, lasting until 1958 with intermittent excavations occurring in the 1960s to the 1980s. During his excavations, Kirkman excavated the buildings at the city’s core, including the palace, and several of the mosques and houses, as well as, cleared and repaired the walls. Specifically, the Great Mosque was excavated in 1954 and the palace was excavated in 1963. Following his excavation of the Great Mosque, Kirkman’s report “The Arab City of Gedi, The Great Mosque, Architecture and Finds” was published, followed by a series of monographs and papers published in 1956, 1957, 1960, 1963, 1964, and 1975.
Along with the excavations at Gedi during the 1950s, concurrent excavations also took place at similar sites along the Swahili Coast. Until excavations initiated, little was known about the sites along the Swahili Coast, while knowledge of their existence was based on the presence of stone ruins consisting of walls, mosques, pillar tombs, and houses. The excavations that were conducted focused on the visible stone ruins with the near absent investigation of mudbrick features adjacent to or in the outlying areas of the ruins. Wilson’s 1982 survey of the 116 sites along the coast found 34 isolated ruins, which he concluded likely contained possible settlements or isolated dwellings that were yet to be identified. Although smaller settlements were studied, the larger sites received the most attention with 73 of the 116 sites surveyed by Wilson classified as isolated ruins and sites under 2.5 hectares, while only 17 sites were 15 hectares (37 acres) or greater. The site most intensively excavated besides Gedi was the site of Ungwana at the mouth of the Tana River, which was similar in size to Gedi. However, compared to sites similar in size, Gedi has one of the more densely populated urban centers.
Recent excavations and surveys
Since the 1990s, archaeological research at Gedi and other Swahili coastal settlements intensified. From the 1980s archaeological research increasingly began to focus more on the relationships between the coastal communities and their internal development, contrasting the original notion that the development of the Swahili Coast was impacted by foreign influence through Indian Ocean trade or by Arab colonists. Another important development in the study of the Swahili coastal sites is the increased attention given to the remains of structures that were not built of stone. Surveys of the open terrain at Gedi found dense concentrations of mud-thatched dwellings. In 2001, Stephane Pradines from the Institute Francias d’Archeologie Orientale and archaeologists from the National Museum of Kenya conducted a topographical survey of the Gedi, which mapped the distribution of neighborhoods in order to investigate the sites urban development. Concurrently, doctoral candidate Lynn Koplin conducted surveys of the mud-thatch neighborhoods focusing on the area between the inner and outer walls.
Stephane Pradines and archaeologists from the National Museum of Kenya conducted excavations at Gedi from 1999 to 2003. In 1999, the second Great Mosque was identified from a previously surveyed structure with an unknown function. During the same excavation a grave marker was radiocarbon dated between 1041 and 1278. The identification of the second and older Great Mosque was interpreted as being indicative of a population shift in the fifteenth century from the northern section of the city to being centrally located around the presently observable urban core with the construction of the Great Mosque. In 2001, excavations continued at the northern portion of Gedi, determined to represent an area inhabited early in the formation of the site from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. The excavations found that the second Great Mosque was superimposed over two earlier mosques. From 2002 to 2003, research at Gedi continued to focus on urban development prior to the fifteenth century by examining settlement patterns and the concentration of coral houses representative of a social elite in the urban core adjacent to the Great Mosque.
Although Gedi remained unknown to most of British East Africa’s colonists until the 1920s, the site was known by the local Mijikenda peoples. Currently, the Giriama, one of the Mijikenda tribes, maintain a large community around the Gedi ruins who have viewed the site as being a sacred and spiritual place. Despite changes in their belief system and the prominence of Islam in the region, evil and ancestral spirits have been considered to reside at Gedi into the twentieth century and even to the present. According to local tradition, the ruins are protected by the spirits of its priests. These "Old Ones" supposedly curse anyone who harms the site or removes anything.
- Gede – Historical Background
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