Saturday, August 28, 2010



Everywhere around me there is rubble, weathered walls and columns of coral rag and coral lime - buildings at various stages of decrepitude. It is like a real-time jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. I soon get into the game and fill the gaps with imaginary fragments. Thus, an arch opens a doorway into notional rooms, and other remnants such as a fluted pillar, a cistern, wells, and latrine spaces hint at dwellings, mosque, tombs and even a palace. You get the impression of a township razed to ground, and then again, it appears as though it is actually rising from the Earth. Even though it is noon, it feels like twilight, as climbers and lianas vie with tall baobabs and tamarind trees to find roothold.  The muggy coastal air accentuates the stillness of the place and makes us feel hemmed in, in a rather eerie sort of a way. We – I, my son and our girl-guide, Pili – are the only intruders into this lost walled­-town, for the moment. Standing amidst Gede (or Gedi) Ruins, nearly 100 kms North of Mombasa, in Kenya, we are trying to listen to the secrets cradled over four centuries. 


As we enter the Inner Wall, which was the preserve of the privileged, the first structure to greet us is a tombstone bearing an epitaph, faded by passage of time; the inscription at the bottom is still clear, it is a date - 1399 A.D. This “dated tomb” provides vital clue to the calendar of events in Gedi, or Kilimani (Swahili for “on top of a hill”), as it was called then, when it was a bustling settlement hosting traders and artisans. The population of few thousands comprised Arabs from Oman who came here in the 13th century and mingled and assimilated with the Bantu tribe. Incidentally, it was this Arab-African fusion that gave rise to the Swahili people of the East African coast. British historian James Kirkman, who has researched the ruins extensively, has noted that even in its heydays, Gedi seems to have flourished in obscurity nestled as it was in a coastal forest and finds no mention in any historical records! Archaeologists have excavated and painstakingly pieced together Chinese blue porcelain bowls, glazed earthenware and clay pottery indicating that trade flourished and was carried much beyond Gedi’s immediate shores. Some of these finds have been preserved in the Gede Museum, nearby, but a lot of them have been lost too, spirited away by “curio hunters” or simply poor locals with the idea of making a fast buck.

Climbing up the rickety flights of a tree house I have been warned to skip, I make it atop a century-old baobab to take in a bird’s eye-view of the Ruins. Strewn over two acres are dilapidated structures which I try to construct in my mind’s eye in many different ways, but it needs the expertise of Kirkman, as projected through his guidebook, to give me that unbroken picture. Right below is the Palace - where the tribal king (as one written source, says) or the Sultan (as Pili tells me) would have held court - with its reception room, audience courts, apartments and an Annexe doubling as women’s quarter. Behind the Palace is the Great Mosque, chief among the many, nine, to be precise, that dot the two-acre excavated area of the 45-acre township.

From that vantage position, the perspective changes and I am actually taken back in time. I can imagine the Jumma prayers being held and the Imam preaching from the pulpit, the Sultan is holding court as the women prattle about everyday things in their quarter. For nearly four centuries, life must have continued thus, with its unsung individual stories of laughter and sorrow, of meetings and bereavements, until one day, somewhere in the 17th century, the town was inexplicably abandoned. Theories explaining the desertion range from invasion of a cannibalistic tribe to spread of diseases, but other more plausible reasons are also presented. Over a period of time the ocean receded (which it has; while Gedi was on the coast earlier, it is now well inland), subsequently the water table dipped and the water sources dried up. This is evident from the numerous dry wells of Gede, which, sadly and ironically, have accumulated a litter of plastic water bottles discarded by unthinking tourists with no thirst or taste for history or heritage. Another explanation goes that the residents fled from the advancing Galla tribe from Somalia. That Gede or Gedi is a Galla word, meaning “precious” says something for this explanation.

But heritage conservation is not a strong urge on part of the authorities concerned. At many places, the coral blocks are cemented incongruously with concrete giving it a feel of a modern-day substandard construction in progress. Vandalism has taken its toll too. A large swathe of the Ruins still lies waiting to be excavated, especially between the inner and outer wall which housed the middle class population.

The day is wearing on; I thank Pili who accompanied us for more than two hours gamely, despite her Ramdan fast, giving in to our demands of taking detours from the charted path to explore the precincts within the outer wall. As twilight sets in and it is time to depart, we leave the place to its rightful inhabitants – the Sykes monkeys and the elephant shrew.

Note: Msafari is a Kiswahili word for "travel". 

Also read: Mombasa Msafari - Part II, Old Town

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