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Archaeology golden Gedi, Kenya's lost glory. (Feature).

Continuing his journey around Africa in search of history before the white man, Nick Hordern, the British historian and journalist (see NA, Jan 2003), recently visited the ruins of Gedi, Kenya's once stone-walled city of 2,500 people, which was inexplicably abandoned in the 1600s. This is his report.

"We feel as our guest, you deserve the best!" Treated to a sumptuous luncheon by the manager of Zanzibar Airport whose food and hospitality more than lived up to the slogan above the door of the restaurant, I was continuing my journey round the African continent in search of history before the white man.

Marvelling anew at Africa's endless ability to reflect and create the past and present simultaneously to me, a traveller and historian, my next stop was Kenya.

It was a short hop from Zanzibar, with its twisting alleyways, cool shady squares and ornately carved wooden doors, to Mombasa. My host in Zanzibar had been Abdul Rahman M. Juma, head of antiquities of the Zanzibar Department of Antiquities, Museums and Archives.

In a beautiful centuries-old palace which had belonged to a sultan who had settled in Zanzibar from Muscat, he showed me wonderful displays of Chinese, Persian, Indian and African coins, and also delicately embroidered African caps, Zanzibar chests, wooden blocks to colour stamp designs for women's clothes, coral and sandstone carving, and African charms.

"Before the coming of the Europeans, or even Arabs, there was much commerce between the interior and the coast, a culture much denigrated by colonial historians who have attributed the coastal trade beginning only when external influences came into play," said Juma.

"There were local African kings," he continued, "and later there would be intermarriage with those who settled here. A famous African aristocrat was a lady ruler and she married an Arab. Islam was pervasive around the 12th-century and most of the citizens were Muslims but this did not mean coastal Africans abandoned everything of their traditional lifestyle. They went to the mosque but afterwards went directly to the shrine, this is an exorcism charm, a part of Swahili life."

Next Juma showed me the drums and gongs (the email or fax of the day). "These drums with Arab inscriptions are very strong, black and huge. Before the Europeans they served for communication purposes, either for war or for the people to gather together."

Descending to Moi International Airport in Mombasa, I saw through the plane's windows thousands of feet below, vast swathes of smoke engulfing the Indian Ocean shoreline temporarily obliterating the golden sands as if on fire.

Whether it was a brush fire or merely a remedial "slash-and-burn", the scene was harshly reminiscent of Mombasa's fate 500 years earlier when the Portuguese deliberately set fire to the African port-city that rivalled Venice or Genoa.

Before the arrival of the first white man, the venerable coastal city kingdom had been trading in skins, frankincense, ivory and gold for half a millenium with India, Persia and China. In return, they imported carpets from India, ceramics from Persia and China, horses from Arabia and exotic wares brought by the "treasure ships" of the Chinese emperor, Yunglo. Then in 1505, in another piece of flagrant vandalism, it was all over.

An eye-witness recorded: "The whole city burned like one huge fire that lasted nearly all night." Scores of large houses collapsed in the flames "and great wealth was burned, for it was from here that the trade with Sofala and Cambay was carried on sea.

The contemporary Portuguese soldier-diarist, Duarte Barbosa, described Mombasa as "a very fair place with lofty stone and mortar houses, well aligned in streets. The wood is well-fitted with excellent joiner's work. It has its own king, himself a Moor. The men are in colour either tawny, black or white, and also their women go very bravely attired with many fine garments of silk and gold in abundance."

He continued: "This is a place of great traffic and has a good harbour, in which are always moored craft of many kinds and also great ships. The men thereof are oft-times at war and but seldom at peace with those of the mainland, and they carry on trade with them, bringing thence great store of honey, wax and ivory."

As in the earlier sacking of Kilwa Island (see NA, fan 2003), Almeida's son, Lourenco, led the assault on the sultan's palace, and though with the Portuguese superior weaponry, this time met sterner resistance from the Swahili defenders. An avalanche of rocks hurled from the rooftops and two wild elephants let loose among the invaders were a part of new tactics that caused delays but merely postponed the inevitable.

The Portuguese plundered "a great number of very rich cloths, of silks and gold, carpets and saddle-cloths, especially one carpet that cannot be bettered anywhere and was sent to the king of Portugal with many other articles of great value." The two Franciscan friars erected a cross on top of the palace.

Suspending ancient rivalries, the defeated Mombasa sultan wrote a letter to the ruler of Malindi: "Allah keep you, Said Ali. I would have you know that a great lord passed here, burning with fire. He entered this city so forcefully and cruelly that he spared the life of none, man or woman, young or old or children no matter how small. Not only men were killed and burned, but the birds of heaven beat down upon the earth. In this city the stench of death is such that I dare not enter it, and none could give account of or assess the infinite wealth they took."

But Malindi, the coastal town north of Mombasa, which had sent the first giraffe to the Chinese Imperial Court in 1414, had cast its lot with the Portuguese, as did Lamu Island. Today, the airport coach in which I am travelling roars past the beaches north of Mombasa (Nyali Beach, Kenyarta Beach, Bamburi Beach) and finally, 18 km from Mombasa, Shanzu Beach. Abercrombie & Kent, the world's leading specialists in African travel, had an office in the Serena Beach Hotel where I am staying, and advised a visit to Gedi, 50 miles north. The coach passed the ill-fated Paradise Hotel on Kimkambala Beach (attacked by terrorists on 28 November 2002) and drew up at Gedi, 10 miles south of Malindi.

Here a knowledgeable and engaging guide, Gedi's senior curatorial assistant, Abdullali Ali, no doubt with tongue in cheek, laid out the red carpet. "I wholeheartedly and very sincerely take this opportunity to welcome you as a distinguished English visitor to this abandoned town of Gedi this morning."

A site cloaked in mystery, I was to see Gedi's impressive ruins of a big walled stone city with a 2,500 population of the 12001 600s overrun by baobab trees that hauntingly filter the sunlight on coral rag buildings.

The palace had an arched doorway, reception room, large audience hail and walls with rows of holes for pegs for hanging carpets and other rooms with advanced bathing facilities together with 14 impressively designed adjacent large, single-storied houses (the oldest dating to the late 1300s) built of coral rag, whose inhabitants dined off Chinese blue and white porcelain bowls decorated with lotus blossoms and tendrils, the rooms illuminated with niches in the walls for lamps.

Said Abdullah Ali: "The palace was divided into four parts. The first, the Reception Court, is where the councillors used to receive the sultan. They would then rake him to the second part, the Main Court, where they discussed the town's affairs. They had no roof here so they had to meet very early in the morning so as to avoid the sun's rays.

"The third part was the Women's Court and they used to practice marriage guidance and counselling. The fourth part was known as the Palace Annexe where the sultan resided with his family members."

The toilet arrangements were more modern than some Kenyan (or French, for that matter) long-drops of the 21st-century. I had an unsettled stomach. My guide cheerfully pointed our that Gedi's ancient sanitation facilities would not be out of place in my room at the Serena Beach Hotel. He showed me the separate cubicles for a squat toilet, a basin to wash the hands. Even a bidet!

Abdullah Ali pointed our that the town built of coral stone had a sewage system. "The impure water was recycled into fresh by a mechanism of successfully using the coral stones as filters as the stone is porous.

After the baths, which had seats and lintels for hanging towels, Ali then showed me the 600-year old toilets, and rather graphically enumerated the facilities. "This is for number one toilet, which of course does not take very long. In other words, they were using it for pissing. We have to call a spade a spade, and not a spoon. I am sure when I say number two toiler, the message goes straight home. Here you can see there was a very deep hole, and the top is quite narrow -- so they were sharp-shooters.

At the Great Mosque (built circa 1450), my guide, to the astonishment of other visitors, called me to a prayer-meeting in a series of high-volume incantations as he stood on the three-stepped stone pulpit, or rainbar. His voice boomed through the 45-acre settlement and the visitors, even the vervet monkeys, stopped in their tracks. The pillar-tomb, with the date inscribed A.H. 802/1399AD, is of a design only adopted by the then VIPs, such as sheiks, chiefs, and community elders, a distinctly African -- as opposed to a Muslim-type grave. The inscriptions of the rulers of Gedi are written in Swahili, not in Arabic. The town had very deep wells. A 1200s date can be gauged from on-site finds of Ming Chinese porcelain, glass and glazed earthenware from Persia. Inexplicably Gedi was abandoned in the 1 600s. Once on the coast, it is now set deep in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest three miles from the sea.

Gedi is Africa's Swahili Machu Picchu, the "sleeping beauty" Andean city the conquistadors never discovered, now visited by tourists the world over.

I felt, standing among its graceful ruins, that Gedi is destined to intrigue future generations of Africa-watchers with all its unanswered questions and its promises of revelations never satisfied.

An air of haunting mystery sri11 pervades the site, which even extends to the name itself. Cedi, or more correctly, Gede, was later occupied by the Galla peoples, nomads from Somalia to the north, who set up temporary quarters in the abandoned town. The more accurate name could be Kilimani, the Quelman of the Bertholet map of 1639.

Gedi was opened to the public in 1948, when it was declared a national park.

James Kirkman, an early archaeologist at Gedi, recalls: "When I first started to work at Gedi I had the feeling that something or somebody was looking out from behind the walls, neither hostile nor friendly but waiting for what he knew was going to happen."

"Gede" is the Galla word for "precious." An apt description. What is certain is the golden loveliness of Gedi today.
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Author:Hordern, Nick
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:May 1, 2003
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