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Swahili Ghost Town Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by David West Reynolds

The ruins of an East African city testify to the fusion of African and Arab influences that gave rise to a sophisticated indigenous culture.

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I am 65 miles north of the East African port of Mombasa, driving into the emerald world of Kenya's Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. The bright blue waters of the Indian Ocean appear through breaks in the trees, but now the road is turning inland toward the long-abandoned city of Gede, four miles from the coast. At the site, I proceed on foot. Great shafts of sunlight pierce the leafy covering, making pools of light on the ground and speckling the undergrowth. Massive trees grow within ancient stone houses. Roots snake up along standing walls, draping like curtains where a tree has gained purchase higher up. In some places, coral-stone masonry rises to its original one-story height. A stone archway in a distant clearing stands as if a portal to another time.

A walled Swahili city founded in the fourteenth century, Gede may have been a residential settlement for absentee landowners from the nearby trading port of Malindi. Its fortunes rose and fell according to the political climate along the coast. Supported initially by Indian Ocean trade, the city probably suffered from Portuguese incursions, and was finally destroyed by hostile Somali nomads sometime in the early seventeenth century. Unlike other ruins scattered along the coast, there is more to Gede than a handful of crumbling structures. It is an entire city, a historically important national park, and the pride of the Kenya National Museums' Department of Coastal Archaeology, which administers the site. The Swahili Coast stretches from northern Kenya to the Zambezi River in Mozambique. Cities and townsites such as Gede, Malindi, and Jumba la Mtwana dot the coastal region, while others, like Mombasa, Lamu, and Pate, are on islands, some still inhabited, others in ruins. All once claimed areas of the coastal hinterland where plantations were supported by local villages whose ruins can still be found deep in the forest.

Gede is a fairly level, 45-acre site with two concentric barricade walls. Within the inner walls are ruined stone buildings of the city center: a palace, two mosques, and several houses. The houses are single-story constructions of coral-stone facing open courtyards. Four monumental tombs are still identifiable in or near the main built-up area. The inner wall also encloses several stone buildings--four houses, and three mosques--scattered a short distance from this urban core. Two mosques have been found between the inner and outer walls in an area with few stone remains. Beyond the outer wall lie several overgrown, still unidentified structures.

Some 2,500 people may have lived in Gede at the height of its prosperity. The bulk of the population was probably lower class and lived in thatched-roof mud buildings in the open space between the inner and outer walls. Lynn Koplin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, is now excavating between the walls, comparing these earth-and-thatch neighborhoods with the stone inner city. Swahili tradition ascribed significant social meaning to the materials of urban construction. Stone characterized structures of enduring significance, like mosques, tombs, or buildings whose occupants were of high social standing. In a small Swahili village, only mosques would be built of stone. In larger settlements, a few tombs might be stone as well, and in cities like Gede, stone marked the houses or palaces of the wealthy.

Today, Gede can be visited by anyone willing to make the trip from Mombasa. The European Union has funded the construction of a new museum at the site, where there is now a permanent display on Swahili culture. In recent years Gede has also been the focus of intensive archaeological investigations. Some five centuries after Gede was abandoned, modern archaeology is replacing the ghost stories of a ruined city with an increasingly vivid portrait of the complex Swahili society that once flourished here.

David West Reynolds is an archaeologist and founder and president of Phaeton Group (www.phaetongroup.com), an organization that promotes public awareness of science.

* The National Museums of Kenya web site has a page devoted to Gede: www.museums.or.ke
* To read about Lynn Koplin's work at Gede's earth-and-thatch neighborhoods, go to www.fastlane.nsf.gov/servlet/showaward?award=0118465

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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