x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Go on the history trail in Gede, Kenya

An abandoned 12th-century Arab trading town in east Africa intrigues one reader.

I noted with interest that in your January 1 feature on Kenya (Taking the plunge) you mentioned Gede, "a 12th-century Arab trading town filled with palaces and mosques". I am intrigued and would like to know more about this place with a view to visiting with my family this year.

Gede is indeed a fascinating place. Now a ruin that is open to the public, the first thing you see when you enter the site is a tomb with an epitaph inscribed in Arabic showing the date AH802 (1399AD). The town is believed to have had a population of between 2,500 and 3,000 people during the height of its importance in the 15th century.

According to the National Museums of Kenya (www.museums.or.ke), Gede is thought to be a Galla or Ormo word meaning "precious", although its original name may have been Kilimani. The site covers 18 hectares and sits on a ridge near the coast. The area is now overgrown, but it was once visible from the sea. It was a self-sufficient Swahili trading town, surrounded by a town wall enclosing the great mosque, several smaller mosques, a number of tombs, a palace and some private houses. The buildings were built mainly of coral stones, chalk lime, earth and mangrove poles, with coconut leaves used as thatching. Today, the only buildings still left are those of coral stone.

The town's prosperity derived from the trade between Gede's Muslim inhabitants and countries all over the world. Excavations of the site have revealed iron lamps from India, vases from China, scissors from Spain and beads from Italy. The site's museum has a decent collection of artefacts, including gold jewellery, recovered from the site. Various ruined buildings have been named after the objects found within them, hence there is the "house of the Chinese cash", "house of the porcelain bowl", "house of the Venetian bead", "house of the ivory box", "house of the iron lamp", "house of the scissors" and "house of the cowries".

The palace, which was occupied by the town's political or economic ruler, thought to be an Omani, is divided into four sections, including a reception court where the sultan used to be received by his ministers, the men's court, the women's court, and a court for members of the public. The remains of the great mosque still feature a large well used for washing before prayers, the mihrab and small niches used for lighting. One house features a bathroom with a coral-tiled ceiling and a swimming pool.

The reason for the eventual decline of the town is unclear, but abandonment may have been caused by a shortage of water, civil war, disease or attack from pastoralists from Somalia and Ethiopia. For a professional guided tour of the site, ask for the museum's education officer, Ali Mwarora, when you arrive.

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