Gede Ruins in Kilifi County remain a mystery and an archeological puzzle even as experts continue to rewrite its history.
The latest discovery shows the site had a high concentration of hammams, a type of public steam bath, in the East African coast. This could be an indication that the inhabitants were wealthy and used a lot of water.
The settlement, which stands on 45 acres of land, was established in the 13th Century and abandoned in the first half of the 17th Century.
Gede is one of many medieval Swahili coastal settlements stretching from Mogadishu, in Somalia, to the Zambezi River in Mozambique.
According to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), hammams, usually associated with the Islamic world, were discovered in a quarter of the total settlement.
Experts say there could be up to 100 hammams in the settlement. This would mean Gede is among few sites in the world with high number of the ancient public bath houses.
Apart from Gede, Kilwa is the only other early settlement in the East Africa coast where hammams have been discovered.
The latest discovery follows a five-year study by NMK assistant director in charge of Coast region, Athman Hussein. “Gede could be one of few historical sites in the world and the only one in East African coast with the highest number of hammams. In this region, Gede is followed by Kilwa, which has seven hammams,” says Mr Hussein.
Experts say hammams were popular in the middle age Asia, particularly in Pakistan.
The public bath houses, where inhabitants would also apply oil and special herbs, were discovered in what had been seen as courtyards at the ruins, where a population of between 3,000 and 4,000 lived.
Mr Hussein says the new discovery changes the history of the Swahili site that was mysteriously deserted.
“Hammams were popular right from the middle age up to the modern times where the rich would go to cleanse themselves. They were used as religious and social centres where people would cleanse themselves, pray and get massaged. The people would relax and discuss issues, including politics of the day,” he says.
Push on Unesco
“After five years of research, it has been discovered that Gede had the highest number of hammams compared to any other historical site in this region. What simply looked like courtyards are actually hammams.”
At Gede, Mr Hussein says, there were more than five private hammams for the sultan and other separate ones for men and women.
According to the study, the shallowest hammams were 20 inches deep, and the deepest two feet. There were also mosques.
“It was amazing. Water could flow to all hammams from just one hole,” says Mr Hussein.
The development comes at a time when NMK is pushing Unesco to list the Gede Ruins a World Heritage Site.
Other recognised sites in the country include Mijikenda kayas, Fort Jesus museums and Lamu stone town.
NMK researcher Dr Purity Kiura is leading the team that hopes to convince Unesco when it convenes its general assembly next year.
Located about 85km from Mombasa town and 16km from Malindi, Gede lies on the edge of the expansive Arabuko Sokoke Forest that has been protected as a national reserve.
The site has attracted a number of archaeological excavations over the years. Two years ago, Prof Chapurukha Kusimba concluded research on the mystery of the abandonment of the ancient city.
He discovered that the inhabitants could have deserted the settlement due to an outbreak of a pandemic.
Gede attracted the attention of the world when it was first visited by Sir John Kirk, a British resident of Zanzibar in 1894. But the evidence of people in the town came out following excavations conducted between 1948 and 1958.
James Kirkman was among the first to conduct archaeological work at the site, and because of the presence of the Omani Arabs in the coast of East Africa for about 200 years, he concluded that it was an Arab city.
But later studies, including one done by Prof Kusimba, reasoned that it was a Swahili and African city.
Gede was gazetted as a historical monument in 1927 before the Public Works Department started cementing together crumbling walls for conservation of the buildings in 1939.
The excavations at the site revealed that Muslim inhabitants traded with people from all over the world.