Gede ruins: Inside once thriving city

An archway at the once prosperous Swahili settlement. [File, Standard]

It is easy to miss the odd sign to the ancient ruins off the Gede-Watamu Road. A maze of signposts, parked motorcycles, playful lads and the business-minded ladies preparing cassava and banana crisps conspire to throw a visitor off course.

Then there is the uneven road that cries out for maintenance, complicating what ought to be a seamless visit to one of Kenya’s ancient cities.

Easily accessible or not, Gede Ruins hold secrets to early life along Kenya’s coast that cannot be ignored.

In modern-day Gede village, people move around with little care about the nearby ruins that give a glimpse of a superior way of life for the ancient town’s inhabitants close to 600 years ago. Perhaps they ought to pay more attention. Whatever happened to old Gede may befall them.

While the nearby holiday enclave of Watamu has for years stolen the thunder from Gede as far as tourism is concerned, I was eager to find out what life was like when the latter was a power to reckon with.

With the unbearable heat bearing down hard on a Friday afternoon, a few friends and I made our way to the ruins. Of course, we got lost by taking the wrong turn once past the turnoff from the main road.

It took the kind gesture of concerned village folk to direct us to the right track. At the entrance, different vendors enticed us with their wares. The heat seemed to have dried the pockets of those in my party. Still, one young man was willing to stake it out in the hot sun for a bargain.

Crumbling walls and broken pots that were rediscovered in the 1920s and gained the status of a Historical Monument in 1927 paint a picture of a prosperous city by ancient standards.

The ruins give a glimpse of a superior way of life for the ancient town’s inhabitants close to 600 years ago. [File, Standard]

They also highlight the conditions within the settlement that history says was inhabited between the 12th and 15th centuries. At its peak, Gede had a population of 2,500 people. Suppose you were a resident of Gede back then, what would life have been like?

You probably would have been of Swahili descent, as these are the first inhabitants of Gede. The Swahili, as your good history teacher told you, came out of intermarriages between Arab merchants and local African tribes.

If your family had some means, you would have lived within the two walls that encircled the settlement.

The inner sanctums were where the top cream lived as solid foundations that have been unearthed show. Expensive chinaware excavated from the site and preserved in a nearby museum tells of a people that once lived a comfortable life.

Inside the inner walls, the rich lived — and died. A huge tomb with an Arabic engraving dating back to 1399 may have belonged to one such noble. Other ornate tombs here belonged to the imams or priests. They also took some creature comforts with them.

Our guide tells us the rich were sometimes buried with expensive artifacts, some made of gold.

Not far from the tomb is the Great Mosque, which, in the absence of the present-day sound amplifiers, had a curved wall that acted as the “podium” and from where the imam’s sound carried through to the worshipers. Gede’s architecture was ahead of its time.

The lavish lifestyle in the inner city is further shown by the deep wells including the “Well of the Great Mosque” that served the ablutions.

The ruler sat in the palace located deep in the forest from where he could render judicial decisions that held Gede together.

Perhaps it was in such a well-guarded area that gold was stored in chambers that had no doors or windows and that could only be accessed by opening the roof. Oh, your family must have loved it here.

What if your family was not in the first row? Then your home would probably have been located within the 18 hectares enclosed by the outer wall. Here, you worked on a farm, perhaps a plantation that fed the community and provided work for the lowly.

Gede Ruins hold secrets to early life along Kenya’s coast that cannot be ignored. [File, Standard]

Your house was likely made of mud and wattle, no different from homes constructed in different parts of Kenya in later years. Some Kenyans may consider such houses inferior, but in ancient Gede, they housed the middle class.

There was life outside the walls too. This is where the peasants lived and at the risk of their lives, must have attempted — not once — to scale the walls in search of a better life.

Scores were likely shot with poisoned arrows. The divide between the rich and the poor has always existed. The peasants provided Gede with cheap labour.

Then something strange happened and Gede was abandoned in a hurry toward the 18th Century. Historians have never agreed as to what made the inhabitants of the once flourishing city-state run away, never to return.

There are theories though. Did a Mombasa-based army rout the Gede Swahilis? Did marauder bands from the Galla people who lived in the North make intermittent raids on Gede?

Or did the wells dry up, forcing the people to abandon their beloved town? We may never know for sure. What is obvious is that nature has since claimed a good part of Gede, with some trees weaving their trunks and branches around some of the city gates.

It had been two hours of an ancient site inspection. And it was not all about history. Gede’s present-day inhabitants include poisonous snakes that are housed in a corner of the expansive grounds. Toward the main entrance lies a butterfly breeding ground that adds some lustre to the otherwise bland monuments.

Scores of Syke’s monkeys entertained us on our way out while an owl, perched low on a baobab tree, watched our every move. The ruins are under the National Museums of Kenya and have since 2010 been listed under “Tentative Lists” by Unesco. One day, it may attain World Heritage Site status.