THE GEDI RUINS – RuNNing Water in the 14th Century – Gedi, Kenya

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Ruins of Gedi

Although certain African kingdoms like Axum, north of the Swahili city states, already had evidence of trading relationships with the Eastern Roman Empire, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India and Sri Lanka during 100 AD through to 900 AD, other African port cities would later develop evidence of trading with India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), China and the Persian Gulf. This evidence started to emerge from Yaqut in the 12th Century AD and then from Ibn Battuta in the 14th Century AD. Yaqut and Battuta identified Modagishu, Kilwa, Mombasa, Malindi, Pate and Merka as independent states on the Swahili coast.

The Da Ming Hun Yi Tu, or Amalgamated Map of the Great Ming Empire, created in 1389 shows that China was also trading with South and Eastern Africa by the 14th century.

Other signs of international relations can be found in the Ruins of Gedi. Material evidence was found of a necklace of Venetian beads, Ming Dynasty Chinese pottery (1368 -1644), a pair of Spanish scissors, animal skins and ivory (presumably from African interior).


Gedi was a historic town, or city in its era, built of rocks and stone inhabited by Swahili-speaking people in East Africa; in a location within the boundaries of modern-day Kenya. The houses of the rich were built of stones, pillars and had water supply. 14 of such houses had safe rooms. Certain houses were organised in streets, had long-drop toilets and had a sewage system. Some  of the houses of peasants such as watchmen were built into the walls.

Sir John Kirk, a British resident of Zanzibar, was the first modern European to discover Gedi. It was also rediscovered in the 1920s and excavated for the first time in the 1940s. Although locals were already aware of its existence.

Age, Size and Location

The Ruins of Gedi contain two sets of developments: an early set of buildings built between 1040 and 1278; and a second set buildings built during the 15th century.

All developments sit within a fortified outer perimeter wall of 18 hectares on a site measuring 30 hectares. The modern site is within a 45-hectare National Park. The 18-hectare outer wall contained a farm and plantation area for producing food for inhabitants. These works of architecture are located 6.5km west of the Indian Ocean, 16km south of the town of Malindi, 94 km (65 miles) from the Port of Mombasa and within the Arabuko Sokoke Forest in Kilifi.


The city of Gedi was built at the same time

  • William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 AD
  • Work began on the Kano City walls in 1095-1134 AD and finished in the 14th Century under the reign of Zamnagawa
  • The city of Timbuktu was developing as a trading outpost between Mali and the Tuaregs
  • Oxford University was founded when Henry II banned English students from enrolling at the University of Paris
Image: Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​, Aga Khan University, London

Buildings within the Ruins

The Ruins of Gedi included a palace, a great tomb, mosques, ship storage areas, fortifications, lesser tombs, gates (on the North, Northwest, West, South and Eastern sides), houses built against the city walls, necropolises and defensive works (in position no. 9 on the diagram).

The North Gate is Porte Nord (position no. 20). The Northwest Gate is Porte Nordouest (position no. 20). The West Gate is Porte Occidentale (position no. 17). The South Gate is Porte Sud (position no. 24). The East Gate is Porte Orientale (position no. 5).

Positions no. 9, 13 and 25 were defensive features.

Functions of buildings

Class differentiation

According to Unesco,

[the] historic town of Gedi occupied a very large area and had two walls around it. The inner wall was where the rich lived. The outer wall enclosed 18 hectares which also included farm and plantation land with quite a number of mud and wattle houses for the middle class. Outside the walls is where the peasants lived.


The ruins of Gedi look like the buildings were divided into a few neighbourhoods, such as:

  • A northeastern neighbourhood in position no. 5 Quartier nord-est
  • A northwestern neighbourhood in position no. 21 Quartier nord-ouest


It is believed the Gedi had 2,500 residents. With 6 mosques, it is possible that this was a town of believers in Islam. It is possible that the town was divided into quarters and that the adherents to Islam would gather at particular mosques, by proximity, to worship and pray. There were 3 Great mosques, 3 less ornate mosques and lastly one tiny mosque in positions (2), (6), (7), (11), (14), (16) and (23).

The 3 Great mosques of Gedi shared similarities to the 15th century Shawâdhnâ of Nizwa mosque in Oman and certain mosques in Hadramut. The lower side of the apse, the underside of the hemispherical semi-dome on top of the Great Mosque, was finished with 13 white and blue porcelain vessels inserted into the tympanum.

Mosques provided an area to build brotherhood among men, due to the lack of furniture, as adherents to Islam positioned themselves, feet to feet, in rows, shoulder to shoulder horizontally. Great mosques in the 12th and 13th century served as centres for learning covering a multitude of functions such as: teaching the Quran, Arabic, Islamic law, philosophy, grammar, accepting international students, teaching children, adults and both genders.

Mosques would also have been used as meeting places, sites for decision-making, celebrating births, mourning deaths, as libraries, and as temporary hostels for visitors to Gedi. Trading on the site of a mosque would have been prohibited.

Most African communities of this era in the West, East and North often had a social hierarchy. There may have been a city mayor or city ruler. The Great Mosques may have been the place of worship for the leading families in the city.

Wells and washing amenities

Due to the requirements of Islam the city was constructed to make water supply and washing amenities ubiquitous. Water supply would also have been important as a defensive feature against external attack.


Although funeral customs vary by regional interpretation, certain practices would be followed for muslim tombs. The dead would be buried as soon as possible. There would be collective bathing of the deceased. The deceased would be enshrouded in a white cloth (called the kafan). Funeral prayers for the forgiveness of the deceased (Called the Salat al-Janazah) would be said. The deceased would be buried. The head of the deceased would be positioned to face Mecca. There would be social differentiation between the town ruler and commoners based on the location and size of the tomb of the town ruler. The tomb of the town ruler may have been at position no. 22 (Palais et grande tombe à pilier) and the burial of everyone else may have happened in positions no. 3 (Tombe datee XIVe) and no. 10 (Necropolis). The grande tombe is ornately decorated.

Buildings incorporated into the walls

Such features of cities at the time may have been defensive features, in positions no. 12 and 18.



Certain houses were built of stones, pillars and had water supply. 14 of the houses had safe rooms. All houses were organised in streets, had long-drop toilets and had a sewage system.


The Gedi Palace was spectacular, sitting on a quarter of an acre, boasting arched passageways, a safe room for valuables through a secret door, two large wings and multiple courts.


Theories of the decline of Gedi include changes in the weather, disease from contact with the Portuguese, an attack from Galla raiders in 1600 AD or an attack from Mombasa in 1530 AD. Although, the integrity of the ruins suggests the decline of Gedi was not due to an attack. Yet as a comparison to global events at the time, as of its decline Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic in modern times (the oldest continuously European settlement in the New World) was inhabited for the first time in 1496 AD and San Juan (the oldest continuously inhabited US territory) was inhabited for the first time in 1508.



Dr Stephane Pradines, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​, Aga Khan University, London


UNESCO, Last retrieved 2018-10-10


2010 – Gedi, une cité portuaire swahilie. Islam médiéval en Afrique orientale

Monographies d’archéologie islamique, Ifao : Le Caire, 302 p.

2004 – Fortifications et urbanisation en Afrique orientale, Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology  58, BAR S1216, Archaeopress, Oxford, 374 p.


2004 – Pradines, S. « Gedi : une cité médiévale swahili », In Archéologies. 20 ans de recherches françaises dans le monde, ERC- Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris, p. 340-343.

2003 – Au cœur de l’islam médiéval, Gedi une cité swahili, Archéologia, n°396, Faton, Dijon, p. 28-39.

2001 – Une mosquée du XIIe siècle à Gede (Kenya, Mission de Juillet-Août 2001), Nyame Akuma, n°56, Bulletin of the Society of Africanist Archaeologist, University of Alberta, p. 23-28.

2000 – Mission archéologique de Gedi, Kenya (juillet-août 1999), Archéologie islamique, n°10, Paris, p. 195-196.

2000 – Nouvelles recherches archéologiques sur le site de Gedi (Kenya, Mission de Juillet-Août 1999), Nyame Akuma, n°53, Bulletin of the Society of Africanist Archaeologist, University of Alberta, p. 22-28.

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THE GEDI RUINS – RuNNing Water in the 14th Century – Gedi, Kenya

by Editorial Team time to read: 6 min