THE RUINS OF GEDE
HISTORICAL SWAHILI TOWN
Mbarak Abdulqadir Abdallah, Principal Curator of Gede National Monument, National Museums of Kenya
Gede was founded in the early 12th century A.D and grew to be one of the largest and most prosperous coastal medieval towns that flourished between the 14th and 15th century until its mysterious abandonment forever in the beginning of the 17th century.
The actual reason for its foundation is unknown, but most likely could have been the result of a dispute, followed by emigration from Malindi. Gede was perhaps not an independent political entity; but a local center of importance as remembered by the oral traditions of the regions inhabitants, the Giriama, the Duruma and the Pokomo and also attested by quantities and occasionally the fine quality of imported wares that showed its regular contact, through Malindi, with the outside world and that its inhabitants were able to buy the refinements they appreciated.
From the archaeological evidence it seems Gede was destroyed and later partially occupied in view of the exclusive surface spread of fifteenth century ceramics and a small proportion of it including even the closely built up area having pockets of sixteenth century materials. It has been suggested that Gede might have been destroyed by a Mombasa retaliatory expedition, which was sent, by land, against Malindi after the destruction of Mombasa by Nuno da Cunha in April 1529, in which the people of Malindi had co-operated.
However, from the numerous shards of porcelain, it is clear that Gede was re-occupied in the late sixteenth century before its final abandonment in the seventeenth century; leaving it to the passage of time.
Its abandonment is in part attributed to incursion by the southward movement of the Galla, a rustic tribal group, who drove most of the inhabitants on the mainland Swahili settlements that included Gede and for a short spell, occupied it. Another reason for abandonment could also have been the absence of fresh water, always a difficult commodity in some parts of the coast of Kenya. Today all the wells at Gedi have turned brackish.
Gede is a Galla word meaning ‘precious’ and is also used as a personal name. It is either the Galla name for the town which they destroyed or the name of the last Galla leader to camp on the site. The true name may have been Kilimani, the Queliman of the Botelho map of 1639.
The inhabitants of Gede were the Swahili – an urbanized African Muslim, who integrated many Asian cultural and architectural features into their own traditions living along the Coast. Their main economic activity was trading and they had a highly developed trade route linking the towns along the Swahili Coast. Among the most important trade commodities were pottery, glass and beads, which were imported, while ivory, gold, leopard skins, tortoise shells and ambergris were common exports.
Gede was gazzetted as a national Monument in 1927 and in 1948 archaeological excavation begun until 1958 when the site was open to the public. Thereafter more excavations were done the last being in 2001 conducted by Prof. Stephane Pradines.
Mbarak Abdulqadir Abdallah is currently the Principal Curator of Gede National Monument since 2017, he also served as Curator of Lamu museums and Fort Jesus World Heritage site at different periods from 2007. Mbarak Abdulqadir graduated with a Masters in World Heritage at Turin university, Italy in 2011. Mbarak curated two travelling exhibitions, the Swahili Attire Exhibition which travelled to a number of museums in Kenya and the Swahili Indian Ocean Doors Exhibition which was exhibited in Kenya, Mayotte, Reunion and Madagascar.
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