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The Historic Town of Gedi

Date of Submission: 12/02/2010
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Department of Museums, Sites and Monuments of the National Museums of Kenya
State, Province or Region:
Coast Province
Coordinates: S03 18 E40 03
Ref.: 5501

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Gedi lies on the coastal region of Kenya, 94 km north of Mombasa town, another historic town. Gedi was a small town built entirely from rocks and stones, which was inhabited by Swahili people of East Africa. This historic town date back from the 15th century, and through careful preservation most of the original foundations can still be seen today. In 1927, the Gedi historic town, which occupy an area of 44 hectares of land, were declared a historic monument and much excavation and preservation work carried out such that large areas of this ancient town are now revealed, including the pillar tombs, the palace and a great mosque.

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.

There is a dated coral tomb with beautiful Arabic script engraved with the date 1399. From the dated tomb, one can see the Great Mosque. A spectacular 50m deep well, known as the "Well of the Great Mosque" which must have been used for ablutions is still discernible. On the other side of the mosque stands the Octagonal pillar tomb of the Imam or priest. Further into the forest, one can see the 15th century palace where the king held court and addressed women with marital problems. Chambers which had no windows or doors are believed to have been used by the noblemen to store their gold and jewels. The only way to gain entrance was through a secret door from the roof.

Over the historic town, the shallow coral rag soil has grown a lowland semi-deciduous forest, maintained by a rainfall of around 1,100 mm/year. The 44 hectares site, surrounded by farmland, is entirely fenced, and contains around 35 hectares of coastal forest, traversed by narrow paths that wind between the excavated buildings. At least 50 indigenous tree species occur, including Gyrocarpus americanus and Sterculia appendiculata.

It is not quite clear why the town was eventually deserted. Several theories have been put across:

1. One of the theories is that it was overcome by an army from Mombasa on its way to attack Malindi around 1530 AD.

2. Another theory suggests that the Galla people who were raiding southwards around 1600 AD made life unbearable.

3. It is also theorized that lack of water (drying of the wells) except the one which was outside the walls contributed to its abandonment.

Whatever theory is true, one thing is clear, the nobles did not flee; they had time to empty their gold and precious stones in their secret vaults since none of this type of wealth has ever been found.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

(ii), (iv): The historic town presents us with evidence of the development of an architectural complex consisting of mosques, palaces, and living quarters that were protected with two stone walls around it making it a unique landscape at this period in history.

(iii): The historic town is an outstanding testimony to the social and economic structure of the inhabitants of Gedi around the 13th century AD. Gedi was one of the most prosperous Swahili city states before its decline in the 18th Century.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Gedi historic town is a gazetted National Monument since 1927; it is managed by the National Museums of Kenya. This was the first site to be excavated in East Africa and has remained the most intact of the preserved Swahili historic towns. It has been published extensively compared to other sites.

Comparison with other similar properties

The history of the rise and fall of Gedi is intricately linked to what was happening to the other Swahili states along the eastern coast of Africa such as Kilwa. While they share this history, its architectural designs are equivalent to those of the historic cities of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara in Tanzania.