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Ruins of Gedi Palace

Could The Gedi Ruins Be Haunted By Jins?

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Historic cities throughout the world have always intrigued experts and travelers and one of the most fascinating is the abandoned city known as Gedi on the coast of Kenya. The ruins of Gedi are extensive and undeniably impressive, but it was inexplicably deserted and reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. It is only in recent decades that the city, which was at its zenith in the Middle Ages, has been partially recovered from the forest and investigated. The site is now protected by the Kenyan government and is regarded as an important part of the country’s heritage.

The Abandoned City and Its Many Ruins

The ruins spread over an area of almost fifty acres and the city was once protected by an outer and an inner wall, approximately 20 feet (6 meters) high. The latter wall enclosed 18 acres of space, an area where the elite lived. Two impressive mosques with splendid architraves, and decorated with ornate Muslim decorative designs, grace the area. A well-preserved palace, clearly based on an Arabic model, had a large central hall and adjoining courtyards and was the chief residence of the ruler of the city.

The outer wall enclosed an area of some 32 acres - a district where members of the upper class and merchants resided in a city that was once populous. Numerous ruins of the homes dating back to the 14 th century exist to this day - single story, thatched houses with courtyards, built of coral-brick which are similar to Swahili examples found elsewhere on the coast of Africa. The mud-bricks dwellings of the poorer inhabitants were beyond the walls and have long since disappeared.

The ruins from above (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The ruins from above ( CC BY-ND 2.0 )

Evidence of street planning at Gedi shows it had an impressive infrastructure as well as running water and sanitation which was almost unheard of in Medieval Europe. Numerous mosques in the city and its hinterland have sophisticated architectural features such as spandrels and are beautifully decorated with quotes from the Quran. Interestingly enough, they do not have minarets, a characteristic of mosques found elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The base of the many spectacular tombs in the abandoned city are all topped with pillars which is a style typical of the Swahili culture of East Africa and serve as the final resting places of Imams. There is also a ruined palace in the forest which has chambers that once held treasure.

The History of Gedi Is Veiled In Mystery

The abandonment of the city is a mystery since there is no documentary evidence on Gedi and no fathomable reason why it was deserted. Most likely it was a trading center that benefited from the growing importance of the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages and that it was one of the numerous Swahili urban settlements that flourished on the east coast of Africa before the coming of the European colonists.

Based on the architectural style of the tombs and mosques, Gedi was part of the Swahili cultural area. The city had extensive trading connections across the Indian Ocean and from the artifacts unearthed, we know it was once a wealthy cosmopolitan city. Ming Vases, Chinese coins, and cowrie shells, for example, have all been unearthed in the ruins, demonstrating that Gedi’s merchants were engaged in long-distance trade.

Chinese Longquan green glazed stoneware, 13th century, Gedi (Photo by S. Pradines)

Chinese Longquan green glazed stoneware, 13th century, Gedi (Photo by S. Pradines )

Based on the material culture of the site dating from the 11 th to the 17 th century, the city would have been an important mercantile and industrial center, ruled by a Sheikh, who controlled the city and much of its hinterland. Gedi is regarded as a city-state, similar to those in Europe during the Middle Ages. 

At some point during the 17 century, Gedi was abandoned and it was only re-discovered by European colonists in the late 19 th century. Although the local communities were aware of the ruins, they believed it was haunted by supernatural beings, known as Jins, and tended to avoid the site which helped to preserve it for posterity.

But why would a wealthy and apparently sophisticated urban center suddenly be abandoned?

The Reasons May Be Numerous and Interlinked

Many have argued that the arrival of the Portuguese disrupted maritime trade in the Indian Ocean and led to the downfall of settlements such as Gedi. This was undoubtedly one of the factors for its abandonment, but there were also other reasons such as raids by tribes from the interior, as well as the migration of Somali groups into the region, which put pressure on the city. Based on the archaeological record, however, it does not appear that Gedi was besieged or attacked by tribes, but it’s likely they disrupted the economy of the trading center when the local merchants were already facing increased competition from the Portuguese. Another factor in the desertion of the city was that the water table fell, and that there was simply not enough water in the city’s wells to sustain a large urban community.

Do Not Venture in Alone

The ruins of the Swahili trading center are near the modern town of Gedi in the south east of Kenya, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Mombasa, a booming tourist town. It is located in a primeval forest which is also a national Kenyan reserve. There are tours of the forest park which include a visit to the ruins, but it is advised not to visit the ruins without a local tour guide.

Top image: Ruins of Gedi Palace                Source: (Lackowski, F / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Ed Whelan

References

Deady, T. (2012). The Interdependence of Gedi Ruins and the Giriama: A Study of Ancestral Spirits, Jinn, and the Impact of Islam

Available at: https://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/1389/

Rathbun, G. B. (1978). The African pitta at Gedi Ruins, Kenya . Scopus, 2(1), 7-10

Available at: https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/1007848

Yan, L., Dashu, Q., & Kiriama, H. (2012). The Chinese Porcelains unearthed at Gedi Ruins in Coast Province, Kenya [J] . Cultural Relics, 11.

Available at: n.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTOTAL-WENW201211005.htm

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