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The Mystery of the Gedi Ruins, Kenya’s ‘‘Machu Picchu’’

By Sarah Baxter

Sep 2, 2020

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The Gedi Ruins include several mosques and tombs.

Illustration by Amy Grimes

The Gedi Ruins include several mosques and tombs.

The ruins in the dense, elephant-roamed Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve were only rediscovered by archeologists in the 1920s.

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They say jinns keep these ancient ruins safe, guardian spirits flitting between the cracked and crumbling grey-stone walls, among the muscular baobabs and dangling, strangling fig trees; gliding through the remnants of formerly fine mosques and palaces, whirling around empty and overgrown tombs. It certainly looks like a haunted place, significant yet sinister; a city once advanced beyond its years but now reduced to rubble, abandoned to the hungry forest. Or, maybe it is happy to hide within it, keeping its stories to itself.

The lost city of Gedi (which means ‘‘precious’’ in the language of the local Oromo people) is Kenya’s Machu Picchu. Its ruins, cowering in the dense, elephant-roamed Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve a short distance inland from the Indian Ocean not far from the small seaside town of Watamu, were only properly rediscovered by outsiders in the 1920s. Covering around 30 hectares (75 acres) in total, Gedi is thought to date from around the 12th century. It seems the city was rebuilt twice, with new city walls erected in the 15th century, when the settlement reached its peak. But in the 17th century it was abandoned, for reasons unknown.

The Gedi Ruins were abandoned in the 17th century.

There are no contemporary written records—not in Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili. Details of the city’s birth, boom and bust remain obscure. So, in the absence of facts, imagination has taken over. Local folklore is full of ghosts and mysteries; of people being captured, taken to Gedi and then never seen again. It’s said Gedi is guarded by the ‘‘Old Ones,’’ the spirits of past priests, who can be kind and protective, but who will place a curse on anyone who damages or disrespects the site. Even James Kirkman, the first archeologist to carry out excavations here in 1948, felt Gedi’s forbidding atmosphere: ‘‘When I began working at Gedi,’’ he noted, ‘‘I had the feeling that something or somebody was looking out from behind the walls, neither hostile nor friendly but waiting for what he knew was going to happen.’’

‘‘It’s said Gedi is guarded by . . . the spirits of past priests, who can be kind and protective, but who will place a curse on anyone who damages or disrespects the site.’’

The site is extensive and was clearly quite sophisticated. It was constructed from coral stones, lime and sand, with neat streets laid out at right angles inside two concentric walls. The wealthy lived within the inner wall; the outer wall enclosed farms, plantations and middle-class mud-and-wattle houses; the peasants had to survive on the land beyond. There are the remains of a great mosque and exquisite pillar tombs, where imams were laid to rest, plus a palace where the king held court; windowless and doorless chambers are thought to be vault-like treasure stores only accessible via secret hatches in the roofs. Gedi also had drainage gutters, water-storage tanks and even bathrooms with flushable toilets—extremely advanced for the Middle Ages. And yet, the city fell.

The site is extremely advanced and was clearly sophisticated.

A number of theories exist to explain why. It’s thought that the arrival of the Portuguese, from around the start of the 16th century, unsettled maritime trade across the Swahili Coast and the Indian Ocean, potentially hitting Gedi’s economy hard. Although it is located slightly inland, the discovery of items from all corners of the globe—a Ming vase from China, scissors from Spain, an Indian lamp, glassware from Venice—suggests the town was a trading centre. It is also possible that unfriendly tribes—the war-like Oromo from the north or the Wazimba from the south—surged through and forced the inhabitants out, although there is no evidence of a violent battle or invasion. It might be that the water table fell, and there simply wasn’t enough water in Gedi’s wells to support the substantial local population, thought to number up to 2,500 people.

Whatever the reason, the town was deserted and its treasures removed—no gold or precious gems have been unearthed. Clambering around Gedi now, through the Islamic archways, along the well-planned streets, over the encroaching tree roots, offers a glimpse back to medieval Swahili ways of life that have, for centuries, been left to the monkeys, the butterflies, the stinkwoods and the spirits.

Reprinted with permission from Mystical Places by Sarah Baxter, with illustrations by Amy Grimes. Mystical Places is published by White Lion Publishing and is on sale September 15, 2020.

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