In the hinterland of the African coast of the Indian Ocean, near Malindi, Kenya, lies a mysterious ruined city of which the local Giriama say that it is inhabited by the ghosts who are widely revered in the area. Its name is Gede, ‘precious’ in Oroma, although its original name was a different one, Kilimani.
Local guides proudly tell how the first archaeologist to investigate the enchanted walls in 1948, James Kirkman, had to live outside the ruins after a strange episode in which wind and storm ghosts disturbed him during the night. And even today you can feel the special magic.
Those who visit the ruins will find them immersed in a fascinating primeval forest, overgrown by mighty baobabs, the foundation walls broken, the windows empty. Once, however, the now abandoned city was a rich settlement of Arabian Swahili, founded in the eleventh or twelfth century, with its own decorated mosques, baths and water-bearing wells. Its history is a fascinating tale of how also the ocean can be an empire and not just the terrestrial continent.
The Arabic term Wa-Swahili, ‘coastal people’, designates the inhabitants of the East African coasts who share a common language, Kiswahili, and a common religion, Islam, without ever having founded a common state. Their connection was the sea, seafaring and trade, across all borders and several continents. If you walk through Gede’s ruins attentively, you will soon see the traces of this history.
Already the houses are made of coral limestone. Semi-circular depressions in their walls moreover once housed Chinese blue-white bowls that had been brought from China by merchant ships. European, Persian and Chinese clay pots were found here in the middle of Africa. Even the region’s means of payment were those that were subject to maritime trade. Glass beads and kauri shells were found in large numbers in Gede, much more numerous than coins, of which only two, Chinese, were found. The first excavator, however, found 631 glass beads and countless shells. Since there is no evidence of local glass production and glass had great value at the time due to the lack of basic materials, it must have been brought to Gede by Arab traders. In exchange, slaves, ivory and food were traded, among others.
The history of the Swahili who once inhabited Gede is inspiring through its tolerance and an example of the world’s first globalization.
The Swahili are not a single tribe. They differ from each other by region, island and city of origin. Their identity is diverse and includes populations with different backgrounds, African, Arabic and Asian. Their culture extends from Mogadishu in Somalia to Kenya, Tanzania, North Madagascar and the Comoros to Mozambique. In addition to religion and language, however, they share a relatively uniform social organization and architecture. More than 450 Swahili archaeological sites have been found in the more than 3,000 km of the East African coast, without the Swahili having any particular ethnic affiliation or nationality. Life and trade on the coast and on the edge of the Muslim and African world united the Swahili.
But perhaps ‘edge’ is the very wrong word here. ‘Edge’ would mean that the Indian Ocean separates Africa, Arabia and Asia, but in reality, the ocean has been a praised and contested link between these very different regions and cultures for more than two thousand years.
Tales of travellers such as Ibn Battuta, Zeng He and the legendary Sindbad tell that story.
Gede was abandoned. There are many reasons for this. The plague drove out the inhabitants, the wells of the city fell dry and plundering nomads and conquerors, such as the Wazimba, robbed the city.
One of the main reasons, however, was that a large part of the maritime trade was taken over by the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama, guided by the naive Swahili of the Malindi coast, Kenya, discovered the sea route to India. And from then on, the trading Swahili and Arabs received competition from Europe and lost control of their empire, the Indian Ocean.
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U. C. Ringuer