Not far from Watamu, near the junction with the main Mombasa-Malindi road, lie the Gedi Ruins, a National Museum site and a window into the mysterious past of this stretch of coastline.
The town of Gedi was a Swahili settlement established in the 13th century town and inhabited by sailors, traders and settlers from Oman who plied the spice trade between the Middle East and Africa. Unlike other well-known Swahili towns such as Lamu, Mombasa or Zanzibar, however, almost no historical record was made of the town, nor was it marked on maps from that period. The reason for the secrecy surrounding the existence of Gedi is unknown, and the cause of its downfall also remains a great historical mystery.
The ruins were discovered by British settlers clearing forest in the early 20th century, and progressively the remains of a large, well-established town were uncovered.
Excavations show that from the 14th to 16th centuries, Gedi was a large Arab community with many stone houses with advanced drainage and plumbing, halls, meeting places, a palace and an impressive grand mosque. The inhabitants were clearly great traders and Venetian beads, coins and a Ming vase from China and goods from Europe and India have been found within the ruins.
In the early 16th century, however ,an unknown event caused the entire town to be rapidly evacuated and abandoned. There are many theories of what may have happened, from a plague to a sudden attack by Oromo tribesmen venturing south from Somalia.
Some archaeologists believe that the Oromo may have lived in the abandoned stone town into the 17th century, and that “Gedi” was in fact an Oromo name. Regardless, the town was eventually completely deserted and consumed by the forest, becoming one of the great archeological mysteries.
The area was first gazetted as a National Monument in 1927. It can still be visited today and there are trails through the ruins, and a small museum and information centre. The ruins are surrounded by forests, and monkeys and butterflies abound.
The site is managed by the National Museums of Kenya. An entrance fee of 1 000 Kenya shillings is payable for tourists, and 500 Kenya shillings for residents.
Trips to Gedi can be arranged from local hotels or house letting agents in Watamu, or independently with a local taxi.