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Historic places: At the coast

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus, Mombasa. Javier Yanes/ It was in 1498 when the Portuguese first arrived to Mombaba in an expedition led by Vasco da Gama and committed to establish a maritime route to the East Indies. The strategic situation of Mombasa and other cities on the Swahili coast prompted the Portuguese to settle permanently in this region, an objective which was finally achieved when the local resistance was annihilated in 1588. Portugal however did not formally colonize the area, which remained just as a military post.

To help repel the attacks from the Turkish Empire, that was coveting to recover the Swahili coast under the Muslim rule, in 1593 the Portuguese decided to build Fort Jesus. When later on the new Omani power attempted to conquer the region, Fort Jesus was the site of a long and agonic siege that finished in 1698 when the Omani fleet decimated the last Portuguese survivors and took over the fort, and with it, the city.

Over the next centuries, the fort served different purposes, and was used as a prison by the British Protectorate since the end of the 19th century. It was declared a national park in 1958 and finally became a museum in 1962. In July 2011, Fort Jesus was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, being the first historical site in Kenya to receive such designation.

The stronghold that still today stands at the entrance to the old Mombasa port is a massive coral rock wall surrounding an array of buildings and shelters. Besides its purely historical value, the fort also hosts a Swahili Cultural Centre and a Malacology Unit belonging to Nairobi's Institute of Primate Research.

Fort Jesus is open daily from 8.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.

More information: Fort Jesus official website


Gede ruins, Arabuko Sokoke Forest. Javier Yanes/ Along the coastal B8 road, 15 km south of Malindi in the midst of the Arabuko Sokoke forest, lies one of those places surrounded by mystery and unanswered questions. Indeed, the Swahili town of Gede (or Gedi) is an enigma, since in spite of the clear preponderance it acquired during its five centuries of existence, there are no written references about it.

The city was founded in the 12th century by the Swahili Arabs, who populated the coast and had already founded towns like Pate, Lamu and Malindi. The remains allow to conclude that the city, away from the sea and secluded in the coastal forest, was thriving, rich and as big as Mombasa, inhabited by some 2,500 people. However, not a single line of the Arab or Swahili chronicles mentions this place. Further, Portugal dominated the coast from 1498 to 1698, and along this period all the ocean cities fell to some extent under the Portuguese grip, being Malindi, only 15 km away from Gede, the flagship of Portugal's allies. Gede's splendour peaked in the 15th century, when Portugal started conquering the coast, but incredibly enough the records of a 200-year seizure make no mention of this place, that remained overlooked by the European's influence.

The town's location is also quite puzzling. The remains uncovered clearly pinpoint that Gede bred solid commercial relationships with the Far East, Europe and Persia; though, the city lacked a port and its laying in the midst of a lush forest away from the shoreline seems everything but convenient. The legend is even more inflated with local traditions dealing with ghosts and unexplained phenomena. Even James Kirkman, the archeologist who unearthed the ruins, is said to have felt strongly uncomfortable when working at the site, as if some hidden presence would be watching his moves.

Gede ruins, Arabuko Sokoke Forest. Javier Yanes/ During the 16th century, a likely attack from Mombasa to Malindi, Portugal's ally, sparked the first exodus of Gede towners, who later on returned to their city. The final flee was in the 17th century for reasons not completely unveiled, though probably it was the result of a combination of factors. First, the Zimba, a cannibal tribe from the Zambeze region, raided the coast at the late 16th century spreading horror and destruction. Second, possible water shortages could make life conditions worsen, as shown by the deepening of the well next to the Great Mosque. And above all, the nomad hostile Galla people, who came from Somalia and seized the coast towns.

Nevertheless, no explanation seems to be convincing enough: while Mombasa was three times destroyed and three times rebuilt, Gede was deserted forever. Even more, Gede was unlikely to be its actual name, but a Galla term meaning 'beautiful'. The town's true name has not been definitely pinpointed, but it was possibly Kilimani.

The place remained ignored for the western world until 1884, when the ruins were visited by the British Comissionate in Zanzibar, sir John Kirk. The city would not be gazetted as a Historic Monument until 1927. Two years later it achieved the status of protected monument and in 1939 the Public Works Department began the restoration of the walls. Gede was gazetted as a National Park in 1948 and it was then that the excavation works were assigned to James Kirkman, who would assume the role until 1958. Afterwards, the ruins came under the shelter of the National Museums of Kenya.

Entrance to Gede ruins, Arabuko Sokoke Forest. Javier Yanes/ Today, Gede is the most important archaeological site at the coast and the only place where untouched ancient Swahili architecture can be studied. The preserved remains are dipped in a 45 acre coastal forest, formerly occupied by humble dwellings which disappeared and were colonized by vegetation.

This primeval forest is a sacred place for the locals and also the habitat for numerous wildlife species, some of them endangered, like the golden-rumped elephant shrew, a small mammal which is usually found in association to a bird, the red-capped robin chat. The bird watches out for danger and receives in compensation the insects removed by the shrew. Other species present are bushbabies, duikers and monkeys.

The place even hosts its own mythological animal, the local version of bigfoot or yeti: a presumed creature named Duba that resembles an enormous sheep. But what you should beware of is a much tinier threat: the siafu ants (siafu just means 'ants' in Swahili), destructive insects that usually emerge from the soil after the rains. It is said that colonial settlers would leave a parrot inside a cage to find on the next day just the bird's skeleton still standing on its perch. Besides these critters, some cobras are also present, but a meeting is quite unlikely.

The site comprises the Great Mosque, the Palace, fourteen dwellings and a set of tombs, in addition to the annex museum. Most of the ruins correspond to 15th and 16th centuries. During the last period, a second wall was erected surrounding only the wealthiest area, consisting of the Palace and the stone city.

The site is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and there is a guiding service available. For a self-guided visit, the booklet by James Kirkman on sale at the entrance is of great help.

The Great Mosque, Gede. Javier Yanes/ Great Mosque (Jumaa)

Of the seven mosques detected at the site, this one is the biggest and probably served as the congregational mosque or Friday mosque. Dated back to the 15th century and rebuilt in the 16th, this large building still preserves the mihrab, the place pointing to Mecca. The minbar, the pulpit from which the muezzin read the Koran verses, was made up of three stone steps, instead of the wooden structure which was usual in other coastal mosques. The Arab motifs are complemented with some other typically African, such as a carved spearhead, showing the distinctness of the Swahili culture. The yard at the entrance had a water reservoir for ablutions, connected with a well outside the mosque.


The Palace served a double purpose as the Governor's or Sultan's residence and the Government's seat. The entrance yard gives way to a hall in which the audiences took place. The building comprised several small rooms and the ruler's habitations equipped with high-end washrooms and toilets.


Dwellings at Gede. Javier Yanes/ The wealthy residential area comprised a set of stone dwellings with painted walls and sophisticated toilet rooms. Most of the objects shown at the museum have been found inside these houses, which have taken their names from the objects unearthed: the Ivory Box House, the Dhow House --with a dhow boat painted on the wall--, the Venetian Pearl House, etc. The oldest one is the Cauri House, from the 14th century. Cauris are a kind of shells which were used as currency. Conversely to residences at Mombasa or Lamu, all dwellings at Gede had a single floor. All of them show some common elements, like a stone bench where the landlord welcomed his guests. The walls were frequently adorned with tapestries or kilims and clay lamps.


Tomb of the Fluted Pillar, Gede. Javier Yanes/ Tombs of rulers and other outstanding figures in ancient East Africa were characteristically built bearing a high pillar on top, an element that was alien to the Arab culture. This type of funerary buildings, which according to some experts might obbey to a phallic symbology, was perhaps imported from Hamitic peoples of Northern Africa. The practice of building this kind of tombs was later abandoned, possibly upon invasion by the Omanis, who extended the orthodox tradition of Arabic Islam and erased many of the indigenous cultural Swahili roots. The so-called Dated Tomb is named after an engraved inscription that reveals the date at which it was erected: 1399, or 802 according to the Muslim calendar. Nearby, the Tomb of the Flutted Pillar (in the image) is very well preserved.


The museum displays information on the site and shows some of the objects found, such as Chinese Ming porcelains, shell and glass beads, gold and silver jewellery and coins, enameled Persian glass and Venetian crystal, all of them evidencing that the Gede traders maintained commercial relationships with the whole known world. The collection also includes some pottery used for cooking and food storage.

More information: Gede official website


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