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Cultural Safari

Along the Kenyan Coast one of the most visible cultures is that of the Swahili peoples. Unlike Kenya's inland tribes, whose histories are built on oral folklore and cultural traditions, the Swahili people have a long written record of their history.

This is a history of trade. Not just trade of goods with distant shores, but also trade of cultures. The trade winds of the Indian Ocean brought influence from South West Arabia. Dhows were drawn south by the monsoonal winds (the Kaskazi) from November to April, and then returned North by the winds known as the Kusi from June to September. This route became a major source of ivory, slaves, spice and shells, and by the 9th and 10th centuries, Arab trading outposts began to appear along the coast.

With settlement came immigration, and a local population of Arab, Omani and Shirazi people (from Persia- modern day Iran) began to swell. Intermarriage with the indigenous coastal tribes became common. After several generations, a unique culture began to form. Strongly Arab influenced and Islamic, the culture began to develop its own particularly African language and customs. This was a culture born of the sea, and the sailing dhow and trade became an integral part of its existence, as did farming of tropical crops including mango and coconut.

Soon this culture had a name, derived from the plural of the Arab word Sahel- Swahili.

The Swahili language, or KiSwahili, is a fusion of Arabic and Bantu languages.

Swahili civilization spread along the coast, from Lamu southwards.

One of the largest Swahili towns, known as Gedi, lay further North near modern day Watamu. Gedi is one of Kenya's great unknown treasures, a wonderful lost city lying in the depths of the great Arabuko Sokoke forest.

It is also a place of great mystery, an archaeological puzzle that continues to engender debate among historians. To this day, despite extensive research and exploration, nobody is really sure what happened to the town of Gedi and its peoples. This once great civilization was a powerful and complex Swahili settlement with a population of over 2500, built during the 13th century.The ruins of Gedi include many houses, mansions, mosques and elaborate tombs and cemeteries.

Despite the size and complexity of this large (at least 45 acre) settlement, it is never mentioned in any historic writings or local recorded history. The nearby Portuguese settlement at Malindi seems to have had no contact with, or even known of the existence of Gedi.

The town has all the appearances of a trading outpost, yet its position, deep in a forest and away from the sea makes it an unlikely trading centre. What was Gedi trading, and with whom?

But the greatest of all of Gedi's mysteries was its sudden and inexplicable desertion in the 17th century. The entire town was suddenly abandoned by all of its residents, leaving it to ruination in the forest. There are no signs of battle, plague, disturbance or any cause for this sudden desertion.

One current theory is that the town was threatened by the approach of the Galla, an inland tribe known to be outwardly hostile at that time, and that the townspeople fled ahead of their arrival. Yet once again, local recorded history fails to mention any such large scale evacuation at this time. No written account of either the rise or sudden fall of Gedi was ever made.

The ghostly ruins of Gedi lay within the forest that has overgrown and consumed the town. They had become a part of local folklore, regarded as a sinister lair of malevolent spirits, until archaeologists began to uncover the site in the 20th century. It was gazetted in 1948.

Today there is an excellent museum and well trained guides on hand to take visitors through the ruins. Gedi remains a mysterious and atmospheric place to visit.

The pillars and stone walls, ruined mosques and tombs now lie among stands of trees. The stone floors are thick with leaves, and giant shrews scuttle through the deserted houses while birds and butterflies drift through the air. Wandering through Gedi is an ideal way to spend a morning or afternoon, lost among the secrets of the past.

In 1498 the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama anchored offshore at Malindi, and a memorial to his landing can be found at Vasco de Gama's Pillar just outside Malindi. He received an initially warm welcome, and Malindi became an important Portuguese centre. This influence would become a pervasive one throughout the coast, reaching a volatile conclusion with the protracted battles for control of Fort Jesus (see Mombasa for more details). Just outside town is a small Portuguese chapel whose graveyard, dating to the 16th century, is a fascinating portrait of the history of this stretch of coastline.

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