Published: Saturday Magazine, Nation newspaper 17 March 2018
Above: The Palace in Gedi Copyright Rupi Mangat
In the eventide, a skein of white wings glide over the blue of Watamu Bay to settle on the huge jagged Hemingway rock. Curious, l zoom in on the birds that appear as dots with the naked eye, l get my shots and send them to the birders.
Colin Jackson of A Rocha – locally called Mwamba Field Research Centre that’s actively researching ocean life – in and above – on the same stretch of beach, gives a fascinating account.
“These are Grey Plovers Pluvialis squatarola that breed in the Arctic Circle. They then spend the non-breeding season spread along coastlines around Africa, Asia and Australia. They have been satellite tracked by the Aussies and found to do non-stop flights of up to 7,000 kilometres.”
How neat is that!
“There’s a good population of Grey Plovers in Watamu with counts of 300-400 birds on Mida Creek at times,” reveals Jackson.
It’s early in the year.
While the Grey Plovers have come from the Arctic to spend the summer here, the Humpback whales (an adult is the size of 11 huge elephants) are returning south to the Antarctica after having given birth in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean along Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia. It’s information that’s coming out from the researchers at Watamu Marine Association monitoring the marine mammals.
As the Humpback whales leave, in come the Whale shark or Papa shilling as the locals call it – the largest fish in the ocean – and the gentlest. It feeds on plankton and you can swim along it.
Strolling past the coffee bar at Hemingway’s that’s a replica of the medieval mosque of Gedi, l visit the abandoned sultanate, a few minutes’ drive up the road.
Like the Grey Plovers, the sailors from the east used the monsoon winds to set up sultry sultanates along the east coast of Africa.
“From Arabia and India to Africa, they sailed in with the kaskazi from November through March and then back with the kuzi from May through October,” tells Melinda Rees of the resort.
Six kilometres inland from the ocean, a tiny sultanate sprung up sometime during the late 13th century, reaching its apogee by the 15th century only to be abandoned in the early 17th century.
Reading ‘Gedi’ published in 1975, a guide book by British archaeologist James Kirkman who excavated much of Gedi’s forgotten city, he writes that Gedi is a Galla word meaning ‘precious’, and the name of the last Galla leader on the site. But its true name may have been Kilimani – derived from Quelman of the Bertholet map of 1639.
Walking along the ruins of the city that boasted fine living with a palatial palace, grand mosques, and tombs of the elite, its end came with the fearful Galla. After emptying their coffers, the citizens fled in haste for the coffers when unearthed were found empty.
Time’s running out as l search for the ‘old’ mosque in the company of Sykes monkeys from the forest around. Suddenly the guide seeing my exasperation shouts, “it’s there.”
Away from the main city, this mosque marked by an ancient fig sculpted at the entrance, was completed in the 14th century. A grave at the site shows a date between 1041 and 1278.
“These findings shed new light on our understanding of the development of the city of Gedi,” write Pradines in his blog – http://swahili.hypotheses.org/gedi.
It shows two cities in Gedi. The old city from the 11th to the 14th century and then the more recent city of the 15th century surrounded by a wall – where the cut porcelain inlays in the walls of the mosque are the same as the ones in Oman in the Shawâdhnâ of Nizwa mosque, dated 1530.
Like cities all over the world, Gedi has its story. The two great mosques built at different times, shows an urban shift which took place at the start of the 15th century as the populace grew. It’s the city which most people visit.
More on Gedi
It’s 16km south of Malindi, and 150km north of Mombasa. The 15th century great mosque was excavated in 1954, the palace in 1963.
Excavations began again in 1999 by Pradines studying African and Islamic archaeology when he found the older mosque that was completed in the 14th century.
While in Watamu – visit Mida Creek, the reef, deep sea diving or fishing, dhow cruise, Arabuko-Sokoke forest across the road from Gedi. Check out Watamu Marine Association to guide you.
What you must never do at Gedi or any archaeological site
Stand or step on the walls or write your name including on the trees.