A few years back, I was lucky enough to visit my sister in Kenya (she was living there at the time). I’m a big history nerd (as you can probably tell) so my sister planned the entire trip around my interests (BEST SISTER EVER). We spent several days visiting the Swahili Coast, which has a very rich culture based on sea trade.
Between the 13-15th centuries, there was an influx of Arabic settlers who founded independent city-states along the coast of Kenya. They came for resources, built magnificent stone structures, and mysteriously disappeared sometime around 400 or so years ago. They left no historical record and faded from memory until British colonizers appeared on the scene in the 19th century. I visited two of these sites, the ruins of Gedi and Takwa.
Gede (Gedi) Ruins- The most well known of the ruins along the Swahili coast, Gedi is currently on a waiting list to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is thought to have been founded sometime in the 13th century. At its peak, it housed around 2,500 people and was incredibly wealthy. Three mosques, a palace, and objects from as far away as China have been excavated thus far. It was mysteriously abandoned sometime in the 16th century and as there is no written record of the town, archaeologists are still at a loss as to why. It was rediscovered sometime in the 1800s but the local population had not forgotten about it, rather it had morphed into a sacred place that was known to inhabited by the ‘Old Ones’ or Djinn.
When my sister and I visited, we were the only tourists on site. We had a lovely local guide who was incredibly knowledgeable about the site and was very patient with questions. I couldn’t resist asking about the curse associated with the ruins and our guide was nice enough to tell us a few of her stories.
Gedi was a Muslim city and has become a place of pilgrimage. Our guide told us about a devout woman who had visited the ruins several years ago. She came because she was unable to have children and she wanted to pray to Allah in the old mosque. That night when she went to sleep, a djinn appeared to her in a dream and told her she was infertile because of a debt owed by her father. The woman hadn’t seen her father in years but she was desperate for children, so she went in search of him. She finally found him in Tanzania and asked him if he remembered anything about the ruins. He told her that when he was younger, he had visited Gedi and made a pledge to Allah to make a large monetary donation. He had never fulfilled the promise, however. This is why the woman was now cursed. After finding this out, the woman returned to Gedi and donated the money that her father had promised. The guide saw her again when she returned 5 years and she had been blessed with two children. The curse had been broken.
Our guide also told us that the villagers kept far away from the ruins. There is a sizeable population of Sykes monkeys in the region and they are quite the little menaces. Normally, they get killed or run off by the locals for causing trouble. But since the people were scared of the djinn who haunted Gedi, the monkeys were left alone essentially turning the ruins into a monkey sanctuary of sorts.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of material out there (at least in English) about the folklore of these ruins. I was able to find a reference to Gedi in a Folklore Journal Article from 1915, which had this to say:
” The ruins of Gede, about three hours’ march south of Malindi, are supposed to be guarded by an enormous snake, which would kill anyone attempting to remove-e.g.
the china plates cemented into the walls. People go there to make vows, pray for rain, etc… I never heard it expressly stated that these snakes are embodied ancestral spirits-probably among the Moslems this idea has become somewhat obscured.”
Takwa Ruins: Getting to Gedi seemed like a walk in the park after visiting Takwa. The ruins of this ancient retreat are located on an island in the northern part of Kenya. It was a 45-minute boat ride from Lamu (where we were staying) through mangrove swamps. Our boat grounded out several times while on the way there due to low tides. Once we arrived at the actual island it was about a mile walk to the ruins via muddy paths and decaying swing bridges. Not going to lie, I felt a little bit like Indiana Jones.
If you could somehow call Gedi touristy, Takwa was even less so. The only other people there were the caretaker and his wife. This site has not been as excavated as Gedi either so the ground is literally covered in pottery sherds. It is also significantly smaller than Gedi, and the archaeologist in charge of the most recent dig there believes it may have been a spiritual retreat site for imams due to the impressive mosque. Of particular note as well, is the presence of a large pillar tomb. “Along the East African coast, certain tombs
are known as the burial sites of sharifs or other holy men and women, and attract visitors and pilgrims who make prayers and present offerings such as food and burning incense at the tomb site. The seventeenth-century pillar tomb at Takwa is known as a pilgrimage site for the people of the Lamu area, who currently travel there to pray for rain or other special favors.”
After hearing such wonderful stories from our guide at Gedi, I was really curious to see what the caretaker had to say. Luckily, a friend of my sister’s was traveling with us and he spoke Swahili. Our friend asked the caretaker if he had encountered anything strange in his twenty years (!!!) of living on the island.
The caretaker spoke with our friend for quite some time, afterward he translated to us what the man had said. He had several interesting stories which I have done my best to remember.
There was a Swedish woman who came to the island every year for 5 years. She would stay for 3 nights and she asked him not to talk to her and to not disturb her while she was there. She stayed in a tent that she brought with her and she had lots of bottles with her. Sometimes he heard very strange noises in the middle of the night when she was there. She never told him what she was doing. She came and left quietly. Two years before our visit she had stopped coming. And he hadn’t seen her since.
It was common knowledge among locals that if you visited Tawka with bad intentions, you would die within the year. He told us that he knew of at least one man who had died after visiting. The djinn did not like bad people coming to disturb their holy place.
Lastly, we had a local guide from Lamu with us. He was a devout Muslim and a very kind man. He told us a tale about being on the island as a young man. He was with a group of friends and on a dare, they had decided to spend the night on the island. In the wee hours, one of the men had gotten up to go to the bathroom and he had seen a white ship with white sails. It came close to the island and a group of white man came off the boat and onto the shore. The man had a hard time explaining what happened. He described the ship as white but also said it was hard to see, translucent in a way.
The coast of Kenya is truly a magical place. Mystery and mysticism seem to imbibe everything about the land and its people. Superstitions abound and every person seems to have a tale to tell about a supernatural occurrence.
If you are interested in finding out more or planning a trip to visit one of these sites, please check out the National Museums of Kenya webpage:
Gensheimer, Thomas R.. “Research Notes: Monumental Tomb Architecture of the Medieval Swahili Coast.” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 19
Kirkman, J. S. “The Culture of the Kenya Coast in the Later Middle Ages: Some Conclusions from Excavations 1948-56.” The South African Archaeological Bulletin 11, no. 44 (1956): 89-99.
Werner, A. “Some Notes on East African Folklore (Continued).” Folklore 26, no. 1 (1915): 60-78.