Islamization and Urbanization on the Coast of East Africa:
The ruins of Gedi are located 16km to the south of Malindi, and 6.5km from the Indian Ocean. The site measures in total 30 hectares, with a fortified perimeter of 18 hectares. In 1927 the site was classified as a protected monument. The buildings at greatest risk of destruction were restored by the Kenyan public works department in 1939. Gedi was declared a national park in 1948, and immediately digs were planned by the British archeologist James Kirkman. He surveyed the site, cleared a number of buildings, excavated the great mosque in 1954, and then the palace in 1963. Kirkman would dig at Gedi for another ten years, ending in 1958.
We have taken up these excavations once more in 1999. Study of this city is important for the significance it represents to both African and Islamic archeology. This work will allow us to understand the process of Islamization on the East African coast, and the development of the coastal culture of the Swahili. Our approach also touches upon the process of ubanization, and the creation of Kenya’s medieval cities. Of interest also is the political organization of the medieval city-states of the Swahili, specifically how religious, military and palatial architecture may reveal geopolitical ties. Yet, we do not ignore the material culture; imported ceramics from Arab and Asian countries allow us to understand the organization of commerce within the Indian Ocean. Looking at the exports of local products, such as ivory, copal gum, and cristal rock, allows us to place the African continent within the vast commercial network which extended to the Sub-continent area.
This project was first conceived within the research programme started in Yemen in November 1993, entitled Relations commerciales dans l’océan Indien. This programme, directed by Claire Hardy-Guilbert et Axelle Rougeulle (Umr 8084) aimed to explore the integration of Yemen within the Muslim commercial network of the Indian Ocean. The results obtained in Kenya were compared with those of the Persian Gulf, specifically Oman and Pakistan (M. Kervran, Cnrs, Umr 8084), including counties around the Red Sea, such as Egypt and Yemen.
The 1999 Season
During the 1999 season we identified a new great mosque in the north-east of the site, outside the fortifications which at this point turn inwards towards the city. The building, which had previously been surveyed, measures 26m from north to south. Completed in the 14th century, this mosque covered an earlier construction of the 13th century. One grave marker could be dated C14, that is, -845+-45 (LY-965), which indicates a date between 1041 and 1278. These findings shed new light on our understanding of the development of the city of Gedi. Here we have a true horizontal stratigraphy, with the old city from the 11th to the 14 th century located to the north, and the more recent city of the 15th century being surrounded by an enclosure. The presence of the two great mosques, chronologically successive but situated in different places, indicates an urban shift which took place at the start of the 15th century.
The 2001 Season
During the 2001 season we completed a topographical survey of the city, which included all the neighbourhoods, with the intent of producing a complete urban picture for the 15th century. Our excavation concentrated on the northern part of the site, which covered the 11th to the 14th centuries. The clearing of the great mosque revealed two additional mosques, one from the 12th and one from the 13th century. These discoveries confirmed our first dating, and allowed us to fix more clearly the arrival of Islam in this part of the coast.
The 2002 and 2003 Seasons
This season ran from the 19th of July to the 27th of August, 2002, and aimed at studying the evolution of the residences of Gedi from its founding in 1080-1130, up to the point of its architectural shift around 1400-1450. The buildings in stone at the heart of the city were reserved for the wa-ungwana, patricians representing the Swahili elite. The house H015 occupies a central place in the agglomeration of stone structures to the south-east of the great mosque (15th-16th century). The latrines of this kind of building were socially important, since these amenities were characteristic of fully ubanized Swahili society. The recent finds at the Gedi site shed light on the domestic structures of the wa-ungwana between 1450 and 1550, and allow comparison with modern houses, in particular with those of Lamu and Zanzibar. The surveys of H014 and H013 have allowed us to understand that the city of Gedi did not grow out concentrically from the great mosque of the 14th century. Between the 12th and 13th centuries, the centre of the agglomeration was located between the two great mosques of Gedi. In the 14th century the city grew towards the north, the west and the south, but little towards the east. The shift in the urban centre witnessed at the start of the 15th century was not a break from the older buildings, but rather the abandoning of religious centre which had become too far from the centre of the city.
I would here like to thank the institutions which supported this project. While I am currently based at the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire (Ministère de l’Education Nationale), it was the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères which financed this work in Kenya. At the local level, the National Museums of Kenya has been particularly helpful with logistical planning, administrative and research assistance. The British Institute in Eastern Africa supplied technical assistance in the form of excavation material ; and the excavation project has taken on students from the British Institute.
Publications on Gedi
Below is an updated bibliography on the Gedi and in particular my publications in French, often neglected by students and “None-academic” scholars.
The Arab City of Gedi : Excavations at the Great Mosque, architecture and finds, Londres : Oxford University Press, 1954, 197 p.
The Tomb of the Dated Inscription at Gedi, Londres : Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1960, Occasional Paper n°14.
Gedi, the palace, La Hague : Mouton, 1963.
Gedi, Historical Monument, Nairobi : NMK, 1975, 16 p.
2010 – Gedi, une cité portuaire swahilie. Islam médiéval en Afrique orientale
Monographies d’archéologie islamique, Ifao : Le Caire, 302 p.
2004 – Fortifications et urbanisation en Afrique orientale, Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology 58, BAR S1216, Archaeopress, Oxford, 374 p.
2004 – Pradines, S. « Gedi : une cité médiévale swahili », In Archéologies. 20 ans de recherches françaises dans le monde, ERC- Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris, p. 340-343.
2003 – Au cœur de l’islam médiéval, Gedi une cité swahili, Archéologia, n°396, Faton, Dijon, p. 28-39.
2001 – Une mosquée du XIIe siècle à Gede (Kenya, Mission de Juillet-Août 2001), Nyame Akuma, n°56, Bulletin of the Society of Africanist Archaeologist, University of Alberta, p. 23-28.
2000 – Mission archéologique de Gedi, Kenya (juillet-août 1999), Archéologie islamique, n°10, Paris, p. 195-196.
2000 – Nouvelles recherches archéologiques sur le site de Gedi (Kenya, Mission de Juillet-Août 1999), Nyame Akuma, n°53, Bulletin of the Society of Africanist Archaeologist, University of Alberta, p. 22-28.