Continuing his journey around Africa in search of history before the white man, Nick Hordern, the British historian and journalist (see NA, Jan 2003), recently visited the ruins of Gedi, Kenya's once stone-walled city of 2,500 people, which was inexplicably abandoned in the 1600s. This is his report.
"We feel as our guest, you deserve the best!" Treated to a sumptuous luncheon by the manager of Zanzibar Airport whose food and hospitality more than lived up to the slogan above the door of the restaurant, I was continuing my journey round the African continent in search of history before the white man.
Marvelling anew at Africa's endless ability to reflect and create the past and present simultaneously to me, a traveller and historian, my next stop was Kenya.
It was a short hop from Zanzibar, with its twisting alleyways, cool shady squares and ornately carved wooden doors, to Mombasa. My host in Zanzibar had been Abdul Rahman M. Juma, head of antiquities of the Zanzibar Department of Antiquities, Museums and Archives.
In a beautiful centuries-old palace which had belonged to a sultan who had settled in Zanzibar from Muscat, he showed me wonderful displays of Chinese, Persian, Indian and African coins, and also delicately embroidered African caps, Zanzibar chests, wooden blocks to colour stamp designs for women's clothes, coral and sandstone carving, and African charms.
"Before the coming of the Europeans, or even Arabs, there was much commerce between the interior and the coast, a culture much denigrated by colonial historians who have attributed the coastal trade beginning only when external influences came into play," said Juma.
"There were local African kings," he continued, "and later there would be intermarriage with those who settled here. A famous African aristocrat was a lady ruler and she married an Arab. Islam was pervasive around the 12th-century and most of the citizens were Muslims but this did not mean coastal Africans abandoned everything of their traditional lifestyle. They went to the mosque but afterwards went directly to the shrine, this is an exorcism charm, a part of Swahili life."
Next Juma showed me the drums and gongs (the email or fax of the day). "These drums with Arab inscriptions are very strong, black and huge. Before the Europeans they served for communication purposes, either for war or for the people to gather together."
Descending to Moi International Airport in Mombasa, I saw through the plane's windows thousands of feet below, vast swathes of smoke engulfing the Indian Ocean shoreline temporarily obliterating the golden sands as if on fire.
Whether it was a brush fire or merely a remedial "slash-and-burn", the scene was harshly reminiscent of Mombasa's fate 500 years earlier when the Portuguese deliberately set fire to the African port-city that rivalled Venice or Genoa.
Before the arrival of the first white man, the venerable coastal city kingdom had been trading in skins, frankincense, ivory and gold for half a millenium with India, Persia and China. In return, they imported carpets from India, ceramics from Persia and China, horses from Arabia and exotic wares brought by the "treasure ships" of the Chinese emperor, Yunglo. Then in 1505, in another piece of flagrant vandalism, it was all over.
An eye-witness recorded: "The whole city burned like one huge fire that lasted nearly all night." Scores of large houses collapsed in the flames "and great wealth was burned, for it was from here that the trade with Sofala and Cambay was carried on sea.
The contemporary Portuguese soldier-diarist, Duarte Barbosa, described Mombasa as "a very fair place with lofty stone and mortar houses, well aligned in streets. The wood is well-fitted with excellent joiner's work. It has its own king, himself a Moor. The men are in colour either tawny, black or white, and also their women go very bravely attired with many fine garments of silk and gold in abundance. …