Jumba La Mtwana, Mnarani & Gede, Kenya
Jumba La Mtwana, Mnarani, Gede, Shanga, Shaka, Takwa – evocatively named ruins being slowly swallowed up by the encroaching fecundity of jungle vines, creepers and giant figs, consigned to near oblivion by both history and geography. Nobody knows with absolute certainty what happened to these cities or even exactly when; the written record for much of African history is scant and Arab and Portuguese records in this case are not much more fruitful. Some of the ruins have been cleared and some have been excavated but in the absence of funding and publicity - I was almost always the only visitor - the more isolated sites such as those of Ungwana, Mwana and Shaka at the Tana river delta which were once cleared, are now almost entirely covered over by vegetation again.
Ibn Battuta visited none of these sites because most of them did not exist or were just coming into being, although it is said that he was the first to record the term 'Swahili', aware that it referred to the Arab coastal settlements from south of Mogadishu to Mozambique. But I had already decided that if I had to go all the way to Kenya just to see Mombasa, then I might as well visit some of the old coastal Swahili settlements that he did not.
Most Arabs are probably largely unaware of the Arab influence their ancestors left in East Africa and the extent to which many families there have their origins in Yemen and Oman. But in a strange about-turn some of them are coming back. My driver, Sketty, is originally from an Omani family while his wife is originally Yemeni. Many Kenyans live and work in the Gulf States and Oman, but Sketty told me that some of them were moving their families to Yemen in the wake of the economic crisis as it was less expensive, and the way of life was more traditional. People of Yemeni heritage who are nationals of another country have the right to live in Yemen provided they can provide proof of their provenance which in essence requires the stamped affidavit of the village sheikh where their family was from. Several members of Sketty's extended family were now either living in Yemen or moving there. Many Omanis and Yemenis who had gone to East Africa centuries ago to trade had stayed and become financially successful, but now with Kenya having its own economic crisis their Kenyan descendants were heading back to the lands of their ancestors.
Driving north from Mombasa, we stopped first at the atmospheric Jumba La Mtwana which has a glorious location by the sea. Founded sometime around the mid 14th century, it seems to have been abandoned about a century later. Excavators have found piles of skeletons in graves, perhaps evidence of disease or an attack by hostile tribes, but as the name of the town in Swahili means “the large house of the slave”, perhaps it was a terminus for slaves brought from the interior, since the coastal dwellers were often middlemen between the Arab traders and the tribes of the interior. The town was never a port as it has no anchorage, and goods (or people) would have to have been ferried in and out on smaller boats to and from ships berthed further out to sea, or portered overland from a creek nearby.
Small Mosque Jumba La Mtwana
The town has the remains of 3 mosques; a feature of many of these early mosques is an area which appears to have been set aside for women to pray. There are often two discrete wells and two cisterns and an area that is partially separated. In the early days of Islam when the Prophet Mohammed was still alive, men and women prayed together. In several mosques, including the old Mosque in Pate, there are two mihrabs in the qibla wall. Often guides would tell me one was for men and the other was for women, but they would just as often say that one was for Friday prayers and the other was for regular prayers. This makes little sense especially if the mosque was not a Friday mosque, but it does make sense to have had 2 mihrabs if the mosques were divided into male and female sections.
The buildings are built of coral rag - a combination of limestone rock, calcium carbonate, shells, sand and coral cut from ancient reefs, while decorative elements used 'live' coral which was softer and easier to manipulate. To make coral lime, pieces of coral rag were piled on top of a circle composed of mangrove poles radiating out from a center point, which were set alight. Over several weeks the heat broke the coral rag and shells down into powder which was stored in tanks and mixed with rainwater to 'mortar' the stone buildings together. The longer such lime was exposed to the elements the harder it became – one reason why many of the buildings have survived intact down through the centuries. In some cases the roofs were made of mangrove poles topped with slabs of coral which were plastered with lime – drainage run-offs were intended to collect rainwater but the roofs were too heavy and all are now caved in.
Tombs and graveyards are located at the northern end of mosques; at the Mosque by the Sea in Jumba La Mtwana is a grand mausoleum with 6 small recessed niches in the eastern external wall – I was told the number of niches denoted the number of people buried in it – and a plaque with an inscribed epitaph in the center, surrounded by Arabic text from the Koran, sura 3, verse 182;
“Every soul shall taste death; ye shall only receive your recompense on the day of resurrection. And whosever shall escape the fire and be brought into Paradise shall know victory. The life of this world is but a cheating fruition.”
Another interesting feature of these abandoned towns is the number of latrines in each. Some are 'long drop' latrine pits, lined with coral, which you can still find in Africa today. Not to put too fine a point on it, such latrines do not smell, leading one to ponder why it is that 700 years later in huge swathes of the world they are wholly unable to replicate this. Other latrines also had cisterns and areas for washing much like public baths or hammams.
Six niches in Mausoleum, Jumba La Mtwana
After the obligatory signing of the visitors' book we set off northwards for the ruins of Mnarani outside the town of Kilifi. Situated on a promontory overlooking Kilifi creek, Mnarani was inhabited between the late 14th and early 17th centuries. The guide told me it had been a slaving port but I was not entirely sure if this was because on one rather grand mausoleum a plaque was surrounded by an incised chain pattern. But it could as easily have been an eternity symbol, and a slave would not have been buried in a mausoleum. Here we came across a massive baobab tree where animists, who were undoubtedly nominally Muslim, left sacrifices of chickens, rice and rose water as well as little scraps of paper and fabric tucked into crevices of the great tree's massive bole. The baobab tree is considered to be blessed by the gods because it grows so tall it is perceived to be close to heaven, and this one was of such impressive proportions that it was a favored spot for petitioning by the locals. I signed Mnarani's visitor book too before setting off for Malindi where I fetched up at the Driftwood Beach Club where I had a delicious dinner in the company of the owners, and a grand evening in their splendid hotel - http://www.driftwoodclub.com
Driftwood Beach Club, Malindi
It was one of the best evenings of my stay where among other things we had an interesting discussion about malaria. Yemen does not stock the proscribed malaria prophylaxis for East Africa's malaria-carrying mosquitoes, therefore I bought larium (mefloquine) in Kenya – an over-the-counter drug here, because I never did find a pharmacy in Zanzibar. I have used mefloquine before to no ill-effect and therefore had no qualms despite its ghastly reputation. However if you have not been able to take it a week before arriving in a malaria zone you have to take it three days in a row, which I did think was rather a lot of drug at one swoop. The information sheet that comes inside the packet warning of all manner of potential horrors and complications does nothing to make one feel any easier.
Mausoleum at Mnarani with Koranic verses and the chain pattern.
Nonetheless I know people who have contracted malaria one of whom died, and another who very nearly did, and so I ruled out the option of taking nothing. Foreigners who live here of course cannot possibly take larium their whole lives and so they indeed take nothing, but if they get malaria they are in Kenya where doctors instantly recognize the symptoms and have the drugs to treat it. I did not want to drop dead in Khartoum or Sana'a with malaria symptoms that nobody recognized. After all there was the wretched swine flu to contend with; every airport you arrived at had masked, white coated people with temperature guns aimed straight at your head, along with videos on airport monitors, and leaflets printed in several languages with advice on what to do in the event of symptoms of swine flu - symptoms that correspond a little too closely to malaria for my liking.
The upshot is that when I announced I was taking mefluoquine one patron nearly fell off his bar stool, “oh no, no”, he moaned, “my doctor says it is an awful drug.” This shook me a little I confess – but I mused and pondered and pondered and mused some more, and went ahead. I was so freaked by all the conflicting information however, that I also bought Coartem, a cure for malaria (it is FDA approved although possibly not as an over-the-counter drug in the States as is the case in Kenya........) in case I already had malaria and mefluoquine didn't work. I did not get either malaria or any ill effects from Larium.
Stairs to the site of Mnarani
The following morning we left for the ruins of Gede. Founded like Mnarani in the early 14th century, the city of Gede was abandoned by the 17th century. There is no mention of it in any historical record and yet the quantity of porcelain and items found during excavation suggests a town of considerable wealth. In 1498 when the Portuguese first set foot in East Africa, they made a landing at Mombasa and were promptly chased off. Sailing north they received a rather warmer welcome in Malindi, where to this day a pillar stands on the shoreline dedicated to Vasco da Gama. In 1529 Nuno da Cunha set fire to Mombasa before sailing north to Malindi. Incensed at the treachery of their northern kinsmen, the Mombasans mounted a punitive raid against them, and as Gede is located about 10 miles south of Malindi, it is possible that Gede suffered the consequences of this raid too. Yet this does not explain the lack of historical record. The abandonment of the settlements is often put down to a drying up of the water source, but this explanation seems unsatisfactory because if these early Swahilis were sophisticated enough to construct the buildings they did with such evident skill, surely they must have had a clue about the availability of the water source before they began? But perhaps the water souce had become contaminated either deliberately or by some catastrophic event such as a tsunami, but this too begs the question - why is there no record of it? Most scholars agree that the definitive end of the mainland Swahili settlements came after the invasion of the Galla tribe from Somalia in the 17th century - like Jumba La Mtwana, Gede seems to have been abandonded in the 15th century but unlike Jumba La Mtwana was re-populated a century later, but about this piece of history there is only silence. Gede is a Galla word meaning 'precious' but according to James Kirkman, a British archaeologist who excavated Gede, this Galla name may have replaced the earlier Swahili name of Kilimani, or the Quelman on 17th century maps.
The magisterial vestiges of Gede emerge impressively from a jungle clearing while the vista over the site from a viewing platform built high up in an ancient baobab tree is magnificent. I felt a bit like Henri Mouhot must have felt when he stumbled upon the ruined temples of Angkor. At the 'Dated Tomb' a plaque is inscribed with the year 802AH (Gregorian calendar 1399), which has been helpful in providing a reference point for other buildings.
The remains of 6 mosques have been cleared including the Great Mosque, which has imposing square entryways with carved lintels, in the qibla wall which is unusual, and wells, ablution cisterns and steps to other entrances on the east side. The city has both an outer and inner wall and it is not known if these were built to separate different social classes or if they served a different function. James Kirkman notes that the inner wall served more as a barricade with houses built into the actual wall, which can still be seen. A large palace consists of several courts, annexes, an audience court and a reception court which again unusually, incorporates tombs in its northern wall. Large private residences have been identified by items found inside them or a particularly notable feature such as House of the Cistern, House of the Cowries, or House of the Porcelain Bowl.