You can learn about the history of a place in different ways. It can be through school-taught history, internet research, word of mouth, or by experiencing it for yourself. Ruins give you the chance to do the latter, thus getting a better understanding of the underlying story. You get to see, feel, and imagine what happened in the places before their destruction. If you happen to be a traveller who enjoys the history of your destinations, then these five old Kenyan ruins need to be on your bucket list.
1. Shanga Ruins
The Shanga Ruins lie off the Kenyan Coast on Pate Island, which is part of the Lamu Archipelago. Most also see them as archaeological sites. They are among the less visited of old Kenyan ruins. They are what remains of an ancient Swahili settlement that dates back to the eighth century. Although one Captain Chauncey Stigand discovered the ruins in the early 20th century, it was not until 1950 that archaeological research and excavations began under Dr James Kirkman.
Despite overwhelming evidence of early Arab settlement through excavated pottery and ceramics, Captain Stigand insisted that the Swahili inhabited the Island long before then. The Arabs, however, came into the village and Sulaiman ibn Sulaiman, an Omani Poet banished from his home country by the then reigning Ya’Aruba, found asylum in this small village and married the Shanga King’s daughter. After that, the Arabs soon began trading and coexisting with the Washanga before finally taking over the land. The ruins today display the results of that takeover.
There are remains of mosques, residential houses, a commerce centre and more than a hundred stone tombs. It might interest you to know that the people of Shanga used coral to build their homes. A visit here gives you an idea of what life must have been like before the arrival of the colonialists. No one knows the real reason why the inhabitants abandoned the settlement in the 15th century. Some speculate it may have been political.
2. St. Joseph’s Fort
In Mombasa County, just a few metres from the Likoni Ferry along Mama Ngina Drive lies an ancient fort, or what remains of it. The St. Joseph’s Fort dates further back than Fort Jesus. Some people even claim that the fort still existed before Vasco da Gama stepped into Mombasa in the 15th century. Although the site was originally in a state of abandonment for a long time, it has recently caught the attention of the Kenyan government, as well as the National Museums of Kenya.
The discovery of a 13th Century mosque by trench diggers working on Mama Ngina Drive sparked new interest in the ruin. So who built the St. Joseph’s Fort and what was its original name? The story goes that an early Turkish regiment had settled in Mombasa, coexisting with the local Zimba tribe. However, the Portuguese threatened to invade and overthrow this Turkish troop. Therefore, they thought to build the fort to protect themselves from the Portuguese. Unfortunately, the Portuguese eventually subdued the Turks but spared the fort. They made it bigger and more robust with a chapel and an underground passageway and renamed it St. Joseph’s Fort. As for its original name, it remains a mystery.
3. Jumba la Mtwana
In Kilifi County, about 15 kilometres from Mombasa lies this famous tourist attraction site called Jumba la Mtwana. The name directly translated means ‘the large house of the slave.’ Why the ruins go by this name is unclear. Moreover, there are no written records or narratives of this place, so most of the facts come from archaeological estimates and word of mouth. These old Kenyan ruins give evidence of what were four residential houses, four mosques and a tomb. They all date to the 14th century and seem to have been a small settlement compared to the larger excavated sites. No one knows why the inhabitants abandoned this small settlement, let alone why they chose it. Some speculate it was the availability of freshwater, the cool breeze and the shade from the surrounding trees. Others think the difficulty in anchoring big ships provided safety from external invaders.
4. Gedi Ruins
Gedi or Gede Ruins in Kilifi County are probably one of the most celebrated of old Kenyan ruins. The ruins show what a very civilised and independent settlement that dates back to between the late 11th and early 12th centuries Gedi was. It is also the largest of the recovered early settlements, together with the Ungwana Ruins at Tana River. According to Dr James Kirkman and other archaeological research, Gedi was a major trade centre for Arab and Asian trade during its existence.
There are, however, no written records to support this claim. The items excavated from this site show that the inhabitants lived a relatively advanced life compared to what history says of African life in that period. Apart from the detailed architecture, they had well-defined roads, building designs and arrangements, and a clear order of politics, economics and religion. They even had wells, scissors, and an iron box. These things are only a fraction of the extensive finds that Kirkman and other researchers discovered from this site. That it still stands to this date is a miracle, and why its inhabitants fled from it will always be a mystery.
5. Thimlich Ohinga Ruins
It seems that most of Kenyan history resides at the coast. However, one of the gazetted of old Kenyan ruins lies at the opposite end of the seashore. Thimlich Ohinga is a site containing the ruins of a stone fort built in the 15th century. Unfortunately, not enough research or evidence exists on who built this magnificent structure. Some people believe Bantu speakers from surrounding Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan are responsible. Others believe the Luo tribe, who are the dominant inhabitants of the region, may have been the fort’s architects.
Thimlich means ‘a scary thick forest’ while Ohinga means ‘a fortress or shield against.’ From these names, one can speculate that the people hoped the fort would keep away attackers dwelling in a nearby forest. Inside the fort, there are remains of what was a settlement with corridors, play areas, cooking areas, and even simple pottery factories. The inhabitants also kept livestock and had small gardens, which they marked with retaining walls. Visiting this site would help you see that Africa and Kenya were not as desolate as history books would like to record.
Kenya has so much beautiful indigenous history. Unfortunately, most of it gets lost in altered narratives, lost scripts, and poor conservation. But as fate would have it, some things were too strong for even time to destroy. These old Kenyan ruins allow us to see the country in a different light from what we have been told. You will, therefore, do yourself a great injustice if you did not make a point to visit, if only for that true Kenyan history.