What a World

09.18.14 9:45 AM ET

Kenya Has Its Own Machu Picchu—the Lost Town of Gedi

In the 13th century, a town in Kenya flourished with advanced city planning (including sewage and water systems) and prolific trade. But then its inhabitants vanished without a trace.

‪The ruins of an ancient town deep in the Kenyan forest have befuddled archaeologists and historians for decades. There is virtually no written record of Gedi, but the artifacts and infrastructure ruins that remain prove it once hosted an advanced and prosperous civilization of around 2,500 people before it was mysteriously deserted in the 17th century.

‪Founded in the late 13th century, Gedi shows evidence of having been a global hub for traders from around the globe. Remnants of Ming Dynasty Chinese pottery and a necklace made of Venetian beads have been unearthed, along with an iron lamp from India and a pair of Spanish scissors. These goods were probably exchanged with Gedi inhabitants for animal skins and ivory.

‪The jungle-ensconced ruins were long part of local folklore, but Gedi wasn’t discovered until 1927. The town was brought to public attention by British explorer Sir John Cook 50 years prior, but officials didn’t follow up on his tip. Excavation finally began in the late 1930’s but continued more seriously after the area was declared a national park in 1948.

‪Tales still swirl about the strange forest ruins and mysterious happenings that have occurred around Gedi. “When I first started to work at Gedi I had the feeling that something or somebody was looking out from behind the walls, neither hostile nor friendly but waiting for what he knew was going to happen,” early excavator James Kirkman, said.

Considering its age, what’s left of the city is pretty spectacular. Within a 45-acre area of the Arabuko Sokoke National Forest, there are at least 14 unearthed houses, ornately designed tombs, a palace, and two mosques, all still standing even as nature invades their structures.

Gedi’s Palace covers nearly a quarter of an acre and features arched passageways, multiple courts, and two large wings. There’s even a safe room for storing valuables, accessible through a trap door.

When the ruins were discovered in the 1920s, the safe rooms in all of the houses had been cleared out, leading archaeologists to believe that the town was evacuated before an invasion rather than conquered by invaders. One theory holds that Gedi was deserted to avoid the advancing nomadic Galla tribe coming from Somalia. Historians speculate that the name “Gedi” was given to the town either by the Galla before they destroyed it, or that it may have been the name of the last tribal leader to live on the site, as it’s also used as a person’s name meaning “Precious.”

The most important implication of the find, however, is that the sophistication of Gedi debunks the concept that Africa wasn’t developed at the time European colonizers arrived on the continent. The medieval city featured streets as well as a water and sewage system. Visitors have noted that the long-drop toilets there are better than many of the ones currently found in Kenyan villages.

But one of Gedi’s enduring mysteries is why the city isn’t mentioned in any historical records. Neither Arabic or Swahili writings make note of Gedi, despite it being located 65 miles from the port city of Mombasa. Even the Portuguese, who had a heavy presence only a few miles away, didn’t mention it in their correspondence.

Gedi may have flown under the radar for centuries, but nowadays, it is a popular destination for adventurous visitors to Kenya. The Arabs and Portuguese may have failed to recognize the city as worthy of historical record, but guidebooks and bloggers certainly have not, speculating about the enigmatic forest civilization that disappeared without a trace.