The ruins of the fifteenth century town at Gedi, Kenya contain a well-preserved East African mosque. Archaeological findings date the first mosque structure to about 1450 and the subsequent revisions to about 1500 and 1550 respectively. The only remains from the original mosque are sections of the lower part of the wall left of the mihrab and pieces of fine-grained coral used on the mihrab, though it is possible that the present mihrab contains a larger proportion of original material. The floor in the first mosque was merely plaster laid over the underlying red earth, though the second and third versions include gravel over the earth giving the floor a more cobbeled finish. Shards of a red-coated glass bowl were found set into a fragment of masonry which may have been a decorative element of the mosque or one of the surrounding tombs. The woodwork of the doorways and window frames and shutters has not survived.
The Great Mosque was situated in the northwest corner of the town of Gedi along with the Palace, a private mosque, and the largest concentration of houses in town. It is a typical East African Jumaa or congregational mosque in that its form is based on a rectangular plan with entranceways on its long sides and the mihrab on a short side obscured from view by a line of columns.
The long axis of the mosque runs north to the mihrab, with doorways flanking the central axis on the east and west sides. The orientation toward the mihrab is further drawn by the four aisles demarcated by three rows of pillars added in the second construction of the mosque. Each row was comprised of 6 rectangular stone pillars, the central row running along the central axis of the building and obscuring the mihrab.
The flat roof was comprised of six-inch square coral blocks set in mortar. After its original collapse the roof of the mosque was reinforced not only by the pillars added in the second construction, but also by rafters constructed of mangrove poles. Transverse beams placed horizontally between the rafters allow the mosque to achieve a wide span where the width of each bay approximates seven feet.
The six doorways placed opposite each other along the east and west axis were interspersed with pilasters set into the coral rag and mortar walls in the third phase of building. Within the pilasters are small seven inch square niches about five feet above the floor in which to place lamps. The 13 foot high walls have cut coral edging at the rafter line, complimenting the carved coral decoration of the arched doorways. The east wall reveals evidence of two rectangular windows, which may have been mimicked on the now collapsed west side.
An additional wall, composed of red earth, was constructed partitioning off the rear three bays probably during the mosque's third rebuilding. This may have served to create a separate area for women at the back of the mosque or may have been a modification when only part of the mosque was being used during reconstruction.
The mihrab of is exemplary of an early type of coastal mihrab. Its façade was situated within a rectangular frame three bands thick. The bands of this frame, the architrave, were constructed of sea coral carved in a herringbone cable pattern, though some of this ornament was plastered over at a later date. The pointed arch within sits atop the multiple flat capitals created by five consecutively recessed square orders. The semi-circular apse of the mihrab is set six feet deep. This apse is restrained in design except for simple porcelain bowls of various sizes inlaid into it. Five more blue and white porcelain bowls in the spandrels surround the arch and another two flank the mihrab in the pilasters on either side. Directly to the east of the mihrab is a stone minbar with three steps. Below the minbar is a plaster strip designating the "kiapo," a place for taking oaths. The mihrab, minbar and kiapo were added in the second mosque with the pillars.
The main access to the mosque was though its eastern façade and from a courtyard containing a well and a cistern at the north end, and an octagonal pillar tomb at the south end. The ablution court is entered by stepping down between two seven-foot gateposts within the five-foot rounded boundary wall. The rectangular cistern contained three bowls and was fed via a conduit from the well in the northeast corner. Between the cistern and the prayer hall veranda were four giant coral bosses set into the ground for use as foot sanders. Two stone gangways added later partially covered two of these foot scrapers.
The veranda opening onto the courtyard from the three doors of the mosque, initially took the form of a raised platform. Probably during the second construction of the mosque it was covered with a low roof and lined with small square recesses for lamps. At the northern end of the verandah was a flight of stairs leading to the roof from where the call to prayer was performed.
The exteriors of the doorways leading into the mosque were refined with cut coral edging along the pointed arches, which met in a linear vertical projection creating an inverted Y capping the arch over a recessed frame. These corbelled arches are likely reminiscent of pre-Islamic Indian architecture. The northern doorway displays two carved coral plaques on each of the arch spandrels depicting a shield on the left and a spear on the right. These African motifs resemble a frieze of spears at the palace Ukhaider in Iraq.
The western veranda was of an equal size as the eastern veranda and not added until the second phase of construction. The northernmost door of this verandah was thought to be that of the Sultan in that it was private and skirted by a masonry bench or mastaba.
Four tombs skirt the periphery of the mosque. Two square paneled tombs are located to the north of the western court, one placed at the north behind the mihrab, and the most notable in the southern part of the eastern court. This final one is an octagonal pillar tomb tapering to about 22 feet in height and dating from about 1500.
Garlake, Peter. 2002. Early Art and Architecture of Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 179.
Kirkman, James. 1975 Gedi: Historical Monument. Mombasa: Rodwell Press, 3, 4, 6.
Kirkman, J.S. 1954. The Arab City of Gedi: Excavations at the Great Mosque Architecture and Finds. London: Oxford University Press, xiv, 1-14.