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Great Zimbabwe: Center of a Mysterious African Civilization

Great Zimbabwe is a monumental medieval city that dominated trade in Southern Africa for hundreds of years. Here’s a look at its history.

In the hills of the southeastern corner of Zimbabwe, near Lake Mutirikwi and the town of Masvingo, a great city of stone rises out of the ground and dominates the landscape. In its heyday, this city was at the center of a massive trading hub that dealt in many exotic wares from all corners of the known world.

Today it stands empty, but it is still a spectacular monument to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Africans who built it a thousand years ago. Great Zimbabwe is a place of history and great legend.

The Structures of Great Zimbabwe

great zimbabwe photograph
An aerial view of Great Zimbabwe. In the foreground is the Great Enclosure, which overlooks the Valley Complex. On the hill in the distance is the Hill Complex, which is difficult to make out in this image; via sketchfab.com

The first documented description of Great Zimbabwe comes from the Portuguese captain of the garrison at Sofala in what is now Mozambique. Although he never visited the site, he wrote down what had been described to him:

“Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them … This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms [22 miles] high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.”

A few Portuguese explorers made the journey to see the site, but it would be over three hundred years later that European explorers would actually visit the site en masse and begin to investigate what it actually was. What they found was significantly more than what they thought Africans were capable of.

There are three distinct areas and architectural styles that comprise the entirety of Great Zimbabwe, which covers an area of 7.22 square kilometers (2.79 square miles). The oldest is the Hill Complex which, as its name suggests, sits atop a hill. It is thought to have been constructed in the 9th century and occupied until the 13th century. The Great Enclosure was built in the 13th century and inhabited until the 15th century, while the Valley Complex was built in the 14th century. The entire city seems to have been abandoned completely by the 16th century.

The relationship between the different complexes is not clear, but the prevailing archeological belief is that the Hill Complex was the religious center of the site, while the Great Enclosure, which housed only a few hundred people at most, was the residence of the social elite. The Valley Complex housed the rest of the population, which at its peak could have been as high as 18,000 people living in mud-brick dwellings.

The most spectacular part of the site is the Great Enclosure. It is a circular structure surrounded by walls 9.7 meters (32 feet) high. What is interesting about the construction is that no mortar was used. Each stone was shaped to fit, and the entire structure is nonetheless remarkably sturdy, which indicates a high degree of engineering competence. The Great Enclosure also houses a conical tower that rises 5.5 meters (18 feet) into the air.

The People Who Lived There

great zimbabwe artist
An artist’s depiction of the building of the Great Enclosure, via World Pilgrimage Guide

It is generally believed that the people of the Gokomere culture built Great Zimbabwe. They were ancient sub-Saharan people who lived in the area around Great Zimbabwe from around the 4th century CE. Near Great Zimbabwe is a place called Gokomere, known for its rock art and pottery traditions dating as far back as 300 CE.

The Gokomere people built a vast trading network that stretched eastwards over the Chimanimani Mountains to the coast of what is now Mozambique and northwards into the lands of the Swahili people who lived in what is now Kenya and Tanzania and who had contact with the trading fleets of the Chinese as well as the Arabs.

There are many proposed reasons for the decline of Great Zimbabwe. By the 1450s, the city likely suffered from a shortage of resources, and greater trade networks to the north possibly cut Great Zimbabwe off from the main networks. Political instability and climate change leading to famine might also have been a factor in the abandonment of Great Zimbabwe in the 15th century.

Notable Artifacts

great zimbabwe soapstone bird
One of the soapstone birds looted by colonists and recently returned, from Jekesai Njikizana/AFP, via Al Jazeera

The most famous artifacts from Great Zimbabwe are birds carved out of soapstone. A depiction of one of these artifacts is displayed on the national flag of Zimbabwe and is the symbol most identified with the country. There were eight of these monolithic items found at the site, but they were removed by Europeans. Seven of these relics have since been returned. The eighth one is located in Cape Town, South Africa at the Groote Schuur Estate, which was the house of Cecil John Rhodes. It is thought that the birds represent the bateleur eagle, a symbol of good fortune among the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

Soapstone was a cultural identifier of the people who lived in Great Zimbabwe, and other artifacts include many soapstone figurines. Along with these prominent icons, artifacts that were found include iron gongs, pottery, bronze spearheads, intricately carved ivory, copper ingots and evidence of copper production, and much jewelry such as bracelets and pendants. Iron was also worked, and among the foreign objects found were glass beads, porcelain, and other items from China, Persia, and Syria.

Then & Now: Continuing Research on the Site

gertrude caton thompson
Gertrude Caton Thompson who headed up an archeological investigation of Great Zimbabwe in 1929; via trowelblazers.com

The earliest excavations in the late 19th century were mired in extreme prejudice from the Europeans who worked at the site. In 1871, Karl Mauch, a German explorer and geographer of Africa, remarked that the site was an attempt to replicate the palace of the Queen of Sheba in Jerusalem and claimed that the wood used in the construction of the Great Enclosure was imported from Lebanon.

The explorer and amateur archeologist Theodore Bent investigated the ruins at the behest of Cecil John Rhodes. Publishing a book that brought the ruins to the attention of the British public, Bent argued that either Phoenicians or Arabs built the city.

In 1905, an expedition headed by David Randall-MacIver, working for the British Society, was the first professional to attest to the true nature of the site. Randall-MacIver claimed that the site was medieval in its time period and was built by the ancestors of the Shona people.

great enclosure entrance
Entrance to the Great Enclosure, from Gerhard Huber, via Austria Forum, Graz University of Technology

This theory was backed up in 1929 with the work of English archeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson, who used modern methods to prove that Great Zimbabwe was, indeed, built by Africans. She presented her findings in Johannesburg, and although many white people snubbed the idea, her findings were widely accepted in the scientific community.

Recent research has solidified the idea that the site was built by the Shona people, who are descendants of the Gokomere. The construction was possibly influenced by the Venda people, who built the Mapungubwe civilization further south.

Sadly, colonial looting wasn’t the only damage done to the site. Careless archeological practices over the last century have caused damage, in addition to tourists climbing the walls and wearing down the pathways. Reconstruction attempts in the 1980s also further damaged the structure. This is all in addition to the forces of nature, which are taking a heavy toll on the buildings over time.

Implications of the Ruins

great zimbabwe complex
A view of the Great Enclosure and Valley Complex, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

For many decades, while Zimbabwe was under white rule (as Rhodesia), archeological investigations into the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were suppressed. Any notion that Black people were capable of building a civilization ran contrary to the racist narratives espoused by white rule in Southern Africa.

After the transition to Black rule under its first president, Canaan Banana, information about Great Zimbabwe could no longer be suppressed. The country that emerged even took its name from the ruins.

Great Zimbabwe’s ruins are important as a symbol of Black civilization. Nevertheless, there are some people who still believe the absurd notion that Great Zimbabwe was built by the Portuguese or even the Phoenicians as a trading post. This stems from a racist attitude that is thankfully receding as time goes by.

The limited information we have about Great Zimbabwe is largely due to the immense amount of looting that occurred at the hands of European visitors. As a result of their theft, the archeological record of Great Zimbabwe has been greatly diminished.

The flag of Zimbabwe, upon which is depicted the likeness of a soapstone bird found at Great Zimbabwe, via flagpoles.co.uk

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, Great Zimbabwe exists as the biggest medieval stone structure in sub-Saharan Africa. It was at the heart of a great trade network that imported goods from all over the known world, including places as far away as China. Like all civilizations, however, it passed into the annals of history.

Its emptiness today shrouds the site in an aura of mysterious wonder. With many of its secrets still hidden, the ghosts of Great Zimbabwe still have a tale to tell the archeologists of the future.

Source: The Collector

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