In the early 16th century, rumours of a mysterious fortress with gargantuan walls, abandoned in the African jungle, spread around Europe. Surrounded by goldmines and sitting on a 900-metre-high hill, the city was thought to represent the summit of a unique African civilisation which had traded with distant Asian countries, including China and Persia.
A Portuguese sea captain, Viçente Pegado, was one of the first foreigners to encounter the site, in 1531. He wrote: “Among the goldmines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers [is a] fortress built of stones of marvellous 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 high.”
Great Zimbabwe was constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries over 722 hectares in the southern part of modern Zimbabwe. The whole site is weaved with a centuries-old drainage system which still works, funnelling water outside the houses and enclosures down into the valleys.
At its peak, an estimated 18,000 people lived in the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. Only 200 to 300 members of the elite classes are thought to have actually stayed inside its massive stone buildings, watched over at night by guards standing on the walls, while the majority lived some distance away.
Today, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe are a shell of the abandoned city that Captain Pegado came across – due in no small part to the frenzied plundering of the site at the turn of the 20th century by European treasure-hunters, in search of artefacts that were eventually sent to museums throughout Europe, America and South Africa.
It was said that Great Zimbabwe was an African replica of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem. The idea was promoted by the German explorer Karl Mauch, who visited in 1871 and refused to believe that indigenous Africans could have built such an extensive network of monuments.
“I do not think that I am far wrong if I suppose that the ruin on the hill is a copy of Solomon’s Temple on Mount Moriah,” Mauch declared, “and the building in the plain a copy of the palace where the Queen of Sheba lived during her visit to Solomon.” He further stated that only a “civilised nation must once have lived there” – his racist implication unmistakeable.
Other European writers, also believing that Africans did not have the capacity to build anything of the significance of Great Zimbabwe, suggested it was built by Portuguese travellers, Arabs, Chinese or Persians. Another theory was that the site could have been the work of a southern African tribe of ancient Jewish heritage, the Lemba.
Adding to the mystery, the indigenous people living around the site were said to believe it was the work of demons, or aliens, on account of its impressive size and the perfection of its workmanship.
In 1905, however, the British archaeologist David Randall-MacIver concluded the ruins were medieval, and built by one or more of the local African Bantu peoples. His findings were confirmed by another British archaeologist, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, in 1929, and this remains the consensus today. In the language of the builders’ descendents, the Shona people who live in the region today, Zimbabwe means “big stone houses” or “venerated houses”.
The city’s buildings were made of impressive granite walls, embellished with turrets, towers, decorations and elegantly sculpted stairways. The most notable of the buildings, an enclosure 250 metres in circumference and 9.75 metres high, was crafted with 900,000 pieces of professionally sliced granite blocks, laid on each other without any binders. Its perimeter columns were decorated with soapstone sculptures of a silhouetted bird with human lips and five-fingered feet.
The function of the Great Enclosure’s conical tower has been the subject of much speculation.
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The function of the Great Enclosure’s conical tower has been the subject of much speculation. Photograph: Alamy
More than 4,000 gold and 500 copper mines were found around the site, and it was suggested that for three centuries, 40% of the world’s total mined gold came from the area, compounding to an estimated 600 tonnes of gold. Thousands of necklaces made of gold lamé have been discovered among the ruins.
Great Zimbabwe’s prosperity came from its position on the route between the gold producing regions of the area and ports on the Mozambique coast; over time it became the heart of an extensive commercial and trading network. The main trading items ranged from gold, ivory, copper and tin to cattle and cowrie shells. Imported items discovered in the ruins have included glassware from Syria, a minted coin from Kilwa, and assorted Persian and Chinese ceramics.
The period of prosperity at Great Zimbabwe continued until the mid-15th century, when the city’s trading activity started to decline and its people began to migrate elsewhere. The most common hypothesis to explain the abandonment of the site is a shortage of food, pastures and natural resources in Great Zimbabwe and its immediate surroundings. But the precise cause remains unclear.
Great Zimbabwe is a fusion of manmade and natural beauty; a complex of 12 groups of buildings spread over 80 stunning hectares of the Mutirikwi valley. In the words of the Zimbabwean archaeologist and art historian Peter Garlake, the site displays “an architecture that was unparalleled elsewhere in Africa or beyond”.
The ruins are divided into three main architectural zones: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Complex. The oldest, the Hill Complex, was occupied from the ninth to the 13th centuries. Believed to have been the spiritual and religious centre of the city, its ruins extend some 100 metres by 45 metres.
Great Zimbabwe ruins. The Great Enclosure seen from the Hill Complex
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Remains of the Great Enclosure: the most popular explanation for Great Zimbabwe’s abandonment is a shortage of food, pastures and natural resources. Photograph: Alamy
Notable features of the Hill Complex included a huge boulder in a shape similar to that of the Zimbabwe Bird, from where the king presided over every important ritual, such as the judgment of criminals, the appeasing of ancestors and sacrifices to rainmaker gods. The sacrifices happened over a raised platform below the king’s seat, where oxen were burned. If the smoke went straight up, the ancestors were appeased. If it was crooked, they were unhappy and another sacrifice must be made.
South of the Hill Complex lies the Great Enclosure, occupied from the 13th to the 15th centuries: a spectacular circular monument made of cut granite blocks. Its outer wall, five metres thick, extends some 250 metres and has a maximum height of 11 metres, making it the largest ancient structure in Africa south of the Sahara.
The most fascinating thing about the Great Enclosure walls is the absence of sharp angles; from the air they are said to resemble a “giant grey bracelet”. A narrow passage just inside the walls leads to a conical tower, the use of which has been the subject of much speculation – from symbolic grain bin to phallic symbol.
The last part of the ruins is the Valley Complex: a series of living ensembles made up of daga (earth and mud-brick) houses, scattered throughout the valley and occupied from the 14th to 16th centuries.
Here lived about 2,000 goldsmiths and equally numerous potters, weavers, blacksmiths and stonemasons – who would heat large granite rocks in a fire before tossing water on the red-hot rock. The shock of cold water cracked the granite along fracture planes into brick-shaped pieces that could be stacked without the need for mortar to secure them. Millions upon millions of these pieces were produced in the plains below and hauled up the hill, as the city constantly expanded.
Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe
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The walls of the great enclosure reach 11 metres in height. Photograph: Alamy
The function of its massive, non-supportive walls have various interpretations: some believe they were martial and defensive, or that they were a symbolic show of authority, designed to preserve the privacy of royal families and set them apart from commoners.
Unfortunately, the ruins have been damaged over the last two centuries – not least due to the British journalist Richard Nicklin Hall, who in 1902 was appointed curator of Great Zimbabwe by the British South Africa Company for the purposes “not [of] scientific research, but the preservation of the building.”
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Hall destroyed a significant part of the site, claiming he was removing the “filth and decadence of the Kaffir [ie African] occupation”. In his search for signs that the city had been created by white builders, layers of archeological deposits up to four metres deep were lost.
Reconstruction attempts by Zimbabwe nationalists since 1980 have caused further damage – as have some of the roughly 20,000 tourists who visit the site every year, climbing the walls for thrills and to find souvenirs.
Political and ideological battles have also been fought over the ruins. In 1890, the British mining magnate and coloniser Cecil Rhodes financed archeologist James Theodore Bent, who was sent to South Rhodesia by the British Association of Science with instructions to “prove” the Great Zimbabwe civilisation was not built by local Africans.
The government of Ian Smith, prime minister of Southern Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) until 1979, continued the colonial falsification of the city’s origins in official guide books, which showed images of Africans bowing down to the foreigners who had allegedly built Great Zimbabwe.
In 1980, Robert Mugabe became prime minister, and the country was renamed “Zimbabwe”, in honour of the Great Zimbabwe civilisation, and its famous soapstone bird carvings were depicted in the new Zimbabwean flag.
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Yet much is still to be known about the ancient capital city. With no primary written documents discovered there or elsewhere, Great Zimbabwe’s history is derived from archaeological evidence found on the site, plus the oral history of the local Shona-speaking people, particularly regarding spiritual beliefs and building traditions.
Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1986, the preservation of Great Zimbabwe – led by the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe organisation – is now challenged by uncontrolled growth of vegetation, which threatens the stability of its dry stone walls. The spread of lantana, an invasive flowering shrub introduced to Zimbabwe in the early 20th century, has put added of strain on the preservation work.
“Great Zimbabwe’s significance – not only in Zimbabwe’s history, but Africa’s as a whole – is immense,” says Clinton Dale Mutambo, founder of the marketing company Esaja in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “How a powerful African empire built a kingdom that covered vast swaths of southern Africa is a source of pride for Zimbabweans – and something that colonial governments tried for a long time to undermine by linking this wondrous kingdom to the Phoenicians.”