So, what exactly is the story of Great Zimbabwe?

Great Zimbabwe is the largest ancient structure in Africa south of the Sahara, and one of the most culturally important archaeological sites on the continent.
Written by Matthew Sterne
17 February 2022

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Great Zimbabwe was a mediaeval African city that was part of a wealthy African trading empire, with connections to the Middle and Far East, and was a hub of trade and industry for the East African coast from the 11th to 15th centuries CE. 

At its peak, an estimated 18,000 people lived in the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. Although 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.

Great Zimbabwe’s legacy was smudged over for centuries by colonialists who thought the city was too sophisticated to have been built by Africans, and instead thought it had been built by Phoenicians or other non-African people. Significant looting in the 20th century, at the hands of European visitors, also went some way to obscuring its true origins.

Many questions still remain. 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.

So, how did it rise to prominence and why did it falter?

Remains of the Great Enclosure- the most popular explanation for Great Zimbabwe’s abandonment is a shortage of food, pastures and natural resources | Source: Alamy

What was Great Zimbabwe?

The word “zimbabwe” means “stone houses” in Shona, with many sites spread across the Southern African inland plateau. There are 200 such sites, such as Manyikeni in Mozambique and Mapungubwe in South Africa – Great Zimbabwe is the largest of these. 

In its heyday, Great Zimbabwe was part of a large and wealthy trading network. Archaeologists have found pottery from China and Persia, as well as Arab coins, in the ruins. Historians believe the elite of the Zimbabwe empire controlled trade up and down the east African coast.

Today, the ruins are divided into three main architectural zones: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Complex. 

The Hill Complex is a series of structural ruins that sit atop the steepest hill of the site. This is generally believed to have been the religious centre of the site. The Hill Complex is the oldest part of Great Zimbabwe, and shows signs of construction that date to around the 9th century. Its ruins extend 100 metres by 45 metres.

One of the main features of the Hill Complex was a huge boulder, in a shape similar to that of the Zimbabwe Bird, from where the king presided over important rituals – such as the judgement 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 needed to be made.

The function of the Great Enclosure’s conical tower has been the subject of much speculation | Source: Alamy
The function of the Great Enclosure’s conical tower has been the subject of much speculation | Source: Alamy

The ruins of the second section, the Great Enclosure, are perhaps the most exciting. It’s a spectacular circular monument, made of cut granite blocks, below the Hill Complex dating to the 14th century. Its outer wall, five metres thick, extends some 250 metres (820 feet) and has a maximum height of 11 metres, making it the largest ancient structure in Africa south of the Sahara. It was crafted with 900,000 pieces of professionally sliced granite blocks, laid on each other without any binders.

Inside the enclosure is a second set of walls, following the same curve as the outside walls, which end in a stone tower 10 metres (33 feet) high. While the function of this enclosure is unknown, archaeologists believe it could have been a royal residence or a symbolic grain storage facility. 

The third section is the Valley Ruins. The Valley Ruins consist of a series of houses made mostly of mud-brick near the Great Enclosure. 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.

The outer wall of Great Zimbabwe, which showed ‘an architecture unparalleled elsewhere in Africa or beyond’ | Source: Alamy

What was Great Zimbabwe like at its peak?

At the peak of Great Zimbabwe’s powers, there 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.

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.

The walls of the great enclosure reach 11 metres in height | Source: Alamy

The obscured history of Great Zimbabwe

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.”

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.

Yet colonialists refused to believe that indigenous Africans could have built such an extensive network of monuments. It was said that Great Zimbabwe was an African replica of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem.

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.

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, however, are thought to have actually stayed inside its massive stone building. Source: Mail and Guardian

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.

The official line in Rhodesia during the 1960s and 1970s was that the structures were built by non-blacks. Archaeologists who disputed the official statement were censored by the government. Paul Sinclair, the archaeologist stationed at Great Zimbabwe, said; “I was told by the then-director of the Museums and Monuments organisation to be extremely careful about talking to the press about the origins of the Great Zimbabwe state. I was told that the museum service was in a difficult situation, that the government was pressurising them to withhold the correct information. Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programmes, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Zimbabwe. He said it was okay to say the yellow people had built it, but I wasn’t allowed to mention radiocarbon dates… It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.”

These lies were dismissed when archaeological investigations, conducted during the first decades of the twentieth century, confirmed both the antiquity and authenticity of the site. To black nationalist groups, Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol of achievement by Africans: reclaiming its history was a major aim for those seeking majority rule. In 1980 the new internationally recognised independent country was renamed after the site, and its famous soapstone bird carvings were retained from the Rhodesian flag and Coat of Arms as a national symbol and depicted in the new Zimbabwean flag.

Three of the Zimbabwe Birds, photographed around 1891 | Source: Wikipedia

What are the Zimbabwe Bird soapstone sculptures?

The most important artefacts recovered from the site are the eight Zimbabwe Birds carved of soapstone. The birds surmount columns and are heavy figurines – some standing at about 1.5 metres (4.9 feet). The sculptures combine both human and avian elements, substituting human features like lips for a beak and five-toed feet for claws. 

Scholars have suggested that the birds served as emblems of royal authority, perhaps representing the ancestors of Great Zimbabwe’s rulers. Although their precise significance is still unknown, these sculptures remain powerful symbols of rule in the modern era, adorning the flag of Zimbabwe as national emblems. It’s thought that they represent the bateleur eagle – a good omen, protective spirit and messenger of the gods in Shona culture.

 

If you’d like to visit Great Zimbabwe, other archaeological sites in Africa, or any of the major attractions, please get in touch with our travel experts now. 

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