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The Ruins at Great Zimbabwe

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The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are the most extensive in sub-Saharan Africa, and arguably the most emotive. The name 'Zimbabwe' probably comes from the Shona phrase Ziimba dza Mabwe1, meaning 'Houses of Stone'. 30km south-west of Masvingo2 in Zimbabwe3, the ruins sit on a 1000m plateau, at the base of some low granite hills on otherwise open plains, with few trees. For generations, these cyclopean stone walls were considered one of the great unsolved mysteries of the world; who could have built these ruins when no surrounding people was capable of more than mud huts? Why could such a people not have dominated the local Shona tribespeople and built more such cities? Where had their advanced civilisation gone by the time Europeans reached the area in the 1800s?

Nowadays, we have satisfactory - and often surprisingly obvious - answers to all these questions, though there are mysteries yet on the plains.

The Ruins

There are three main sections, the Hill Complex (also known as the Acropolis or Hill Town), the Valley Ruins and the Walled Town (or Great Enclosure).

The Valley Ruins are now almost invisible, as they are the remains of mud-brick (daga) buildings between the other two sections. A purpose-built version of a local village is thankfully well concealed from view at the rear, offering fortune-telling and tribal dancing during the high season. It does, however, give an impression of what the Valley ruins must once have looked like, with conical thatched roofs slope almost to the ground.

The Hill Complex is largely built into the rocky hillside, with walls and floors carved into the rock in some places and built on top of it in others. Guides will enthusiastically point out to visitors areas where the acoustics would allow public speeches to be made, and caves that act as loudspeakers to allow voices to be projected over the surrounding countryside. However exciting these stories may be to tourists, it should be remembered that they owe more to the imaginations of the guides than to local tradition or archaeology. Even so, the Hill Complex is the oldest part of the site, dating back to around 900AD.

The Walled Town is by far the most spectacular of the areas, and its huge stone walls are emblematic of the entire country, having been used on both banknotes and coins. Featuring decoration on only one side, a zigzag pattern at the top of the wall facing east, towards the distant coast, it is roughly oval in shape. The outer walls are 250m long and 11m high, and contain within them further massive walls. At one point, these run adjacent to each other, forming a shaded corridor rather like a cleft in a mountain. There is a small enclosure at the end which may have been used for some ceremonial purpose, such as circumcision. The most significant structure within the Great Enclosure (Imba Huru) is the Tower. Made of a similar style stonework to the main walls, there was long speculation as to what the tower might contain if it were hollow. More recently, tomographic4 data has shown that the Tower is solid; however, its purpose, if not its contents, remain a mystery. The walls are of dry stone and are extremely broad and tall. Their grey bricks, although drawn from the adjacent hills, make a sharp contrast with the surrounding plains.

For the purposes of this article, 'Great Zimbabwe' will refer to the site as a whole, whereas 'Zimbabwe' or 'Rhodesia' will be used for the nation.

Culture and History

Almost every local tribal group claims to be the original builders of Great Zimbabwe, but the Lemba probably have the best claim. Artefacts found at the site are very similar to those used by modern Lemba (part of the Shona group of peoples), and this is backed up both by similarities in burial customs and by folklore.

At its zenith between the years 1100 and 1450, Zimbabwe is believed to have had 10-20,000 inhabitants, and to have controlled a huge empire between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, covering much of modern Zimbabwe and some of Mozambique. It is clear from artefacts discovered in the ruins that this was a great trading empire and items from as far away as China having been found.

Around 1450, the Great Zimbabwe empire collapsed. The reasons for this fall are not clear, but the usual suspects are drought, warfare, over-use of the local resources, or the exhaustion of the gold deposits that lead to the city's prosperity.

European 'Discovery' and The 'Mystery' of Origins

From around 1450, the Muhhumutapa Empire of the Rozvi Shona people built their capital among the now-ruined walls. They traded extensively with Portuguese merchants along the east coast, and during the early 1500s accurate stories began to circulate among the Europeans of a ruined inland city. Although the gold was mined out, it remained in circulation long enough for some Europeans to form a less accurate image of 'cities of gold' in the interior not dissimilar to the El Dorado legends of South America. This would be used much later by the Dutch as a recruitment tool for their colony in Cape Town which would, ironically, lead to the discovery of huge gold reserves in Johannesburg. Portugal conquered the Shona peoples in the area in 1629, and Great Zimbabwe sank into obscurity.

Adam Renders rediscovered the ruins on a hunting trip in 1867, and directed Carl Mauch, a German geologist, to them in 1871. Mauch wrote:

'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 and the building in the plain a copy of the palace where the Queen of Sheba lived during her visit to Solomon.'
Mauch believed that these buildings were so magnificent that they must have some connection to the Biblical Solomonic kingdom, which at that time was still believed to have been a 'golden civilisation' with huge influence and massive palaces. Ideas such as this would dominate thinking - European and African - about the origins of Great Zimbabwe for many years. Another popular theory was that this was Ophir, the site of the legendary King Solomon's Mines, explaining why the African peoples in the region had so much gold to trade with the Portuguese three centuries earlier.

For many years, Great Zimbabwe was considered to be of mysterious origin. No major civilisation was known to have been active in the area, leading to speculations of a colony of Arab or Phoenician traders. The earliest archaeologists to inspect the site were James Theodore Bent, of the British Association of Science and sponsored by Cecil Rhodes, and Richard Hall. Bent's book, Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892), and Hall's 1902 The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia both supported the idea that the monuments were built by 'more civilised races' than the Africans. Hall in particular has come in for heavy criticism; although sent only to preserve the ruins, and having no archaeological training, he launched a huge unauthorised excavation, discarding one to three metres of deposits that he regarded as having being the remains of 'primitive' local settlers who had taken over the ruins. The damage to the archaeological record was incalculable, and he was summarily dismissed.

The next two digs were very different. David Randall-MacIver's 1905 expedition, also sponsored by Rhodes's British South Africa Company, was the first to suggest a local origin for the structures, concluding that they were 'unquestionably African in every detail.' This was not acceptable to the administration, whose justification for their highly profitable presence in Africa was that they were bringing the fruits of civilisation to the 'backwards' Africans. It would be a quarter of a century before another expedition was permitted to examine the ruins. Gertrude Caton-Thompson's 1929 team was entirely female, something of a novelty at that time, particularly in Africa. Her book The Zimbabwe Culture: Ruins and Reactions (1931) supported Randall-MacIver's ideas.

The view that black peoples were incapable of building the kind of civilisation that Great Zimbabwe would have required was supported by the racist assumptions of early European explorers, and was later backed up by the policies of the Rhodesian government who prevented archaeologists from discussing findings that indicated a local origin for the builders of Zimbabwe. This did not come to an end until majority rule in 19805, when the new nation was named in honour of the monuments that had become something of a symbol of the suppression of black culture by Europeans. The site itself was declared a World Heritage Site in 1986.

The mystery surrounding Great Zimbabwe has always been in large part due to its isolation. Although the site does have some advantages - proximity to ancient mine-workings, some good areas of fertile soil and a local microclimate that protects against tsetse flies - this does not seem enough to explain a single great city in a region of the continent otherwise occupied by mud huts. Early European investigators, though perhaps blinkered by racism, had a point when they said that it was hard to see how any people that had no history of stone architecture could build one great city and no others. Once again, the solution to this is as surprising as it is obvious; they didn't. There are now more than 150 known ruins throughout Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the north of the Republic of South Africa. Great Zimbabwe was not a stone city among mud huts; it was a stone city among stone towns.


Public transport access to Great Zimbabwe is not fantastic. The nearest train station is in Masvingo. Buses run infrequently even when there is petrol, and the access road is of poor quality even by Zimbabwean standards. Most visitors come as part of organised tours or in taxis. That said, it is not difficult for a determined traveller to find a means of getting to the ruins, and tours can be booked in any major city in Zimbabwe, or several in South Africa.

Soapstone Birds

During the excavations at Great Zimbabwe, eight carvings of soapstone birds6 were unearthed. Their distinctive curved shape may represent that bateleur eagle. One was sent to Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town. This remains in the Groote Schuur in Cape Town, Rhodes's former home. This is the only bird not currently in Zimbabwe. Four complete birds and and a partial bird were sent to Rhodes separately; these were returned on independence. Pieces of another were discovered in a museum in Germany and reunited with the remaining piece in Zimbabwe. The eighth and final statue has always remained in Zimbabwe.

They are known to have stood on pillars at the eastern end of the site, and may have represented kings. However, their exact positioning was not recorded, and consequently is unlikely ever to be known. The birds sit atop pillars, and one forms part of the flag of Zimbabwe. Each bird is around 30cm tall, the pillars around one metre.

There are two styles of bird, with slight differences in posture and shape of the plinth. In the absence of any direct method of dating the birds, it is unclear whether this represents earlier and later styles, or whether there was some meaning to the differences.

Two much smaller (9cm) carvings have also been found and were initially described as 'birds'; however, there is no sign that they are anything other than abstract patterns on poles.


Although the southern African stone ruins are neither as old nor as large as those of the Indus or Nile Valleys, Mesopotamia or even Mesoamerica, they show that African peoples were far more civilised than they were often given credit for by their European conquerors. Although the majority rule goverments may have no less a political agenda in publicising the black origins of these structures than the previous white administration did in suppressing them, it does appear that the extent of the Shona empire and its achievements are being made widely known for the first time.

1Or several similar variations.2Formerly Fort Victoria.3Formerly Rhodesia.4Tomography is a method of reconstructing the internal structure of an object using X-rays.5Until 1980, only whites (and about 2% of the black population) were allowed to vote in Rhodesia. The end of this period and the enfrachisement of the general populace is generally referred to as 'majority rule'.6The link is to a PDF document that may be slow to download.

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