When you think of sub-Saharan Africa, you do not normally think of ancient cultures and old stone buildings which are still visible today. Zimbabwe is an exception, for here stands the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, evidence of a centuries-old African history. The site has been inhabited since the 4th century, first by the Gokomere civilisation and later the Shona tribe. It was the Shona who first built a great city here, surrounded by massive walls. This lasted until the 15th century but the walls still stand upright to this day, partly restored. The Shona empire lasted for 200 years and stretched as far as Botswana and South Africa. This was the capital city of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe and has always been known as Great Zimbabwe. The country of Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, owes its present name to this ancient structure.
Great Zimbabwe lies in the hills in the southeast of the country, near Mutirikwe Lake and the town of Masvingo. The site is evidence of a rich African history in Zimbabwe and since 1986 it has been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The remains of the city are now one of the oldest and largest historical ruins in Southern Africa. It covers an area of 7.2 square kilometres and the walls encompass an area measuring 730 hectares. It is thought that the city was once the palace of a king, from where he directed the affairs of the Shona empire. The walls were once as high as 5 metres and contained as many as 18,000 people.
The most striking feature is the Great Enclosure. This was probably the residence of the king and his family. The thick walls and an old tower still stand proud.
The name Great Zimbabwe suggests that there may also have been smaller towns and that is correct. Up to now around 200 settlements have been found which were part of the same culture, and they lie spread over the whole of Southern Africa.
From trading city to ruins
Great Zimbabwe was a large trading site where traders dealt in gold and ivory. The city lay on the old route to the ports of Mozambique where ships were loaded with goods destined for Europe.
All that stands here today are the remnants of the walls of houses which consist of granite blocks lying loosely on top of each other. It is a mystery how the stones came here, seeing that the local inhabitants at that time only worked with wood, reeds and clay. The walls are 5 metres high in some places and built without cement.
We also do not know why the city was later abandoned. Perhaps the trade was taken over by a kingdom to the north or the goldmines around Great Zimbabwe became exhausted. Another theory is that the city was abandoned because of a lengthy drought and the inhabitants emigrated to greener pastures.
Back to Nature
Over the centuries the savannah has retaken possession of the old city and the ruins have become one with nature. Climbing the hills around the site you can clearly see the shapes of the old areas of the city.
Karanga Village was built close to Great Zimbabwe. The small village is a replica of the mud huts which formerly surrounded the city. They give a good impression of how the huts must have looked in those days around the stone walls.
The Zimbabwean Flag
Eight large statues of birds were found in Great Zimbabwe, made of soapstone and standing on posts. Seven of them were in the chambers, or sanctuaries, into which the hill fort was divided. Probably cult objects, they were symbols of power and identity. The best preserved one lay buried between the surrounding walls and the hill fort. The bird now forms part of the country’s coat of arms and the Zimbabwean flag.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey