Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the south-eastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the city began in the 11th century and continued until it was abandoned in the 15th century. The edifices were erected by the ancestral Shona. The stone city spans an area of 7.22 square kilometres (2.79 square miles) which, at its peak, could have housed up to 18,000 people. It is recognised as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
Great Zimbabwe is believed to have served as a royal palace for the local monarch. As such, it would have been used as the seat of political power. Among the edifice’s most prominent features were its walls, some of which were over five metres high. They were constructed without mortar (dry stone). Eventually, the city was abandoned and fell into ruin.
The earliest known written mention of the Great Zimbabwe ruins was in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, captain of the Portuguese garrison of Sofala, on the coast of modern-day Mozambique, who recorded it as Symbaoe. The first confirmed visits by Europeans were in the late 19th century, with investigations of the site starting in 1871. Later, studies of the monument were controversial in the archaeological world, with political pressure being put upon archaeologists by the government of Rhodesia to deny its construction by native African people. Great Zimbabwe has since been adopted as a national monument by the Zimbabwean government, and the modern independent state was named after it. The word great distinguishes the site from the many hundreds of small ruins, now known as “zimbabwes”, spread across the Zimbabwe Highveld. There are 200 such sites in southern Africa, such as Bumbusi in Zimbabwe and Manyikeni in Mozambique, with monumental, mortarless walls; Great Zimbabwe is the largest of these.
Zimbabwe is the Shona name of the ruins, first recorded in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala. Pegado noted that “The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies ‘court'”.
The name contains dzimba, the Shona term for “houses”. There are two theories for the etymology of the name. The first proposes that the word is derived from Dzimba-dza-mabwe, translated from the Karanga dialect of Shona as “large houses of stone” (dzimba = plural of imba, “house”; mabwe = plural of bwe, “stone”). A second suggests that Zimbabwe is a contracted form of dzimba-hwe, which means “venerated houses” in the Zezuru dialect of Shona, as usually applied to the houses or graves of chiefs.
The majority of scholars believe that it was built by members of the Gokomere culture, who were the ancestors of the modern Shona in Zimbabwe.
The Great Zimbabwe area was settled by the fourth century AD. Between the fourth and the seventh centuries, communities of the Gokomere or Ziwa cultures farmed the valley, and mined and worked iron, but built no stone structures. These are the earliest Iron Age settlements in the area identified from archaeological diggings.
Construction and growth
Construction of the stone buildings started in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years. The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are some of the oldest and largest structures located in Southern Africa, and are the second oldest after nearby Mapungubwe in South Africa. Its most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, has walls as high as 11 m (36 ft) extending approximately 250 m (820 ft), making it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. David Beach believes that the city and its state, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, flourished from 1200 to 1500, although a somewhat earlier date for its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros. Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300, due to climatic change or the greater availability of gold in the hinterland of Great Zimbabwe.
Traditional estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants at its peak. However, a more recent survey concluded that the population likely never exceeded 10,000. The ruins that survive are built entirely of stone; they span 730 ha (1,800 acres).
Features of the ruins
In 1531, Vicente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, described Zimbabwe thus:
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 m] high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.— Vicente Pegado
The ruins form three distinct architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. The Hill Complex is the oldest, and was occupied from the ninth to thirteenth centuries. The Great Enclosure was occupied from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, and the Valley Complex from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Notable features of the Hill Complex include the Eastern Enclosure, in which it is thought the Zimbabwe Birds stood, a high balcony enclosure overlooking the Eastern Enclosure, and a huge boulder in a shape similar to that of the Zimbabwe Bird. The Great Enclosure is composed of an inner wall, encircling a series of structures and a younger outer wall. The Conical Tower, 5.5 m (18 ft) in diameter and 9 m (30 ft) high, was constructed between the two walls. The Valley Complex is divided into the Upper and Lower Valley Ruins, with different periods of occupation.
There are different archaeological interpretations of these groupings. It has been suggested that the complexes represent the work of successive kings: some of the new rulers founded a new residence. The focus of power moved from the Hill Complex in the twelfth century, to the Great Enclosure, the Upper Valley and finally the Lower Valley in the early sixteenth century. The alternative “structuralist” interpretation holds that the different complexes had different functions: the Hill Complex as a temple, the Valley complex was for the citizens, and the Great Enclosure was used by the king. Structures that were more elaborate were probably built for the kings, although it has been argued that the dating of finds in the complexes does not support this interpretation.
The most important artefacts recovered from the Monument are the eight Zimbabwe Birds. These were carved from a micaceous schist (soapstone) on the tops of monoliths the height of a person. Slots in a platform in the Eastern Enclosure of the Hill Complex appear designed to hold the monoliths with the Zimbabwe birds, but as they were not found in situ it cannot be determined which monolith and bird were where. Other artefacts include soapstone figurines (one of which is in the British Museum), pottery, iron gongs, elaborately worked ivory, iron and copper wire, iron hoes, bronze spearheads, copper ingots and crucibles, and gold beads, bracelets, pendants and sheaths. Glass beads and porcelain from China and Persia among other foreign artefacts were also found, attesting the international trade linkages of the Kingdom. In the extensive stone ruins of the great city, which still remain today, include eight, monolithic birds carved in soapstone. It is thought that they represent the bateleur eagle- a good omen, protective spirit and messenger of the gods in Shona culture.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a centre for trading, with artefacts suggesting that the city formed part of a trade network linked to Kilwa and extending as far as China. Copper coins found at Kilwa Kisiwani appear to be of the same pure ore found on the Swahili coast. This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory; some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground. That international commerce was in addition to the local agricultural trade, in which cattle were especially important. The large cattle herd that supplied the city moved seasonally and was managed by the court. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads and other non-local items have been excavated at Zimbabwe. Despite these strong international trade links, there is no evidence to suggest exchange of architectural concepts between Great Zimbabwe and centres such as Kilwa.
Causes for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the site around 1450 have been suggested as due to a decline in trade compared to sites further north, the exhaustion of the gold mines, political instability and famine and water shortages induced by climatic change. The Mutapa state arose in the fifteenth century from the northward expansion of the Great Zimbabwe tradition, having been founded by Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe after he was sent to find new sources of salt in the north; (this supports the belief that Great Zimbabwe’s decline was due to a shortage of resources). Great Zimbabwe also predates the Khami and Nyanga cultures.
History of research and origins of the ruins
From Portuguese traders to Karl Mauch
The first European visit may have been made by the Portuguese traveler António Fernandes in 1513-1515, who crossed twice and reported in detail the region of present-day Zimbabwe (including the Shona kingdoms) and also fortified centers in stone without mortar. However, passing en route a few kilometres north and about 56 km (35 mi) south of the site, he did not make a reference to Great Zimbabwe. Portuguese traders heard about the remains of the ancient city in the early 16th century, and records survive of interviews and notes made by some of them, linking Great Zimbabwe to gold production and long-distance trade. Two of those accounts mention an inscription above the entrance to Great Zimbabwe, written in characters not known to the Arab merchants who had seen it.
In 1506, the explorer Diogo de Alcáçova described the edifices in a letter to the then King of Portugal, writing that they were part of the larger kingdom of Ucalanga (presumably Karanga, a dialect of the Shona people spoken mainly in Masvingo and Midlands provinces of Zimbabwe). João de Barros left another such description of Great Zimbabwe in 1538, as recounted to him by Moorish traders who had visited the area and possessed knowledge of the hinterland. He indicates that the edifices were locally known as Symbaoe, which meant “royal court” in the vernacular. As to the actual identity of the builders of Great Zimbabwe, de Barros writes:
When and by whom, these edifices were raised, as the people of the land are ignorant of the art of writing, there is no record, but they say they are the work of the devil, for in comparison with their power and knowledge it does not seem possible to them that they should be the work of man.— João de Barros
Additionally, with regard to the purpose of the Great Zimbabwe ruins, de Barros asserted that: “in the opinion of the Moors who saw it [Great Zimbabwe] it is very ancient and was built to keep possessions of the mines, which are very old, and no gold has been extracted from them for years, because of the wars… it would seem that some prince who has possession of these mines ordered it to be built as a sign thereof, which he afterwards lost in the course of time and through their being so remote from his kingdom…”.
De Barros further remarked that Symbaoe “is guarded by a nobleman, who has charge of it, after the manner of a chief alcaide, and they call this officer Symbacayo . . . and there are always some of Benomotapa’s wives therein of whom Symbacayo takes care.” Thus, Great Zimbabwe appears to have still been inhabited as recently as the early 16th century.
Karl Mauch and the Queen of Sheba
The ruins were rediscovered during a hunting trip in 1867 by Adam Render, a German-American hunter, prospector and trader in southern Africa, who in 1871 showed the ruins to Karl Mauch, a German explorer and geographer of Africa. Karl Mauch recorded the ruins 3 September 1871, and immediately speculated about a possible Biblical association with King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, an explanation which had been suggested by earlier writers such as the Portuguese João dos Santos. Mauch went so far as to favour a legend that the structures were built to replicate the palace of the Queen of Sheba in Jerusalem, and claimed a wooden lintel at the site must be Lebanese cedar, brought by Phoenicians. The Sheba legend, as promoted by Mauch, became so pervasive in the white settler community as to cause the later scholar James Theodore Bent to say,
The names of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were on everybody’s lips, and have become so distasteful to us that we never expect to hear them again without an involuntary shudder.
Carl Peters and Theodore Bent
Carl Peters collected a ceramic ushabti in 1905. Flinders Petrie examined it and identified a cartouche on its chest as belonging to the 18th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and suggested that it was a statuette of the king and cited it as proof of commercial ties between rulers in the area and the ancient Egyptians during the New Kingdom (c. 1550 BC–1077 BC), if not a relic of an old Egyptian station near the local gold mines. Johann Heinrich Schäfer later appraised the statuette, and argued that it belonged to a well-known group of forgeries. After having received the ushabti, Felix von Luschan suggested that it was of more recent origin than the New Kingdom. He asserted that the figurine instead appeared to date to the subsequent Ptolemaic era (c. 323 BC–30 BC), when Alexandria-based Greek merchants would export Egyptian antiquities and pseudo-antiquities to southern Africa.
J. Theodore Bent undertook a season at Zimbabwe with Cecil Rhodes’s patronage and funding from the Royal Geographical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This, and other excavations undertaken for Rhodes, resulted in a book publication that introduced the ruins to English readers. Bent had no formal archaeological training, but had travelled very widely in Arabia, Greece and Asia Minor. He was aided by the expert cartographer and surveyor Robert M.W. Swan (1858-1904), who also visited and surveyed a host of related stone ruins nearby. Bent stated in the first edition of his book The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892) that the ruins revealed either the Phoenicians or the Arabs as builders, and he favoured the possibility of great antiquity for the fortress. By the third edition of his book (1902) he was more specific, with his primary theory being “a Semitic race and of Arabian origin” of “strongly commercial” traders living within a client African city.
Other theories on the origin of the ruins, among both white settlers and academics, took a common view that the original buildings were probably not made by local Bantu peoples. Bent indulged these theories alongside his Arab theory, to the point where his more tenuous theories had become somewhat discredited by the 1910s.
The construction of Great Zimbabwe is also claimed by the Lemba. Members of this ethnic group speak the Bantu languages spoken by their geographic neighbours and resemble them physically, but they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism and Islam, which they claim were transmitted by oral tradition. They have a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line. Genetic Y-DNA analyses in the 2000s have established a partially Middle-Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population. More recent research argues that DNA studies do not support claims for a specifically Jewish genetic heritage.
The Lemba claim was also reported by a William Bolts (in 1777, to the Austrian Habsburg authorities), and by an A.A. Anderson (writing about his travels north of the Limpopo River in the 19th century). Both explorers were told that the stone edifices and the gold mines were constructed by a people known as the BaLemba.
However, archaeological evidence and recent scholarship support the construction of Great Zimbabwe (and the origin of its culture) by the Shona and Venda peoples.
David Randall-MacIver and medieval origin
The first scientific archaeological excavations at the site were undertaken by David Randall-MacIver for the British Association in 1905–1906. In Medieval Rhodesia, he wrote of the existence in the site of objects that were of Bantu origin. More importantly he suggested a wholly medieval date for the walled fortifications and temple. This claim was not immediately accepted, partly due to the relatively short and undermanned period of excavation he was able to undertake.
In mid 1929 Gertrude Caton-Thompson concluded, after a twelve-day visit of a three-person team and the digging of several trenches, that the site was indeed created by Bantu. She had first sunk three test pits into what had been refuse heaps on the upper terraces of the hill complex, producing a mix of unremarkable pottery and ironwork. She then moved to the Conical Tower, and tried to dig under the tower, arguing that the ground there would be undisturbed, but nothing was revealed. Some further test trenches were then put down outside the lower Great Enclosure and in the Valley Ruins, which unearthed domestic ironwork, glass beads, and a gold bracelet. Caton-Thompson immediately announced her Bantu origin theory to a meeting of the British Association in Johannesburg.
Examination of all the existing evidence, gathered from every quarter, still can produce not one single item that is not in accordance with the claim of Bantu origin and medieval date
Caton-Thompson’s claim was not immediately favoured, although it had strong support among some scientific archaeologists due to her modern methods. Her most important contribution was in helping to confirm the theory of a medieval origin for the masonry work of circa the 14th-15th century. By 1931, she had modified her Bantu theory somewhat, allowing for a possible Arabian influence for the towers through the imitation of buildings or art seen at the coastal Arabian trading cities.
Since the 1950s, there has been consensus among archaeologists as to the African origins of Great Zimbabwe. Artefacts and radiocarbon dating indicate settlement in at least the fifth century, with continuous settlement of Great Zimbabwe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries and the bulk of the finds from the fifteenth century. The radiocarbon evidence is a suite of 28 measurements, for which all but the first four, from the early days of the use of that method and now viewed as inaccurate, support the twelfth to fifteenth centuries chronology. In the 1970s, a beam that produced some of the anomalous dates in 1952 was reanalysed and gave a fourteenth-century date. Dated finds such as Chinese, Persian and Syrian artefacts also support the twelfth and fifteenth century dates.
Archaeologists generally agree that the builders probably spoke one of the Shona languages, based upon evidence of pottery, oral traditions and anthropology and were probably descended from the Gokomere culture. The Gokomere culture, an eastern Bantu subgroup, existed in the area from around 200 AD and flourished from 500 AD to about 800 AD. Archaeological evidence indicates that it constitutes an early phase of the Great Zimbabwe culture. The Gokomere culture likely gave rise to both the modern Mashona people, an ethnic cluster comprising distinct sub-ethnic groups such as the local Karanga clan and the Rozwi culture, which originated as several Shona states. Gokomere peoples were probably also related to certain nearby early Bantu groups like the Mapungubwe civilisation of neighbouring North eastern South Africa, which is believed to have been an early Venda-speaking culture, and to the nearby Sotho.
More recent archaeological work has been carried out by Peter Garlake, who has produced the comprehensive descriptions of the site, David Beach and Thomas Huffman, who have worked on the chronology and development of Great Zimbabwe and Gilbert Pwiti, who has published extensively on trade links. Today, the most recent consensus appears to attribute the construction of Great Zimbabwe to the Shona people. Some evidence also suggests an early influence from the probably Venda-speaking peoples of the Mapungubwe civilization.
Damage to the ruins
Damage to the ruins has taken place throughout the last century. The removal of gold and artefacts in amateurist diggings by early colonial antiquarians caused widespread damage, notably diggings by Richard Nicklin Hall. More extensive damage was caused by the mining of some of the ruins for gold. Reconstruction attempts since 1980 caused further damage, leading to alienation of the local communities from the site.
Martin Hall writes that the history of Iron Age research south of the Zambezi shows the prevalent influence of colonial ideologies, both in the earliest speculations about the nature of the African past and in the adaptations that have been made to contemporary archaeological methodologies. Preben Kaarsholm writes that both colonial and black nationalist groups invoked Great Zimbabwe’s past to support their vision of the country’s present, through the media of popular history and of fiction. Examples of such popular history include Alexander Wilmot’s Monomotapa (Rhodesia) and Ken Mufuka’s Dzimbahwe: Life and Politics in the Golden Age; examples from fiction include Wilbur Smith’s The Sunbird and Stanlake Samkange’s Year of the Uprising.
When white colonialists like Cecil Rhodes first saw the ruins, they saw them as a sign of the great riches that the area would yield to its new masters.Pikirayi and Kaarsholm suggest that this presentation of Great Zimbabwe was partly intended to encourage settlement and investment in the area. Gertrude Caton-Thompson recognised that the builders were indigenous Africans, but she characterised the site as the “product of an infantile mind” built by a subjugated society. 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. According to Paul Sinclair, interviewed for None But Ourselves:
I was the archaeologist stationed at Great Zimbabwe. 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 radio carbon dates… It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.
This suppression of archaeology culminated in the departure from the country of prominent archaeologists of Great Zimbabwe, including Peter Garlake, Senior Inspector of Monuments for Rhodesia, and Roger Summers of the National Museum.
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 for 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. After the creation of the modern state of Zimbabwe in 1980, Great Zimbabwe has been employed to mirror and legitimise shifting policies of the ruling regime. At first it was argued that it represented a form of pre-colonial “African socialism” and later the focus shifted to stressing the natural evolution of an accumulation of wealth and power within a ruling elite. An example of the former is Ken Mufuka’s booklet, although the work has been heavily criticised.
Some of the carvings had been taken from Great Zimbabwe around 1890 and sold to Cecil Rhodes, who was intrigued and had copies made which he gave to friends. Most of the carvings have now been returned to Zimbabwe, but one remains at Rhodes’ old home, Groote Schuur, in Cape Town.
The Great Zimbabwe University
In the early 21st century, the government of Zimbabwe endorsed the creation of a university in the vicinity of the ruins. This university is an arts and culture based university which draws from the rich history of the monuments. It was created to preserve the rich history of this country which was facing a dark future due to globalisation. The university main site is near the monuments with other campuses in the City centre and Mashava. The campuses include Herbet Chitepo Law School, Robert Mugabe School of Education, Gary Magadzire School of Agriculture and Natural Science, Simon Muzenda School of Arts, and Munhumutapa School of Commerce.
- Garlake, Peter (1973). Great Zimbabwe: New Aspects of Archaeology. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-8128-1599-3.
- Garlake, Peter (1982). Great Zimbabwe. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House. ISBN 978-0-949932-18-1.
- Garlake, Peter (2002). Early Art and Architecture of Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-284261-7.
- Matenga, Edward (2008). Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe: Symbols of a Nation. Harare: African Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-77901-135-0.
- Pikirayi, Innocent (2001). The Zimbabwe culture: origins and decline of southern Zambezian states. Rowman Altamira. ISBN 978-0-7591-0091-6.
- Summers, Roger (1970). “The Rhodesian Iron Age”. In J.D. Fage; Roland Oliver (eds.). Papers in African Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-09566-2.
- Ucko, Peter J. (1995). Theory in Archaeology: A World Perspective. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-203-97328-8.
- Great Zimbabwe Ruins
- Great Zimbabwe entry on the UNESCO World Heritage site