Great Zimbabwe is an ancient city in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo, close to the Chimanimani Mountains and the Chipinge District. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument by ancestors of the Shona people began in the 11th century and continued until the 14th century, spanning an area of 722 hectares (1,780 acres) which, at its peak, could have housed up to 18,000 people. It is recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Great Zimbabwe served as a royal palace for the Zimbabwean monarch and would have been used as the seat of political power. One of its most prominent features were the walls, some of which were over five metres high and which were constructed without mortar. Eventually the city was abandoned and fell into ruin.
The earliest known written mention of the ruins was in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, captain of the Portuguese garrison of Sofala, who recorded it as Symbaoe. The first 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 black people. Great Zimbabwe has since been adopted as a national monument by the Zimbabwean government, and the modern independent state was named for 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.
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 ancestors of modern Shona in Zimbabwe. A few believe that the ancestors of the Lemba or Venda were responsible, or cooperated with the Gokomere in the construction.
The Great Zimbabwe area was settled by the fourth century of the common era. 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 36 feet (11 m) extending approximately 820 feet (250 m), 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. At its peak, estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants. The ruins that survive are built entirely of stone. The ruins span 1,800 acres (7.3 km2).
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. ”
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, 18 ft (5.5 m) in diameter and 30 ft (9.1 m) high, was constructed between the two walls. The Valley Complex is divided into the Upper and Lower Valley Ruins, with different periods of occupation.
The Valley Complex
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. Some researchers have presented an argument that the ruins may have housed an astronomy observatory, although the significance of the alignments upon which these claims are based is contested.
Copy of Zimbabwe Bird soapstone sculpture
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, 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.
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 A.D have been suggested as due to a decline in trade compared to sites further north, 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
Great Zimbabwe appears on Abraham Ortelius’ 1570 map Africae Tablua Nova, rendered “Simbaoe”. From Portuguese traders to Karl Mauch
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.
The following description was also received and recorded by João de Barros in the early 1500s:
Symbaoe … is guarded by a ‘nobleman’, who has charge of … some of Benomotapa’s wives therein… When, and by whom, these edifices were raised … there is no record, but they say they are the work of the devil, for …. it does not seem possible to them that they should be the work of man
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.
Theodore Bent and the Queen of Sheba
J. Theodore Bent’s season at Zimbabwe, under Cecil Rhodes’s patronage, resulted in publications which introduced the ruins to English readers. Bent, who had no formal archaeological training, but had travelled widely in Greece and Asia Minor, stated in The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1891) that the ruins revealed either the Phoenicians or the Arabs as builders. In contrast, Karl Mauch favoured 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. Other theories on the origin of the ruins, among both white settlers and academics, had the common view that the original buildings were probably not made by sub-Saharan Africans. The Sheba legend, as promoted by Mauch, was so pervasive in the white settler community as to cause 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”
The construction of Great Zimbabwe is also claimed by the Lemba. This ethnic group of Zimbabwe and South Africa has a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line, which is supported by recent DNA studies, and female ancestry derived from the Karanga subgroup of the Shona. 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 of whom were told that the stone edifices and the gold mines were constructed by a people known as the BaLemba. Robert Gayre strongly supported the Lemba claim to Great Zimbabwe, proposing that the Shona artefacts found in the ruins were placed there only after the Bantu conquered the area and drove out or absorbed the previous inhabitants. However, Gayre’s thesis is not supported by more recent scholars such as Garlake or Pikirayi.
Tudor Parfitt described Gayre’s work as intended to “show that black people had never been capable of building in stone or of governing themselves”, although he adds: “The fact that Gayre… got most of his facts wrong, does not in itself vitiate the claims of the Lemba to have been involved in the Great Zimbabwe civilisation.” He says that Mufuka, among others, supports the hypothesis of construction by the Lemba or the Venda.
The first scientific archaeological excavations at the site were undertaken by David Randall-MacIver in 1905–1906. In Medieval Rhodesia, he wrote of the existence in the site of objects that were of Bantu origin. In 1929, Gertrude Caton-Thompson concluded that the site was indeed created by Bantu.
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
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, as do 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 500 AD and is believed, from archaeological evidence, to constitute 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-descended groups such as the Shona probably contributed the African component of the ancestry of the Lemba. 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.
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 Mapungubwe.