A History of Great Zimbabwe - The Rise and Fall

Great Zimbabwe. A great example of Africa’s engineering and architectural abilities. With soaring granite walls seven times taller than the average person, narrow corridors, and hundreds of Daga homes stretched across the plains, the city was once the capital of a grand medieval kingdom that controlled the gold trade from China to Persia.

So, why have most people never heard of it? Why have the ruins remained almost as elusive to modern researchers as they had to scholars more than 100 years ago? How could such a large and powerful civilization leave such vague and minuscule clues of its history?

The answers range from colonial destruction to lack of written records to contemporary economic issues in the country that took its name from the grand ancient city. So, what do we know about Great Zimbabwe, and will we ever gain access to its lost secrets?

Before diving headfirst into these questions, let’s examine Great Zimbabwe: what makes the site so impressive, and what do we know about the people who lived there?

Construction of Great Zimbabwe

It is believed that construction began at Great Zimbabwe around the year 900 by the native Shona people. However, there is evidence of humans living in the area as early as the 5th century. The Shona probably chose this region because its climate is milder than the hotter lowlands, and it is free of the tsetse fly, which carries sleeping sickness. The massive ruins are primarily split into three main areas: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Ruins.

The Hill Complex is believed to have been the city’s spiritual center with walls that reach as high as 36 feet (11 meters). Its western enclosure was probably the residence of the kingdom’s chiefs because, in Shona culture, rulers often live on hills and are associated with high ground. Also, oral traditions in the area talk of Great Zimbabwe rulers residing on the hill.

mapof zimbabwe
A 16th-century map of Zimbabwe by Abraham Ortelius, 1570/Wikimedia Commons.

The eastern enclosure, on the other hand, is thought to have been the religious center. Granite boulders which were collected from the exposed rock of the surrounding hill make up this section. It is also the only area of Great Zimbabwe which did not contain houses.

The Great Enclosure is the most stunning architectural achievement of the city. As the largest single existing structure in sub-Saharan Africa, it contains over one million granite blocks.

The walls used no mortar and were split and shaped to fit together. (Granite naturally splits into equal halves making this work more manageable). The outer walls have a circumference of 820 feet (250 meters), with an inner wall running inside to create a narrow corridor leading to the conical tower.

The inner walls of the Great Enclosure were an area where elite families lived and socialized. Homes were constructed from Daga brick (mixture of granite sand and clay), and each family’s space typically included a kitchen, two houses, and a courtyard. Walls separated these living quarters from each other to maintain privacy. Approximately 200-300 people lived in the Great Enclosure.

Experts disagree on whether the impressive walls and conical tower of Great Zimbabwe were used for defense. Some argue that they were only symbols of the elite to separate themselves from the other inhabitants who lived in Daga homes across the Valley Ruins. One reason for this belief is that the conical tower doesn’t appear to have ever actually been used. Nevertheless, Great Zimbabwe would have been discouraging to enemies.

Kingdom of Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe was the capital city of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which controlled trade along a large part of the East African coast between the 11th and 15th centuries. The kingdom became rich mainly from the massive amount of gold in the area and, to a lesser extent, ivory. Great Zimbabwe sits atop a gold-rich plateau and between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers which also contained gold.

Great Zimbabwe was a center of trade of the ancient world with wide networks that spanned thousands of miles. Artifacts found at the site include glass beads and porcelain from China and India, Arab coins from Kilwa (Tanzania), pottery and a bronze bell from Persia, and glass from Syria. Some experts theorize that Great Zimbabwe accumulated these vast trade networks by taking over the trade networks of their wealthy southern neighbors, Mapungubwe, around the year 1270.

Detail of a Great Zimbabwe wall
Detail of a Great Zimbabwe wall, Masvingo, Zimbabwe, 1975/Wikimedia Commons.

The site is mainly known for its six soapstone bird statues located within the east enclosure of the Hill Complex. The birds stand approximately 16 inches tall (40 cm) atop three-foot poles (1 m). The birds have human lips and feet, and each one sports a different pattern. The birds also do not resemble native species, causing many archeologists to assume they were purely religious pieces.

It has been speculated that the birds represent the ancestors of Shona rulers. The main issue with this conjecture is that there are only six of these figures when there would have been many more rulers during Great Zimbabwe’s power.

Also, some researchers point out that the birds were not considered important enough to the people who lived there to bring them with them when they moved on. Furthermore, to make matters more confusing, it has been suggested that the birds could be phallic symbols considering their shape.

Whatever they were meant to represent, there is no doubt they have had a lasting influence; the modern flag of Zimbabwe now dons the image of the soapstone bird.

As stated above, rulers most likely lived in the western enclosure. Evidence of this has come from studies of Shona tradition, the find of three royal Central African gongs in the enclosure, and because a house there donned a snake decoration, which in Shona culture symbolizes the spirit world of the royal ancestors.

zim-bird
A copy of the stone bird of Zimbabwe, 1998/Wikimedia Commons.

Sixteenth-century Portuguese documents claim that the queen lived inside the western enclosure, but the other wives of the ruler lived at the bottom of the Hill Complex. (Polygamy was common in much of ancient Africa because a man with many wives and children could harvest more crops and, in turn, become wealthier). These rulers were able to become extremely rich from the taxing of trade.

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe began to decline around 1450 as people left the area and was almost entirely abandoned by 1700. Suggested reasons for this decline include lack of food caused by over-farming, deforestation from the growing population, and gold drying up in the area, causing the gold trade to move west. The state was also facing rivalry from the Khami and Mutapa states in the area.

Destruction of Great Zimbabwe

So, why is so little known about this once-thriving African city?

One of the main reasons (other than lack of written records) is the deliberate destruction of the site and censorship by colonists. Europeans first discovered the ruins in the 19th century since they could now travel deeper into Africa’s interior. Initial researchers claimed that Africans could not have built the city because the prevailing Western idea was that sub-Saharan Africa had no history.

Europeans attributed the ruins to outsiders, such as the Egyptians, Arabs, and Israelites. One 16th century Portuguese explorer even hypothesized that it was the Ophir mines where, according to the Bible, King Solomon obtained his gold.

By the late 1800s, the land that is now Zimbabwe was on its way to becoming the British colony of Rhodesia. At this time, rights to Great Zimbabwe were given to W. G. Neals of the Ancient Ruins Company. Neals and his company stole everything of value, destroyed structures, and threw away anything they didn’t want.

Great_Zimbabwe_Closeup
A closeup of a Great Zimbabwe ruin, 2008/Wikimedia Commons.

Also, in 1891, British explorer James Theodore Bent dug around the conical tower, making it much harder to assess its correct age. (He did save the soapstone birds, but this was because he did not believe Africans made them). Another archeologist of the time, author Richard Hall, who likewise didn’t think that Great Zimbabwe was an African civilization, removed 12 feet of dirt from the site and all artifacts because he claimed they were from the “filth and decadence of the [African] occupation.”

Furthermore, although some European researchers confirmed that the site was of African origin, from 1965-1980, all written material about Great Zimbabwe was censored by the Rhodesian Front (a far-right white supremacist political party in Southern Rhodesia). Archeologists who insisted that Africans created the site were imprisoned or deported.

Modern Research

Modern research has focused on a couple of fundamental ways of uncovering the history of Great Zimbabwe, but many of these procedures mostly rely on guesswork.

For instance, since the Shona were a pre-literate society, some researchers have focused on the oral traditions of the Shona people, but these sources aren’t necessarily reliable or complete. Scholars have never been able to find a clear oral tradition about the building of Great Zimbabwe.

Great-Zimbabwe ruins
The Great Enclosure, which is part of Great Zimbabwe ruins, 1997/Wikimedia Commons.

One reason for this is because the Shona that now live near Great Zimbabwe are from the northwest and not the descendants of the Shona that built the structure. Also, oral traditions are usually only kept for as long as they are useful and are subject to error after many repetitions. Hence, oral traditions by the 20th century were either non-existent or difficult to determine their accuracy.

Another issue with identifying the history of Great Zimbabwe is that our primary source of information is the structure itself. Many investigators have tried to determine the meaning of the symbols found at Great Zimbabwe, such as the reoccurring images of snakes; but the significance of symbols can change over time. This means that the purpose of the symbols for today’s Shona groups isn’t necessarily the same as what they were centuries ago.

Zimbabwe Today

Lack of funding also keeps the area from being studied or even kept from damage caused by tourists and the environment. Less than two percent of the entire site has been excavated, including archeology before the 20th century.

Flag_of_Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwe Bird, depicted on Zimbabwe’s flag/Public Domain.

Zimbabwe’s lack of wealth further complicates the problem. The World Bank labels the state lower middle income, and its GDP ranks 118th out of 206 countries. Thirty-eight percent of Zimbabwean people live on less than $1.90 per day, which means that the country has to make other priorities outside of archeology.

Currently, the future of Zimbabwe’s economy is unclear. There is no absolute agreement on how the country will change over the next few years, meaning that protection and further research of Great Zimbabwe are uncertain. Unfortunately for those interested in the secrets of this ancient city, answers to our plethora of questions probably aren’t going to come soon.

Casey Raye Hakenson is a freelance writer with special interests in history, culture, and literature. She is a graduate of George Mason University and still lives in Virginia. Read more of Casey’s writing at rayeshistory.wordpress.com.

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Sources

Beach, D. (1998, February 1). Cognitive Archeology and Imaginary History at Great Zimbabwe. Current Archeology, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 47-72. JSTOR.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (2001, October). Great Zimbabwe (11th-15th Centuries). Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ hd/zimb/hd_zimb.htm.

Live Science, (2017, March 9). African City of Stone. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/58200-great-zimbabwe.html.

Masters, B. (1996, November 13). Great Zimbabwe. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/1996/11/13/great-zimbabwe/

National Geographic Society, (2020, March 24). Great Zimbabwe. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-zimbabwe/

Ndoro, W. (2005, January 1). Great Zimbabwe. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/great-zimbabwe-2005-01/

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2020, January 23). Great Zimbabwe: Historical City, Zimbabwe. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/ place/Great-Zimbabwe

UNESCO. Great Zimbabwe National Monument. Retrieved from https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/364/.

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