Great Zimbabwe today is the shell of an abandoned city that very little is really known about. It is found in the south-eastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. It is said that Great Zimbabwe was an African replica of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem or built by the ancient Greeks, however these are both wonderful myths started by colonials. It was built as the capitol of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the country’s Late Iron Age. It is said to have been built in the 11th century and continued to develop until the 15th century. The Shona (local) people have now been confirmed to be the creators of this now UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was, in its day a mighty fortress with vast walls all of five meters high. Since being abandoned the city has fallen to ruins. But is thought to have been able to protect 18,000 people in its peak. There was the Kings compound, the Royal’s area and then the valley where huge amounts of people lived in what is thought to be pretty bad conditions in the latter years.
When colonialists such as Cecil Rhodes first saw the immense ruins of Great Zimbabwe, they saw it as a sign of the great treasures that the new masters of the land would gain. It was presented as such to enthuse investment from outside. The then Rhodesian government, during the 1960’s and 70’s, said that the structures were built by non-blacks. This theoretically legitimised their settlement in the area. Anyone who disputed this was censored by the government. As a result, many progressive archaeologists left the site. The truth was harder to find.
Black nationalist groups such as The Black Panthers, made Great Zimbabwe an important symbol of success by black Africans. Black Africans used Great Zimbabwe as a political tool by reclaiming the history and a majority rule in the country. In 1980 the Independent country was named after this great site. The new flag also includes the famous soapstone bird carvings that are found on the current and old Rhodesian flags.
In 1905, a British Archaeologist concluded that the ruins were medieval, and build by the African people found locally. This has been confirmed by a number of archaeologists since. Zimbabwe means ‘big stone houses’ or ‘venerated houses’ in the local Shona language. Even the local people are doubtful of their forbears ability to build such a wondrous place. This adds to the mystery and some say it was built by demons or aliens.
We can now confidently say that it was a hub of great wealth, prestige and power at its time.
Great Zimbabwe is found a long way from any coasts or any obvious water ways. This is what is so interesting about it. It is the largest known settlement ruins in Southern Africa and the second largest in the continent, after the Pyramids in Egypt. One would expect a settlement of this size to be found on a river or coast. Trade and commerce normally only happened with places with obvious connections to other areas of the world. Great Zimbabwe had great power in the area with extensive gold, copper and ivory supplies. This was traded with Arabic, Asian and Indian cultures and trade networks via the coast up to three thousand kilometres away. Pottery from Asian has been found in recent digs at Great Zimbabwe as have coins from Zanzibar and coastal cities all down the east African coast.
Interestingly, food bones have been found in the royal area of the site but nowhere else, this could show the dietary differences for each class within a community.
Great Zimbabwe Now
In the 15th Century, it is believed that due to overcrowding and really poor conditions, people dispersed from the settlement. They can see clear signs of there being too many people within a small area with soil distribution and evidence of poor sanitary conditions. People didn’t travel very far from the site and created new less lavish settlements in the surrounding areas. Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but sadly doesn’t have much in terms of high-end accommodation. It is well worth a visit however.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Start planning your truly bespoke itinerary by contacting one of our destination specialists.
Call +44 (0)203 137 1247