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The Ancient African City of Great Zimbabwe

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

African Construction Skill

Masvingo is a city in southeastern Zimbabwe that is close to the ruins of a symbol of what was once a glorious past. The walls were built out of massive stone blocks without the use of mortar, requiring sophisticated engineering skills.

With classic colonial arrogance, the Europeans who took over the continent never gave credit to the people who built Great Zimbabwe—Africans.

The Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe.

The Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe.

How Was Great Zimbabwe Built?

The construction of the city started in about 1100 CE and continued for around 350 years. In its heyday, it housed approximately 20,000 people, similar to the population of London at the same time.

Munyaradzi Manyanga is a professor of archaeology and cultural heritage at Great Zimbabwe University. He says, “The style and scale of dry-stone walling that constitute Great Zimbabwe is unparalleled elsewhere in Africa and beyond.” In Africa, only the pyramids in Egypt are bigger.

The site consists of several sections. On top of the highest point are what appear to be the ruins of a religious center. Below this is the Great Enclosure whose granite walls are 12 feet wide and rise to a height of 35 feet; the circumference is more than 800 feet. A secondary wall inside follows the path of the outer wall. Archaeologists think this may have been a royal residence. The Valley Ruins are formed by houses that were made of mud bricks.

Several soapstone carvings of bird-like creatures with human feet and lips have been found at the site that are thought to have been of religious significance.

As the civilization that constructed Great Zimbabwe was pre-literate it left no written record, the real purpose of the site can only be guessed at.

One of the features of the ruins is a conical tower, but no one has figured out what its purpose was.

One of the features of the ruins is a conical tower, but no one has figured out what its purpose was.

The Shona People

One thing that is known is that Great Zimbabwe was built by the Shona people. In the Shona language “dzimbabwe” means approximately “stone house.”

Today, the tribe forms about 80 percent of Zimbabwe's population and is estimated to number about nine million people. Significant Shona populations live in Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana.

In the past, the people were farmers, but the territory they occupied between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers placed them in a position to be traders. So it was that Great Zimbabwe seems to have existed as a great trading centre.

Great Zimbabwe Ruins notes that “objects found inside the ruins suggest that the city had trading links with China and the Arab world. It is most likely that the local population exported ivory and gold which was abundant in the plateau.”

The good times came to an end in the 15th century and the city went into decline; by 1700 it was almost completely abandoned. Various theories have been offered as to why this happened, such as overgrazing by cattle, overpopulation, and exhausting local resources. Probably, a combination of all these problems united to make the site unlivable.

Colonial Racism

Europeans first stumbled on the great Zimbabwe ruins in the 16th century when a Portuguese explorer thought, incorrectly, that he had found the legendary mines of King Solomon.

When the colonizers first saw Great Zimbabwe in the 19th century, they decided the city could not possibly have been built by Africans. They claimed that some more sophisticated civilization was responsible, most likely the Phoenicians. This conclusion was based on the deductions of a German explorer called Karl Mauch.

He found a wooden lintel over a doorway that smelled like the wood of his pencil. The fragrance was cedar. Where are there a lot of cedar trees? Lebanon, home of the Phoenician civilization of 1100 BCE and forward. It was on such rigorous scholarship that the skill of the early Shona people was dismissed.

The orthodoxy of the primitive African being unable to master such clever construction techniques held sway until 1980 when Zimbabwe, the country, became independent. Prior to that, when the country was called Rhodesia, white-minority governments of the nation insisted on suppressing the possibility of there being an advanced African society. Experts who suggested otherwise were banished, fired from their jobs, or even imprisoned.

Circling back to the 19th century, we find W.G. Neals of the Ancient Ruins Company on the site of Great Zimbabwe. He had been granted the right by the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes to exploit all the ruins of Rhodesia. It seems the African people were not consulted. Neal went about his work with great zeal.

Scientific American reports that “Neal and his rogues pillaged Great Zimbabwe and other Iron Age sites, taking gold and everything of value, tearing down structures, and throwing away whatever was not valuable to them (pottery shards, pots, clay figurines).” Any chance of future archaeologists making accurate investigations of the site were largely wrecked.

A few researchers, not filled with notions of racial superiority, supported the view that Great Zimbabwe was an African creation. These “outliers” deserve to be named because they were right: David Randall-MacIver, J. F. Schofield, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, and Peter S. Garlake.

Map of Zimbabwe.

Map of Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe Today

Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe when the country became independent in 1980. He misgoverned the nation with ruthless suppression of opponents for 37 years leading to hyperinflation, poverty, and food shortages.

Facing impeachment, he resigned in 2017, leaving behind a country that was an economic basket case. As such, there are few resources available for the preservation of important monuments from the past such as Great Zimbabwe.

Just two archaeologists are available to try to prevent the site from crumbling further. These two and a small group of colleagues have another 5,000 sites to look after—an impossible task.

Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa the picture is the same. Pierre de Maret of the Free University of Brussels calculates that 10 countries together allocate less than $150,000 to archaeology.

Writing for Scientific American, Webber Ndoro has pointed out that “It is clear that cultural legacies are being lost as monuments decay and artifacts are taken out of the various countries.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Less than two percent of the Great Zimbabwe site has been subjected to archaeological examination.
  • In 1986, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization designated the ruins of Great Zimbabwe a World Heritage Site.
  • The carved birds found at Great Zimbabwe feature on Zimbabwe's national flag.
The flag of Zimbabwe.

The flag of Zimbabwe.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor