The towering walls of Great Zimbabwe are a humbling experience and yet, there is something inviting about the archaeological site. It doesn’t feel like an abandoned fortress, or castle, that one might see in Europe: Great Zimbabwe was a place where people lived and worked, a place where they came to worship – and still do. It feels alive. 

     Great Zimbabwe is the name of the extensive stone remains of an ancient city built between 1100 and 1450 CE near modern-day Masvingo, Zimbabwe. Believed to be the work of the Shona, who today make up the majority of Zimbabwe’s population, and possibly other societies that were migrating back and forth across the area, the city was large and powerful, housing a population comparable to London at that time. It was also part of a sophisticated trade network; Arab, Indian and Chinese trade goods have all been found at the site. However, it’s the architectural design that is astounding. The construction is made of enormous, mortar-less stone walls and towers, most of which are still standing.

     European colonisers of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries attributed the construction to outsiders and explorers, rather than to the Africans themselves. They thought such construction would have been impossible for the indigenous people.           

     Visitors who come to Great Zimbabwe today can still explore three sections: the Hill Ruins, the oldest, with an acropolis believed to be a royal city; the Great Enclosure, which is surrounded by a large, high wall and containing an eleven-meter conical tower; and the Valley Ruins, a collection of mud-brick houses where the majority of the ancient population lived.

     In the Shona language, zimbabwe translates approximately to “stone house” and, because of the site’s size and scope, it became known as Great Zimbabwe.

     One of the most remarkable features of the site is its walls. As Manyanga explained, “The style and scale of dry-stone walling that constitute Great Zimbabwe is unparalleled elsewhere in Africa.” The walls of the Great Enclosure are 6 meters wide and 11 meters tall, and they run about 250 meters, making the enclosure the largest single structure in sub-Saharan Africa and the second largest on the continent by total area: only the pyramids in Egypt exceed them in size.

     The walls, which are made of granite, are stacked precisely and do not use any mortar to hold them in place. “The quarrying of the granite, taking advantage of natural processes of weathering and the shaping of it into regular blocks was a major engineering undertaking,” Manyganga said. Iron metallurgy was needed to make the tools required to cut the blocks; it was also needed to make trade goods subsequently found at the site. All of this points to a highly organised and technologically advanced society.

     The population of Great Zimbabwe began to decline in the mid-15th Century as the Kingdom of Zimbabwe weakened, but the site itself was not abandoned. Manyganga explained that it was regularly visited by different Shona groups for spiritual reasons right up until colonisation by the British in the late 19th Century. 

     Initial explorers assumed that it had to be a long-lost European civilisation, or the site of something mentioned in the Bible. In 1871 gold-seeker Karl Mauch believed he’d found King Solomon’s Temple, which raised hopes that his gold mines must be nearby. Others thought it might be the palace of the Queen of Sheba.

     British archaeologist James Theodore Bent, after leading a dig in 1891, wrote a book declaring that Africans were not capable of building what he’d found. He even threw away artefacts that would have proven that the site did not date back to Biblical times, just to prove his theory. However, a few archaeologists of the time countered that the site was not nearly old enough to be from Biblical times.

     “The then-colonial government suppressed these views, and the official narrative in public media and museums was that Great Zimbabwe was of foreign origins,” said Manyanga. This version of history was upheld until 1980, when Zimbabwe achieved independence. The newly independent country could then finally affirm that the site was built by their own ancestors. During the 1960s, black nationalists had even settled on Zimbabwe as the name for the new country they hoped to lead to freedom.

         Today, the great ancient city remains just as important for Zimbabweans. Shona villages are located nearby, and many residents work to maintain the site. A religious centre is also close by, and the site still attracts worshippers who practice traditional Shona faiths.

     “It was Africans who created this,” said writer Marangwanda. “And over a millennium later it’s still standing. It’s a testament to who we are.” 

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