In 1871, German geologist Karl Mauch set off in search of the biblical city of Ophir–a place that once supplied the Queen of Sheba with an abundance of gold for the construction of the Temple of Solomon. During his quest, Mauch ventured around modern-day Zimbabwe and, when he found the ancient stone structure of Great Zimbabwe in the beautiful, green highlands south of Harare, he believed that he had at last stumbled upon the fabled city.
In the years following Mauch’s “discovery” of the ruins, people began abandoning his theory and, instead, attributed the construction of the ruins to different groups of Europeans.
Because of its sophistication and skilled masonry, many Europeans were reluctant to credit black Africans with building Great Zimbabwe, so they erroneously attributed the ruins to ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, Egyptians and Phoenicians. Some believed that the Portuguese constructed the site shortly after they began to settle the continent and still others credited Arab and Chinese traders who made their way inland from the Swahili Coast.
Yet, archaeological evidence reveals that Great Zimbabwe was, indeed, constructed by indigenous black Africans. It refutes that Great Zimbabwe has European or Caucasian roots and indicates that a powerful civilization once laid claim to Africa’s largest Medieval structure South of the Sahara. Evidence also suggests that the city was once the center of a complex trade network that extended along the East African Coast to the Middle East and as far as China. Though the exact origins of the site are unclear and nobody can say for sure which ethnic group it belongs to, archaeological findings point to a sophisticated society that was all but isolated from Europe and Asia.
Whatever the origins of Great Zimbabwe, the site has been a source of pride for a country that has tried to exert its own identity despite historical occupation and current economic hardship. To black nationalist groups within the country, Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol of achievement during the liberation struggle, for it dispelled the common misconception that blacks were somewhat less advanced than whites socially and culturally.
Many believe the word “Zimbabwe” is a contraction of the phrase dzimba dza mabwe–which in Shona means “house of stone.” It was the name given to Rhodesia post-independence and it alludes to the great stone relics that litter the countryside. The country’s flag and coat of arms incorporate a depiction of one of the soapstone bird carvings that has been uncovered at the site.
My friends and I visited the archeological site twice–first in the evening and then again the next morning. We arrived at the site in the late afternoon after a five hour bus ride from Bulawayo and pitched our tent on the grounds of the ruin for the night. After setting up tent and hiding our food from the numerous thieving monkeys, we walked up the path that leads to the Hill Complex.
The Hill Complex is beautiful. It is the oldest area of Great Zimbabwe and its construction began around the year 900. The Hill Complex was formerly referred to as the Acropolis and it was the spiritual and religious center of the city. It sits perched atop a rocky outcrop and overlooks the verdant valleys and peaks of the surrounding highlands. Its stone walls have a somewhat warped feel, as they incorporate the surrounding boulders into their design. We walked around the maze-like passages of the Hill Complex, taking in the surrounding views and crawling through passageways and over rocky outcrops.
I climbed to the top of the Hill Complex and sat on a boulder that provided me with spectacular sweeping views of the scenery. Perched upon my rock, I could see the ruins of the Great Enclosure below and the reconstructed Shona village that was built to give tourists a better idea of the layout of local communities. The view was awe-inspiring and beautiful. Were it not for the fact that the sun was beginning to set, I would have likely sat overlooking the valley for hours.
While the Hill Complex is beautiful architecturally and provides a stunning panorama, the Great Enclosure is impressive in its magnitude and engineering. It is the largest single ancient structure South of the Pyramids and has stood the test of time despite the fact that every slab of stone has been stacked without mortar. The mortar-less walls are a feature that is unique to Great Zimbabwe. It baffles me that, centuries after the construction of the city, they remain largely intact.
The walls of the Great Enclosure are eleven meters high and several meters thick. We wandered around the various chambers of the structure and admired the narrow passage and conical tower. By walking through the ruins, it was evident that they were once the seat of a great civilization. In its heyday, Great Zimbabwe may have had as many as 18,000 residents.
It was a surreal feeling walking through such a grand and mysterious monument and realizing that my friends and I were the only tourists aside from a local Zimbabwean family.
Though I relished the feeling of having the ruins to myself, I was puzzled by Great Zimbabwe’s anonymity. How could such a wonderful archaeological treasure be so overlooked? How is it that so few people have even heard of Great Zimbabwe, let alone visited it? I felt lucky to have visited the ruins, but simultaneously saddened by the fact that such a wonderful place does not receive the attention it deserves. Even our Lonely Planet guide grossly underestimates the grandeur of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As with many other great wonders of the Global South, the history of Great Zimbabwe has been largely lost over time. Thus, much of what we know about the site is based on oral history, archaeological evidence and mere speculation. And, just as the origins of Great Zimbabwe are largely inconclusive, so are the series of events that led to the city’s eventual demise.
Some believe that the site was abandoned due to defeat or political instability. Others believe that it was due to lack of food and shortages of water. Still others think that it was a natural decline of trade networks that gradually resulted in the abandonment of the kingdom.
Many of the details and questions surrounding Great Zimbabwe have been lost over time. Yet, though it is unfortunate that so many questions will likely remain unanswered, I found that the shroud of mystery hanging over the archaeological site is part of what makes the place so intriguing in the first place.