|Great Zimbabwe from above|
Around 30 km away from the town of Masvingo in Zimbabwe lies a large stone ruin. This magnificent monument first appeared in European records at the start of the sixteenth-century. In 1506 Portuguese explorer Diogo de Alcáçova described the monument in a letter to the Portuguese king that the ruins were part of the Kingdom of Ucalanga. Later, in the book Da Asia by João de Barros, (published in 1552), we get a good description of the monument based on his correspondence with Moorish traders who had seen the site:
In the opinion of the Moors who saw it, it is very ancient, and was built there to keep possession of the mines, which are very old, and no gold has been extracted them for years, because of the wars.
In 1871 explorer Karl Mauch started looking at the ruins, and later archaeologists started excavating the site. However, until the mid-twentieth century people had argued that the local peoples did not build this site. As the Shona did not build using stone the Portuguese argued that they could not have built the site, while nineteenth and early twentieth-century explorers tried to argue that the Phoenicians or the biblical Queen of Sheba built the monument based on racist ideas. Through carbon dating and archaeology we now know that the site, called Great Zimbabwe, was founded in the eleventh-century by the ancestral Shona. Such important is this site that when the racist government of Rhodesia came to an end in 1980 the country was named Zimbabwe after the monument. Before we can understand why this monument was built, what is was used for, and why it was eventually abandoned we have to look at the site itself.
Great Zimbabwe: The Monument
Great Zimbabwe is a huge monument extending over 800 hectares. In comparison the Celtic town of Manching in Germany was only 380 hectares. Many estimates have placed the population of the site at around 10,000 showing the colossal size of this site. Great Zimbabwe is split into three sections: the Hill Ruins, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Ruins.
|The Hill Ruins|
The Hill Ruins. These ruins are the oldest section of Great Zimbabwe and has been used continuously by people dating back before the construction of the ruins themselves, to around the ninth-century. The Hill Ruins are made of huge granite rubble-stone blocks on a spur facing the north-east/south-west. These granite blocks form distinct enclosures accessed via fairly narrow passages, and the walls are made of gravel mixed with clay. This is called daga, which is a puddled, clayey soil binding together fine gravel and is common throughout Africa as a building material. Often referred to as an 'acropolis' many believe that these enclosures were a 'royal city'. The west enclosure being thought to have been the home for the successive rulers whereas the eastern enclosure being thought to have a ritual purpose.
|The Great Enclosure|
The Great Enclosure. This section of Great Zimbabwe was occupied from the thirteenth to the fifteenth-centuries. Like the Hill Ruins it was made from granite blocks, but here there are various daga-hut living quarters, communal areas, and a stone passage leading a high conical tower (in the photo above). The tower was a staggering 9 meters high (30 foot) and 5.5 meters in diamater (18 foot). The daga-huts were built inside the walls of the enclosure itself while in the community area there were even smaller walls marking out living areas for each family. Each family area had a kitchen, a court and two daga-huts.
|Part of the Valley Ruins|
The Valley Ruins. These ruins were the last to be occupied being occupied since the fourteenth-century until the final abandonment of the site in the sixteenth-century. However, people in some form or another continued to live in the Valley Complex all the way into the nineteenth-century. Unlike the other two complexes the Valley Ruins is split further into the Upper and Lower Valley representing when they were occupied although T.N. Huffman in the 1990s argued the Lower Valley was where wives of leaders lived. Throughout the Valley Ruins are brick ensembles with dry stone walling for insulation. Many of these ensembles show highly skilled craftsmanship, such as having chequered wall designs.
Purpose of Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe is a staggering site showing unique art, architecture, and goods from across the world. Why though was it built? Through carbon dating and recent archaeological excavations we know that Great Zimbabwe was built by the Gokomere culture who are the ancestors to modern Shona, of which in present day Zimbabwe 70% of the people speak Shona. Since the fourth-century various people farmed and mined the nearby area before Great Zimbabwe was built. Archaeologists believe that Great Zimbabwe was the political center for the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, as well as being a major trading center (something often associated with major political centers). It is believed that Great Zimbabwe was founded and became the location of political authority after the site of Mapungubwe was abandoned around 1220. Although we know that the kings did live at Great Zimbabwe the big question is where in Great Zimbabwe did the king live? Here archaeologists are split. Some argue that when a new ruler took over they built a new residence with the focus of power shifting from the Hill Complex, to the Great Enclosure, to the Upper Valley, and finally to the Lower Valley. Thomas Huffman believed that Great Zimbabwe was a town with a palace, a ceremonial center in the Great Enclosure, a wives' area in the Lower Valley, and in between was an area for men. Across Zimbabwe they have found many important artifacts indicating it was a huge area for trade which we shall now talk about.
Trade and Artifacts
Across Great Zimbabwe there have been many interesting artifacts discovered. Among the artifacts are the Zimbabwe Birds (as pictured above) found only at Great Zimbabwe. These birds, almost half a meter tall, stood on meter tall columns were made of soapstone. A likely theory for the creation of these birds was that they represent totemic or sacred animals, either the bateleur eagle which was the messenger of Mwari (God) and ancestors, or the fish eagle. These eagles are seen now a symbol of Zimbabwe with them appearing on the Zimbabwean flag. Archaeological evidence has found a large scale economy going through Great Zimbabwe. Coming from Zimbabwe were three main goods: gold, ivory and cattle. The gold mines near Zimbabwe were thought to have had 20 million ounces of gold taken from them over the period of time that the site was occupied. Great Zimbabwe had links with Kilwa Kisiwani, an island off of the coast of Tanzania, which opened Zimbabwean goods tothe markets of the Indian Ocean, and likewise managed to get Indian Ocean trade. Thanks to Kilwa Arabic coins and glass beads, Chinese pottery, and Persian gold and pottery reached Great Zimbabwe. Domestically the kings oversaw a vibrant cattle trade which was organised to visit every area of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.
Great Zimbabwe was an amazing site home to trade with Asia and some of the greatest architecture in pre-colonial southern Africa. Around 1450 the site was largely abandoned. Several reasons have been put forward for the decline and abandonment. One is climate change. From the fourteenth-century until the Industrial Revolution the planet underwent a period of much colder weather called the Little Ice Age. Due to the Kingdom of Zimbabwe being an agricultural society climate change would wreck havoc on the economy. Famines and water shortages have also been cited for the decline, but this can also be attributed to climate change. Another reason put forward is political instability. We have no written sources from Great Zimbabwe but Innocent Pikirayi and Shadreck Chirikure have stated that inheritance was likely brother-to-brother instead of father-to-son. However, climate change caused major political upheavals in Mesoamerica, Europe, and China so Great Zimbabwe may have seen climate change causing political upheaval. As Great Zimbabwe went into decline another Shona kingdom rose to the north called Mutapa. In oral tradition the first Mwene (king) of Mutapa was Prince Mutota who had left Zimbabwe to escape hunger, or went to find salt, and then founded a new kingdom. It is likely the political rulers of Zimbabwe abandoned the poor environment of Great Zimbabwe and founded a new kingdom to the north.
Great Zimbabwe shows how important the past is to the contemporary world. Racists in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries tried to assert that people other than Africans built such an impressive monument. When white oppression was ousted the new regime chose to change the name of the country from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, and placed the eagle on the flag, to honor this site. The lives of our ancestors and the past heavily influences the way we think about the modern world. Great Zimbabwe also disproves the notion that Africa has no history after Ancient Egypt. This great monument highlights a vibrant culture with a rich history that lasted for centuries. Thank you for reading and next time we will go to Eurasia to look at the Mongols to see how nomadic warriors built one of the largest empires in history.
The sources I have used are as follow:
-Great Zimbabwe by P.S. Garlake
-Thomas N.Huffman, 'Revisiting Great Zimbabwe', Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 2010, 45:3, pp.321-328
-Innocent Pikirayi and Shadreck Chirikuwe, 'Debating Great Zimbabwe', Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 2011, 46:2, pp.221-231