Great Zimbabwe and the Stone Ruins of Southern Africa; Myths, Realities and New discoveries

By Isaac Samuel

THE massive stone edifices of Great Zmbabwe (the ‘greatest’ of the ‘zimbabwes’; houses of stone) are the ruins of what was once one of southern Africa’s largest cities; just one of the city’s sections – the great enclosure –  was constructed with 14ft thick walls using over a million granite blocks raised to a height of over 33ft. The city is estimated to have produced up to 9 million ounces of gold at its height, with population estimates peaking at 18,000 for a region covering 7.2km2. The other sections of the city include the hill complex; with high walls supported by massive stone towers buttressed between large granite boulders that were topped with soap-stone birds. It was accessed through a narrow walkway from the base of the hill and paved with stone that snakes through what is left of a secluded residence now thought to house the first palace of the royals of the kingdom of Zimbabwe. The last of the city’s sections are the valley ruins – a complex that is comprised of a series of low-lying ruins that surrounded the great enclosure.

At its height, the city’s dwellers ate on Chinese porcelain, dressed in Swahili and Indian silk and wore gold and copper jewellery, both foreign and locally manufactured, and exported large amounts of gold and ivory. The city therefore compares favourably with several of its peers – large African cities that flourished in the 13th century such as Bantu-Swahili’s Kilwa on the coast (which traded through Sofala); Djenne of the Mali empire; Lalibela of the Zagwe Kingdom in Ethiopia and Dongola of the Christian-Nubia Kingdom of Makuria in Sudan.

Unlike its peers however, Great Zimbabwe has been the subject of much controversy, perhaps the most of any medieval city from which has arisen a debate at the intersection of race, colonialism and nationalism where the most disparate groups of people were ever attributed to a settlement –  from Phoenicians to Arabs to Assyrians to Indians to Europeans – all of whom were living tens of thousands of miles from the Bantu-speaking Shona people who built not just the city itself but the over 1,000 similar cities in the regions now located in the modern countries of Botswana, Zambia, MozambiquSouth-Africa and Zimbabwe itself.

Great Zimbabwe and the myth of foreign builders

In the region of south-east Africa, much of the history was passed on orally unlike western, eastern and West-Central Africa. Great Zimbabwe (or rather the region around it since no non-African would reach the actual site until the late 19th century) is first documented by non-African chroniclers; first by Arabs in the 14th and 15th century (Ibn Batutta, Ibn Madjid in 1457) later the Portuguese, notably Joao de Barros in 1552, to be followed by other Europeans, notably Carl Mauch in 1871 who is credited with the creation of the “ancient White/Semitic” origins of the Zimbabwe and the beginning of the so-called ‘Great Zimbabwe origins controversy’ – one that was initially built upon DBarros’s erroneous attribution of the builders to King Solomon and identification of the region as the mythical land of Ophir. This was in his attempt to fill in gaps about the identity of the builders that the local Swahili merchants who were accompanying the Portuguese had admitted not knowing. This set the stage for the first version of the myth, initially concocted out of ignorance and fuelled by the then European obsession with mapping the extent of the land of ‘Prestor John’ (legendary Christian African king ruling over a large kingdom that was later discovered to be Zera Yacob’s 1399 –1468 Ethiopian empire) which at the time was thought to reach as far south as Zimbabwe.

The second, more long-standing version of the myth was that of ancient Semitic builders, first proposed by the aforementioned Carl Mauch who, in dismissing local traditions and misinterpreting the few that seemed to align with his preconceived hypothesis, suggested that the hill complex resembled Solomon’s temple and comparing a piece of wood at the site with his pencil, concluded it was cedar straight from Lebanon brought by none other than the Phoenicians, and that a great queen who built these ruins was Sheba (after the queen Sheba of the bible) meaning Great Zimbabwe was thus was the source of King Solomon’s gold.

This account led to a frenzy of European imperial and capitalist discourses in southern Africa, one that sought to undermine African claims to the land in such a way that they were no greater than the European settlers who were just then arriving. This proposed Semitic origin fit perfectly into the notorious Cecil Rhodes’ imperialist ambitions where the territory occupied by the British south African company was the only one acquired for the explicit purpose of exploiting (read: stealing) its minerals. Cecil Rhodes, who bought the first of the soapstone birds that were stolen from the tops of Zimbabwe’s towers, subsequently set up the ancient ruins company in 1895 to “plunder and profit from all the ruins”. He claimed that Africans had overrun land previously occupied by the ancients and set about funding archaeologists to support his imperialist ambitions, the first of these archeologists was Theodore Bent, which led to the second theory – an Arab-Sabean and Phoenician construction.

Theodore Bent claimed Great Zimbabwe was constructed by the Sabean-Arabs and later revised it and attributed the construction to the Phoenicians based on what he thought was phallic worship symbolised by the conical tower within the great enclosure. He further claimed the city was built to; facilitate their gold trade, as a calendar for the observation of the sun and the stars, and that the other Zimbabwes were built to facilitate movement of gold from the interior. However, despite being commissioned by Cecil Rhodes to prove otherwise and after a long frustrating dig looking for evidence of these white builders, Bent who was reportedly looking depressed said: “I have not much faith in the antiquity of the ruins, i think they are native, everything we have so far is native.” 

Yet the need to appease his funder and Bent’s own preconceived ideas of exotic builders held sway and reasoning that Africans disliked the shade but preferred working in the sun, he chose a shady spot on the side of the hill thinking there he’ll find untempered white/Semitic materials. Instead, what he discovered were yet more Kalanga/Shona materials and pottery and some Chinese porcelain only a few centuries old. Nevertheless, taking the soapstone birds and bowls that were apparently none like others in sub-Saharan Africa, he concluded that the ruins were built by ancient Arabians. His conclusion fit into a prevailing narrative repeated by several of his peers who were working on it and similar sites. They include Richard Hall (who did the most damage to the site, so much that the British south Africa company removed him from the site)Franklin White, John Willoughby and R.M.W. Swan who stated that the “African would never be capable of taking the initiative in work of such intricate nature”. What should be noted is that all these ascribed an antiquity date for the site in the first millennium BC to align with their theories.

But the myth of White/Semitic builders, while now widely accepted among the white settlers was starting to be challenged in academic circles. The first was by the professional archaeologist David Randall-Maciver in 1906 who challenged his amateur colleges stating that “the people who inhabited the elliptical temple (great enclosure) belonged to the tribes whose arts and manufacture were indistinguishable from those of the modern Kalanga”. Not long thereafter, Randall would be supported by Caton-Thompson who also worked on other Zimbabwes such as Danangombe. She stated that to understand Great Zimbabwe required a comprehension of Shona society. She was also the first among her peers to see the architectural styles within the African Context and concluded that the ruins were “built by local people well within the Christian era”. Her conclusions (together with Roger Summers’s radiocarbon dating in the 50s – one of the first in Africa) settled the debate – at least within academic circles – that Great Zimbabwe had been conclusively attributed to the Shona. The challenge was for the white settler controlled colonial southern Africa to come to terms with this fact, one that they challenged fiercely but increasingly came to terms with after the 70s.

Great Zimbabwe the reality

What has been conclusively agreed upon is that the Shona-built Great Zimbabwe was, by the 13/14th century, undoubtedly the largest city in south-east Africa. It was unquestionably the capital of a large polity whose primary export was gold. It fell into decline by the end of the sixteenth century and was gradually abandoned over a long period of time. Its walls were symbols of power and not defensive fortifications.  

Great Zimbabwe’s history has been unfortunately marred in debates of race and colonialism, one where professionalism was sidelined by imperialistic ambitions and prevailing political sentiments forcing some professional archaeologists to make a few questionable claims to counter the former – from understating to over-exaggerating its population, ignoring the over 1,000 Zimbabwes scattered across the south-east African region, over-estimating its prominence among pre colonial African cities/ruins or its peers from the same era, debates about the chronology of its occupation relative to other Zimbabwes, the cradle of its stone building tradition and its cultural history. All of these have led to a ‘Great-Zimbabwe centric’ interpretation of the sites where Great Zimbabwe was considered to be the capital of a very extensive empire stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Kalahari and had hundreds of differently-sized drystone-walled settlements which were accorded the status of provincial district in the super state.  This has led led to a new theatre of fierce debate between prominent Zimbabwe archaeologists Thomas Huffman and Shadreck Chirikure.

Khami, the 14th/15th century capital of the Kingdom of Butua

First among these debates is the chronology of the sites – the prevailing occupation sequence which has Mapungubwe (1220–1290AD) as the cradle of the Zimbabwe culture sites followed by Great Zimbabwe (1300–1450AD), and succeeded by Khami (1450–1820AD) by Thomas Huffman; a linear model that places other Zimbabwes within this context as minor provincial centres has been challenged by Chirikure after studying Mapela hill where the markers of the Zimbabwe culture sites predates Mapungubwe by over a century with Mapela having flourished between 1055 – 1400AD. Mapela also covers a much larger area, has more extensive stone walls and possessed abundant local and foreign glass beads. Complicating things further is that as one of the so-called Leopard’s Kopje communities (950-1100AD a series of middle iron-age sites that marked the start of the zimbabwe culture) of overlapping dates dotting the region, it is unlikely that any of these early sites controlled the other. Instead of the aforementioned neat linear sequence, the sites’ were built around the same time and their populations/height fluctuated rather than full settlement and abandonment.

Secondly, the early phases of most of the prominent early sites were built within the 12/13th century; Mapela, Mapungubwe, Khami, Tsindi and Great Zimbabwe’s hill complex have their earliest stone-walling dates between 1150-1250 AD which means that southern Africa around after 1000AD had multiple socio-politically complex entities that competed, conflicted and interacted with one another. In addition, they participated in long-distance trade and built elaborate stone-walled palaces. Especially relevant to this is Khami which flourished between 1350 and 1450AD which is around the same time great Zimbabwe was at its peak and was abandoned after the 1600s during which time Great Zimbabwe was still occupied which means the Khami-centred Butua Kingdom wasn’t a successor state of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe but was its rival. The prominence of both kingdoms waned during and after the rise of the Mutapa kingdom.

However, the debate on Mapela and the chronology of the Zimbabwes remains unsettled with Huffman maintaining that the Mapela ruins don’t fully meet the markers of the Zimbabwe culture sites especially the distinction between the elites and commoners, and that the immediate land surrounding it (which would comprise the territory that the Mapela-based polity would control) not  being as habitable as Mapugubwe’s land.

On the new discoveries

Great Zimbabwe’s population and occupation has recently been revised that the site may not have been occupied fully at once but rather sections of it were occupied at a time and that previous estimates of its population reaching 18,000-20,000 were over-estimated. A more accurate estimate is between a half and a third of the 20,000 estimate, deemed realistic given the size of African cities in the east Africa region like Kilwa which at its peak was estimated to be around 12,000. Rather than diminishing the site, the lower estimate, relative to the scale of constructions, poses new questions on the organisation of the city’s labour and resources. At Khami for example, up-to half of the granite blocks that couldn’t be used were discarded.

Secondly is the distinction between commoner and elite residences at Great Zimbabwe that may not have been as rigid as initially interpreted by the high walls and prestige goods separating the two but it’s believed a rather more fluid spatial organisation was observed.

While imported ceramics and the soapstone birds were restricted to within the stone walls, high-status materials such as glass beads, gold objects, gold-processing crucibles, bronze objects and spindle whorls, have been recovered from both areas showing that the markers between elite and commoner shouldn’t be oversimplified.

The 17th/18th century city of Naletale of Changamire’s Rozvi Kingdom

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe are perhaps the most highly contested ruins of the medieval era; racial, political and ideological battles have been fought over them primarily to deny their Africaness, later to interpret their construction along with close to a thousand other stone ruins in the regions, dozens of which were large enough to be called cities. Great Zimbabwe has been plagued by the racism and ignorance of past African societies forcing African historians to tout their individual projects as the most significant relative to the rest, often employing terms that emphasise a city, state or cultural achievement as the only one in Africa; aoasis of civilization in a ‘dark continent’ when in truth these are only one of hundreds of similar cities, states or advances on the continent. For example, Kano was but one of several large commercial capitals of west-Africa (like Katsina and Segu); Timbuktu was just one of several scholarly capitals in west-Africa alone (like Nzagarzamu and Zinder); Meroe was one of dozens of Nubian cities (like Naqa and Banganarti) Gondar; the “Camelot of Africa” is one of dozens with similar architecture in Ethiopia (like Danqaz and Gorgora Nova), Kilwa is just one of hundreds of Bantu-Swahili cities along the east-African coast (like Kunduchi anKaole) and Great Zimbabwe is just one of an estimated one thousand dry-stone ruins in southern Africa (like Naletale and Thulamela).

Hopefully, African history will move to a new phase where such cities are listed not as sole marvels but as one in a large crowd of several African accomplishments.


African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective By Graham Connah

The Silence of Great Zimbabwe: Contested Landscapes and the Power of Heritage By Joost Fontein

The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline of Southern Zambezian States By Innocent Pikirayi, Joseph O. Vogel

East Africa (Portuguese Encounters with the World in the Age of the Discoveries) By Malyn Newitt

Zimbabwe Culture before Mapungubwe: New Evidence from Mapela Hill, South-Western Zimbabwe By Shadreck Chirikure

No Big Brother Here: Heterarchy, Shona Political Succession and the Relationship between Great Zimbabwe and Khami, Southern Africa By Shadreck Chirikure

Mapela, mapungubwe and the origins of states in Southern Africa By Thomas Huffman

Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe: The Origin and Spread of Social Complexity in Southern Africa By Thomas Huffman

What was the population of Great Zimbabwe(CE1000 – 1800)?Shadreck Chirikure By Shadreck Chirikure

Elites and commoners at Great Zimbabwe: archaeological and ethnographic insights on social power By Shadreck Chirikure

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