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, Mozambiqu
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
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
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
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
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 Dav
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.
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
Secondly, the early phases of most of the prominent early sites were built within the 12/13th century; Mapela, Mapungubwe, K
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-
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 ruins of Great Zimbabwe are perhaps
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 accomplishment
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