Karl’s Chronicles. Great Zimbabwe – Empire Circular
Viewed today as the largest stone structure south of the Sahara, the Shona built kingdom of Great Zimbabwe lasted for four centuries. Built with the wealth acquired from trading gold, textiles and glass, it’s succession of rulers governed the gold route to the coast. At Great Zimbabwe’s peak, the kingdom amassed a population close to 20,000, while its political influence reverberated as far south as modern-day Botswana and east to the Indian Ocean. But its demise occurred just as rapidly as its rise, and by the 15th century, the site lay abandoned. The kingdom left a lasting impression, with the Shona word dzimba dza mabwe meaning houses of stone forming the countries new name of Zimbabwe at independence. The chevron bird, a stone sculpture from the Valley Complex became the nation’s symbol, appearing at the heart of the countries flag.
With many visitors making a bee-line to the roar and spray of Victoria Falls or anyone of the national parks in search of the big five, the importance of Great Zimbabwe can end up on the cutting room floor. Shelved by time and the fateful realisation that Zimbabwe’s impressive range of attractions is too extensive for a single visit. Which is a shame when you realise just how imperative the kingdom was and is one of the very few historic complexes found this far south of the Sahara. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs left plenty of history across North Africa, often influenced by the importance and beauty of the Mediterranean, in building coastal cities as well as securing new cultivating lands to feed expanding populations back home. But few ever ventured deep into the interior, challenged by defiant Berbers and ultimately lacking a necessity to do so. The white man’s scramble for Africa lay centuries away, only whipped up by Belgium’s King Leopold’s greed for a slice of the African cake.
The Shona were already living in the area since the 8th century AD, encouraged by fertile ground for cultivation and grazing. The discovery of gold on the Zimbabwe plateau at the tail end of the iron age helped finance the future complex, trading not just gold, but ironware and ivory at the coastal ports in Mozambique. In exchange for glass and textiles brought from Europe and Arabia by Swahili merchants. The wealth from gold alone instigated a building programme which started with the Hill Complex in the 11th century. The early kings strongly believed in the occult, with spiritual mediums attaining power equal to the kings. As its name suggests, the Ritual Enclosure entered by a narrow series of steps became the altar for animal sacrifices. The king could observe these rituals from above, exploiting a natural advantage point from a high rock overhang. This Balcony Enclosure, allowed the king to view his subjects down in the valley as well, taking pleasure from the broad sweeping views that have hardly altered to this day.
Expansion continued for three hundred years, pushed on by abundant wealth from commanding the gold trade, and a large workforce of farmers who equally contributed their labour to the iron and copper industries, both functioning long before gold. Later rulers moved down from the Hill Complex to the valley floor, establishing the Valley Complex as a prestigious district for the nobles, junior members of the royal family, and the treasury. Having suffered massive plundering from colonial treasure hunters, the ruins today are the least visually interesting of the three complexes. But the chevron bird, the only one of eight soap-stone birds to have these markings, later chosen as Zimbabwe’s national symbol, came from here.
Though little remains to form a definite conclusion of how the aristocracy lived; the unearthing of several artefacts has shown the complex to be of impressive wealth. Despite these references to riches and prosperity, few visitors spend much time here, enticed more by the Great Enclosure’s arresting design. Personally, I find the lesser ruins just as evocative. Leaving the crowds behind to navigate a path heading further into the quiet places, bolsters a sense of adventure and exploration. One that resonates on the discovery of the ruin, a feeling of being honoured to a much-trusted secret.
Though not on a scale to rival the pyramids, the structure of the Great Enclosure still enhanced a project of considerable ambition. They did, however, parallel the Egyptians in refining their building techniques throughout the centuries. Evident in the dry-stoning (no mortar) of the outer wall which improves as you follow its course anti-clockwise; finishing with the wall now five metres thick and eleven metres high. Over a million stone bricks, shaped from granite quarried from the central plateau were allocated to just the main walls, constructed from a local workforce than the sweat of slave labour. The curving parallel passage at seventy metres long and eleven metres high is testament to their skills of building. This narrow passage, only wide enough to admit one person, opens out in front of a perfectly aligned conical tower. Whose significance still eludes the experts with theories ranging from a granary tower to a symbolic phallus. Treasure hunters probably debunked other ideas, finding the structure solid with no hidden door or underground chamber. At the core of the enclosure, bound within a circular pen remain the stone walls of the royal residence, accommodating the king, his wives and off-spring.
After all this expansion in area, wealth and political clout, the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe spiralled into a rapid demise. A victim of its own success as the population grew beyond the availability of natural resources. Overgrazing and stripping the land of her forests for fuel eventually removed the driving force for stability and survival. Within four hundred years, the Shona kingdom of Great Zimbabwe stood abandoned. One of the hundreds, albeit much smaller trading centres and metallic industries that functioned across the plateau region.
The Portuguese already knew of the kingdom in the 15th century. A written account by Vicente Pegado, a captain of a garrison in Mozambique’s Sofala, noted the word symbaeo, ‘court’ in 1531. However, they nurtured ideas that it was the lost kingdom of Ophir, a port mentioned in Genesis, with references to King Solomon, who received every few years a cargo filled with gold, silver and precious stones. The idea of such a place, significant from biblical recognition and basking in gold, attracted similar assumptions by Carl Mauch, a German geologist. His excited descriptions in the late 19th century indirectly kick-started the site’s destruction as treasure seekers plundered much of Great Zimbabwe.
For decades, when the first foreign explorers came across Great Zimbabwe, they refused to acknowledge that Africans were responsible. If they weren’t pillaging for antiquities, their destructive behaviour helped annihilate evidence to the contrary. Richard Hall, the site’s first curator and artefact thief, purposefully destroyed any indication confirming African involvement. Findings by professional archaeologists that went against the current soon met resistance. Xenophobic attitudes, often relayed by well-educated prominent people, maintained a ‘denial’ consensus that lasted beyond independence.
As racial intolerance continues to echo, recently brought to the surface by Black Lives Matter, it is imperative to understand and respect cultures and beliefs different from our familiar. More so in this day and age where technology is bringing us ever closer, do we need to re-evaluate the present by introspection of the past. History harbours consequence, unleashed on a distant generation both innocent and vulnerable to past endeavours.
Before treasure seekers carted them off to foreign climbs, eight soap-stone birds held residence at Great Zimbabwe. Most of them set on pedestals in the Eastern Enclosure of the Hill Complex. Over the years, seven of the birds have returned and are now on display in the site’s museum. One bird remains aloof, supposedly in South Africa on Cecil Rhode’s estate. Peace and Prosperity, one legend tells, will return to Zimbabwe when all the birds are reunited. A legend, one could view after the turbulent years of Mugabe, of possessing an adroit blend of superstition and truth.
Facts: Below are the current regulations imposed by the Zimbabwean government for visitors wishing to enter. For return restrictions, you will need to visit your governments travel advisory website.
Zimbabwe opened its land borders and international airports to tourists in addition to Zimbabwean nationals and valid permit holders on 1 December 2020.
To enter Zimbabwe through one of its international airports, you must possess a negative COVID-19 test result, issued no more than 48 hours before the start of your journey. If you do not have a negative test result, or if you exhibit COVID-19 symptoms on arrival, you will be detained at a holding facility where you will be required to pay US$60.00 for a test.
- To enter Zimbabwe through one of its land borders, you must possess a negative COVID-19 test result, issued no more than 48 hours before you arrived at the border. If you do not have a negative test result, or if you exhibit COVID-19 symptoms on arrival, you will be denied entry into Zimbabwe.
- People arriving in Zimbabwe are subject to a 14-day quarantine period. If you arrive with a negative COVID-19 test issued within 48 hours of arrival or test negative at the airport, you may self-isolate at a designated address. If you test positive for COVID-19 at the airport, you will have to quarantine in a government-approved facility.
Great Zimbabwe is open daily from 08:00 – 17:00. Ticket prices: (as of 2015) $15/$5 foreigners/residents. The ticket office is situated on the small roundabout a few hundred metres northwest of the sites main entrance.
Masvingo, the largest town in the region, lays 25km to the north. You can reach Great Zimbabwe by taking one of the infrequent kombis (minivans), usually on a ‘fill and go’ basis for the thirty-minute journey. Inform the driver of your destination, and he will drop you off at the junction from where it’s a further 3km on foot. Allow $30 for a private taxi, including waiting time.
Staying at the complex allows for a more leisurely pace, plus you have the advantage of visiting multiple times when light variations imbue a different mood over the ruins. There is a lovely feeling outside peak times, of having the complex almost to yourself. On the left side of the road as you enter, stands the looming colonial-styled Great Zimbabwe Hotel. The hotel has a restaurant, pool and Wi-Fi available to guests. Close to the confluence of the Modern and Ancient Paths up to the Hill Complex is a gift shop and restaurant.
The campsite ($5pp) is a large open field northwest of the Great Enclosure. There are a toilet/ shower block and several brai stations for outdoor cooking. You will need to be fully self-sufficient as a stove will prevent total dependence on the brai (useless after a downpour). Dormitory accommodation ($7pp) is nearby. The nearest ATM’s are in Masvingo, so hold enough money to cover the entire duration.
As a day trip, give yourself half a day to properly explore the site. Enquire at the ticket office about hiring a guide who can point out some of the more exciting features.
For further information on Zimbabwe check out the official tourism website at www.zimbabwetourism.net