Located near the city of Masvingo in Central Zimbabwe are the ruins of one of the greatest civilizations of the Middle Ages.
When European explorers first discovered the ruins, they simply couldn’t believe that it was built by native Africans.
Subsequent archeological investigations showed not just that they were wrong, but that the civilization which was there had contact with some of the furthest reaches of the known world.
Learn more about Great Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s greatest empires, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I should probably start by describing exactly what Great Zimbabwe is before I get into the history of the site.
The site known as Great Zimbabwe is a stone ruin located in central Zimbabwe about 270 kilometers or 170 miles due south of the capital of Harare.
The main building at the site is a large circular stone structure with a circumference of 250 meters, or 820 feet, that served as the centerpiece of a larger city of about 7.2 square kilometers or 2.8 square miles. It is estimated that the city could have had a population of as many as 20,000 people.
The word “zimbabwe” is from the Shona language and it is usually defined to mean “houses of stone”.
The modern country of Zimbabwe takes its name from Great Zimbabwe.
The term Great Zimbabwe can be a bit confusing as it is referring to a specific building, the ancient city where that building resides, and the entire Kingdom or Empire.
Usually, when telling the story of some ancient place, I’ll usually start at the beginning To understand Great Zimbabwe, however, I think it is most instructive to start near the end when it was discovered by Europeans.
It isn’t because the European discovery was important in terms of the Zimbabwe civilization, but because the first Europeans got the story so wrong, and their beliefs shaded the discussion on Great Zimbabwe for centuries. The discovery about the truth of Great Zimbabwe came about from unlocking its past.
The first European who is believed to have seen Great Zimbabwe was the Portuguese explorer António Fernandes around 1513 to 1515. It is entirely possible that there were people still living there at that time, although it would have been past its peak at this point.
One Portuguese named João de Barros noted,
When and by whom, these edifices were raised, as the people of the land are ignorant of the art of writing, there is no record, but they say they are the work of the devil, for in comparison with their power and knowledge it does not seem possible to them that they should be the work of man.
This was the first inkling that Europeans didn’t believe that Great Zimbabwe could have been built by the people native to the region.
The ruins were mostly ignored until European powers began carving up Africa in the 19th century. They were rediscovered by Europeans in 1867 by a big game hunter named Adam Render, who in 1871 showed it to the German explorer Karl Mauch.
Mauch immediately, without any evidence, began associating the site with the Biblical Queen of Sheeba.
This was a pretty common thing in the 19th century. Amateur archeologists would try to find some biblical connection for many archeological finds. . Mauch even began to say that it was a palace designed to replicate the palace of the Queen of Sheeba in Jerusalem.
The rumor of the Queen of Sheeba became the predominant narrative about the site with all of the European settlers to the region in the late 19th century.
The problem was that the non-biblical explanations weren’t much better.
The German explorer Carl Peters was conducting a dig at the site in 1905 where he found a ceramic funerary figurine which he claimed was from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. This implied that either the site dated back 3,500 years or that it was an Egyptian outpost in southern Africa.
English explorer J. Theodore Bent also conducted a dig at the site and via his expert opinion claimed that the site had been built by either the Arabs or the Phonecians. He came up with this theory, mostly because he had traveled extensively in the Middle East and that was what he knew best.
These theories drove professional archaeologists nuts. What they all had in common was that they were created by amateurs and they all discounted the very obvious idea that Great Zimbabwe was built by people who lived there.
Professional archeologists began studying the site in the early 20th century, around the same time many of the more outlandish theories were being spread.
The first scientific study was conducted by the British archeologist David Randall-MacIver in 1905. He concluded that the site was of Bantu origin.
Just as an aside, Bantu is the name given to the linguistic group of most of the people who live in central and southern Africa. People in this group would include the Hutu, Zulu, Xhosa, and Shona.
Randall-MacIver also claimed that the site was medieval in age, which was initially rejected by most other archeologists.
In 1929, English archeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson conducted several digs at the site and came away with a similar conclusion. In her report, she noted:
Examination of all the existing evidence, gathered from every quarter, still can produce not one single item that is not in accordance with the claim of Bantu origin and medieval date.
The theory that Great Zimbabwe is of Bantu and medieval origin has held up to scrutiny and even more research at the site over the years.
In fact, a far greater understanding of exactly who the people were who built Great Zimbabwe and what they did has been developed.
Through the use of radiometric dating, there we have a much better idea of just how old the site is. What we’ve found is that just like many other archeological sites, it has been inhabited in waves over the centuries.
There have five distinct periods of settlement that have been identified.
The first period and the oldest evidence we have of anyone living at Great Zimbabwe dates back to about the year 300. The people from this period are called the Gokomere, and there is ample rock art from this period as well.
They were farming and doing basic iron and copper metalworking.
After the site was abandoned for about a century, the second period began around the year 900. This period had a smaller population and there is evidence of bronze working as well.
The third period began around the year 1000, and it is noteworthy as the period of a major building boom and more sophisticated metalworking.
The fourth period marks the peak of the Great Zimbabwe culture. It lasted from about 1200 to 1500. It was the highest population the site saw and showed evidence for much more sophisticated pottery and building design. More on this period in a moment.
The final period began in about 1600 and it was a period of decline, mostly with people living in the ruins of what was built before. Think people living in Rome centuries after the fall of the western empire.
Perhaps the most important findings at Great Zimbabwe have been the artifacts that did not originate in the region. There have been discoveries of glass beads that originated in Persia, shards of Chinese pottery, as well as Arab coins. This is on top of many artifacts which originated from further away along the eastern coast of Africa.
This indicates that Great Zimbabwe was probably a major trading hub for all of southern Africa and that goods were being traded by people from trade routes all along the Indian Ocean.
The largest contribution of Great Zimbabwe to this trade network was most likely gold and ivory.
This fourth period was the time of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe which probably represented the greatest extent of their territorial control.
By about the year 1450, Great Zimbabwe had mostly been abandoned. The reason why isn’t exactly known, but some of the theories include drought, famine, political instability, and the exhaustion of the gold mines.
The political balance of power shifted to the Kingdom of Mutapa, which appeared to function as a successor state, taking over much of the international trade in gold and ivory.
I should make note of several special artifacts found at the site because they have great cultural significance for the nation of Zimbabwe: the Zimbabwe Birds.
These are eight carvings of birds that were made out of soapstone. There were six large statues that stood about 1.5 meters or about 4 and a half feet and two smaller statues.
Most of them were taken during the colonial periods. However, all but of them have been returned, the last one still residing in South Africa.
The Zimbabwe Bird has become the symbol of Zimbabwe. It can be found on their flag, formerly on their money, as well as on the logos for many companies and organizations in the country.
Despite all we have learned, there is still a lot about Great Zimbabwe we don’t know. There are no written works available so we have no idea who its rulers were, what customs they had, what the system of government was, or really anything beyond what can be proven through archeological digs.
We don’t even know the true purpose of the main circular structure at the site. It might have been a palace, a religious site, or possibly even used for grain storage.
Great Zimbabwe has been used as a political football for almost every group. When the country was under white rule and it was known as Rhodesia, the government officially endorsed the earlier theories that the site wasn’t created by Bantu peoples, and actively censored all other theories.
When the country finally became independent, they adopted the name as the name of the country, and Great Zimbabwe became a source of national pride.
Since independence, political parties within the country have all claimed some connection to or inspiration from Great Zimbabwe.
There is a Great Zimbabwe University that has opened in the nearby town of Masvingo, and it has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Great Zimbabwe is probably one of the least known ruins of a great civilization in the world.
During its peak, it was probably the single most important city in southern Africa, and one of the most important trading centers in the world.