Great Zimbabwe

Sacred House

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 11

Great Zimbabwe was an ancient city in the southeastern region of present-day Zimbabwe that was the heart of a major trading empire between 1100 and 1450.

A site covering nearly 1,800 acres, Great Zimbabwe was well chosen to support a large city. Population estimates vary, but at its height, the people living in or around Great Zimbabwe numbered between 11,000 and 18,000.

From its location at the head of the Sabi River Valley, the city could control the passage between the goldfields of the western plateau and the trading city of Sofala (modern-day Mozambique) on the coast; in the 12th and 13th centuries, taxes levied on the trading caravans were a major source of Great Zimbabwe’s revenue.

However, by 1450 the region could no longer support its population, and the site was duly abandoned. Oral tradition refers to a shortage of salt, while other sources add that the land was no longer suitable for agriculture and sources of wood for cooking and building had dwindled.

Since the 1500s, when Europeans first set eyes on Great Zimbabwe, they have been unwilling to admit the city’s sub-Saharan African origin. Visitors to the ruins surmised that Phoenicians, Arabs, Egyptians, or even the mythical Christian king, Prester John, had built Great Zimbabwe.

Over the centuries, Europeans took to looting and damaging the remains of Great Zimbabwe and, as recently as the 1970s, suppressed evidence of its African origins.

In her 1982 book, None But Ourselves, Julie Frederikse quotes Paul Sinclair, Curator of Archaeology at Great Zimbabwe, on the very issue of imperial censorship, he explains:

“I was told that the museum service was in a difficult situation, that the government was pressurising them to withhold the correct information. Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programmes, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Zimbabwe.”

Professor Innocent Pikirayi, formerly a lecturer in history and archaeology at the University of Zimbabwe, also explained in a past BBC interview that:

“When African nationalists were demanding independence in the 1960s, the [Ian] Smith regime actually sanctioned historians to write a fake history on the origins of Great Zimbabwe, denying its African origins.”

Despite the colonial damage done to Great Zimbabwe and its African architects, the city is still of great significance. The grandeur and artistry of Great Zimbabwe is a sight to behold. Its most impressive remains are its stone walls. These walls were constructed from granite blocks gathered from the exposed rock of the surrounding hills.

Zimbabwean builders did not use mortar to join the stone blocks, a fact that has indicated to archaeologists that these builders originated their own techniques for handling stone and are not indebted to Arab builders for their methods. Stones were laid one on top of the other, each layer slightly more recessed than the last to produce a stabilising inward slope.

Great Zimbabwe consists of several sections, the most significant being the Great Enclosure - the largest ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is made of an outer wall that is 820 feet in circumference with a height reaching 80 feet. An inner wall runs beside the outer wall, forming the narrow, long passage that leads to a large cone tower, known as the Conical Tower, which sits at 33 feet high and 16 feet in diameter.

All significant entrances and exits of the Great Enclosure were designed to ensure that access to and from the complex could be easily monitored. As a further security measure, the long, narrow passage to the Conical Tower allows only single-file movement.

Some 300 stone ruins can be found on the Zimbabwe Plateau, a memorial to these builders’ craft. Stone was used whenever builders needed to create a structure of considerable size.

The name Zimbabwe in Bantu is said to mean ‘stone building’, although it has also been taken to mean ‘sacred house’.

In addition to the architecture, Great Zimbabwe’s most famous works of art are the eight bird figures carved of soapstone found in its ruins. The birds crown columns more than 3 feet tall and are on average just over a foot high.

Scholars have suggested that the birds served as emblems of royal authority, perhaps representing the ancestors of the rulers of Great Zimbabwe.

Today the birds remain a symbol of rule and adorn the national flag of Zimbabwe as national emblems.