There is just a deep silence broken by the sound of the wind blowing through the jacaranda trees and the shrill tones of a raucous bird. Miles of stone walls embellished by orange lichen hide evocative tales of forgotten cities and lost empires. Built between 1100 and 1450 AD, this was the capital of the greatest sub-Saharan African civilisation of ancient times. A vast complex of elite residences, markets, houses of commoners and artisans, it covered more than 700 hectares.
Philip, my guide, a passionate Zimbabwean, tells me that if you haven’t seen Great Zimbabwe, you haven’t seen the country, because the ruins of ‘Great Zimbabwe’ have given the country its name as well as its national emblem—a bird that was once found here. Set atop a plateau amid a landscape of rolling hills in the fertile valley of the Mutirikwi River, the site of Great Zimbabwe has been an enigma for many explorers and traders. The place has a mystical feel. “The name Zimbabwe is derived from the Shona word ‘dzimbahwe’ meaning stone building,” explains Philip. Building with stones has always been part of the country’s culture extending to contemporary times.
Out hotel, the ‘Lodge at the Ancient City’ is built around a granite outcrop in the same architectural style prevalent in Great Zimbabwe. Huge granite boulders, characteristic of the geology of many parts of Zimbabwe, form part of the lounge and bar of the hotel, its rooms topped by high conical roofs. In 1871, the German geologist Karl Mauch rediscovered the site believing that he had discovered the home of the Queen of Sheba and the source of King Solomon’s wealth! Mauch’s book caused a sensation in Europe and opened the floodgates to many fortune hunters. Explorers could not believe that such spectacular work could be the work of the indigenous people. It was in the early 20th century that archeologists confirmed that the structures were built by the ancestors of the Shona. UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage site in 1986.
Today the ruins are classified into three groups: The Hill complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley ruins. The king, the priests and the warriors lived on top of the hill. The commoners lived down in the valley. A series of granite walls built without a speck of mortar rise 10 metres high even today. Fragments of Chinese porcelain from the 16th century, Arabian glass, spears and arrowheads, pottery and even Indian glass jewellery have been found on the site which demonstrates that Great Zimbabwe had extensive trading links with the rest of the known world of the time.
The Great Enclosure is also called the ‘House of the Great women’. It has a distinct womb-like appearance with a maze of walls and passageways inside. “This was a polygamous society and many wives were a sign of the king’s power and wealth because he had to pay a lobola or the bride price to get a wife,” says Philip. “This used to be harem, with massive walls almost 36 feet high made from a million granite blocks cut of uniform size,” he continues. He points out the chevron design on the top of the Great Enclosure’s walls. “ This is believed to represent the snake of fertility and ensured that the wives bore the king many sons.” We walk through narrow, twisting passageways towards a solid conical tower that remains a subject of conjecture—whether it is a symbolic grain bin or a giant phallic symbol?
“It is believed that Great Zimbabwe controlled a lot of the gold trade and that was the fountain of its incredible wealth and power,” says Philip. The small museum at the site has a semi-concealed room at the end of a hall where stands eight pillars bearing bird sculptures, right next to each other. These are the original Zimbabwean Birds; the most important artifacts found at the site and now depict Zimbabwe’s national flag as well as its coat of arms. “The bird is a fish eagle, a good omen in Shona culture and perceived to be a divine messenger connecting heaven and earth,” explains Philip. These bird sculpture have interesting karma—stolen, sold and recovered to take their rightful place. Only one is still missing from its original place, now adorning Rhodesian imperialist Cecil Rhodes’ former house in South Africa. “One good day, it will come back to Zimbabwe,” says Philip with conviction.
We walk up the steep and ancient path to the Hill Complex that stands on the edge of a granite cliff. Legend has it that a king built his royal residence on the hilltop so that he could keep an eye on his queens as well being a strategic lookout for invaders. “The walk up is so arduous that by the time someone walked up to see the king he would have been exhausted. A good defence strategy!” laughs Philip. He walks us though a cave with special acoustics, ensuring that any signal could be heard for miles. A ritual enclosure was situated on the eastern side of the hill where the soapstone birds were first found. Rain-making ceremonies used to be conducted here.
The touristy re-creation of the Shona Village on a rocky outcrop, gives us an insight into how the Shona must have lived. Here men carve birds from stone. A woman sells pottery made out of clay and graphite. A troupe adorned with feathers and in skirts dance with gourds tied to their legs. But what changed it all? Around the middle of the 15th century, there was a sudden mass exodus from the Great Zimbabwe complex. No one knows the cause: famine or depletion of resources by overpopulation?
As I leave the site, the sun sets the ruins aflame in burnished orange. A visit to Great Zimbabwe is essential to understand the country: the sophistication of the construction and the buildings helps erase the myth that the ancient Africans were primitives who lacked cultural and technological skills.