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The Lost Civilization of Great Zimbabwe

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The ruins of Great Zimbabwe – the capital of the Queen of Sheba, according to an age-old legend – are a unique testimony to the Bantu civilization of the Shona between the 11th and 15th centuries. The city, which covers an area of nearly 80 ha, was an important trading centre and was renowned from the Middle Ages onwards.

Great Zimbabwe National Monument is approximately 30 km from Masvingo and located in the lowveld at an altitude of some 1100 m in a sparsely populated region of the Bantu/Shona people. The property, built between 1100 and 1450 AD, extends over almost 800 ha and is divided into three groups: the Hill Ruins, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins.


The Hill Ruins, forming a huge granite mass atop a spur facing north-east/south-west, were continuously inhabited from the 11th to 15th centuries, and there are numerous layers of traces of human settlements. Rough granite rubble-stone blocks form distinct enclosures, accessed by narrow, partly covered, passageways. This acropolis is generally considered a 'royal city'; the west enclosure is thought to have been the residence of successive chiefs and the east enclosure, where six steatite upright posts topped with birds were found, considered to serve a ritual purpose.

The Great Enclosure, which has the form of an ellipsis, is located to the south of the hills and dates to the 14th century. It was built of cut granite blocks, laid in regular courses, and contains a series of daga-hut living quarters, a community area, and a narrow passage leading to a high conical tower. The bricks (daga) were made from a mixture of granitic sand and clay. Huts were built within the stone enclosure walls; inside each community area other walls mark off each family's area, generally comprising a kitchen, two living huts and a court.

The Valley Ruins are a series of living ensembles scattered throughout the valley which date to the 19th century. Each ensemble has similar characteristics: many constructions are in brick (huts, indoor flooring and benches, holders for recipients, basins, etc.) and dry stone masonry walls provide insulation for each ensemble. Resembling later developments of the Stone Age, the building work was carried out to a high standard of craftsmanship, incorporating an impressive display of chevron and chequered wall decorations.


Scientific research has proved that Great Zimbabwe was founded in the 11th century on a site which had been sparsely inhabited in the prehistoric period, by a Bantu population of the Iron Age, the Shona. In the 14th century, it was the principal city of a major state extending over the gold-rich plateaux; its population exceeded 10,000 inhabitants. About 1450, the capital was abandoned because the hinterland could no longer furnish food for the overpopulated city and because of deforestation. The resulting migration benefited Khami, which became the most influential city in the region, but signaled waning political power. When in 1505 the Portuguese settled in Sofala, the region was divided between the rival powers of the kingdoms of Torwa and Mwene-Mutapa.

Archaeological excavations have revealed glass beads and porcelain from China and Persia, and gold and Arab coins from Kilwa which testify to the extent of long-standing trade with the outer world. Other evidence, including potsherds and ironware, gives a further insight to the property’s socio-economic complexity and about farming and pastoral activities. A monumental granite cross, located at a traditionally revered and sacred spiritual site, also illustrates community contact with missionaries.


The first whispered reports of a fabulous stone palace in the heart of southern Africa began dribbling into the coastal trading ports of Mozambique in the 16th century. In his 1552 Da Asia, the most complete chronicle of the Portuguese conquests, Joí£o de Barros wrote of "a square fortress, masonry within and without, built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them."

De Barros thought the edifice, which he never saw, was Axuma, one of the cities of the Queen of Sheba. Other Portuguese chroniclers of the day linked the rumored fortress with the region's gold trade and decided it must be the biblical Ophir, from which the Queen of Sheba procured gold for the Temple of Solomon.


Eager to nail down the edifice's exotic origins once and for all, Rhodes and his BSA quickly sponsored an investigation of Great Zimbabwe. They hired one J. Theodore Bent, whose only claim to expertise lay in an antiquarian interest born of travels through the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. Bent adhered just as tenaciously as Rhodes to the notion of the city's non-black origin, though to his credit he didn't automatically swallow the link to the Queen of Sheba. (As he set to work at Great Zimbabwe, he later recalled, "the names of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were on everybody's lips, and have become so distasteful to us that we never expect to hear them again without an involuntary shudder.")

All the artifacts Bent subsequently uncovered screamed "indigenous." Pottery sherds and spindle whorls; spearheads of iron, bronze, and copper; axes, adzes, and hoes; and gold-working equipment such as tuyí¨res and crucibles—all were very similar to household objects used by the local Karanga. Yet Bent, clearly incapable of following where the evidence might lead him, concluded ("a little lamely and nebulously," notes Garlake) that "a prehistoric race built the ruins ... a northern race coming from Arabia ... closely akin to the Phoenician and Egyptian ... and eventually developing into the more civilized races of the ancient world."


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