Great Zimbabwe

European discovery

A fanciful depiction of the “women warriors of the Monomotapa” from Johann Theodore de Bry and Johann Israel de Bry’s India Orientalis, c 1599
A fanciful depiction of the “women warriors of the Monomotapa” from Johann Theodore de Bry and Johann Israel de Bry’s India Orientalis, c 1599

During the seventeenth century, the Portuguese has begun to dislodge the Arabs as the principal international traders on the coast of Mozambique. As they did, they began to hear stories of a king called the Monomotapa who ruled from a city called Symbãoe or Zimbãoche, some distance to the east. According to some versions of these stories, the Monomotapa’s palace was covered with plates of gold, but in 1531, Viçente Pegado, Captain of the garrison at Sofala, wrote about ruined dry-stone fortresses, a tower more than ‘twelve fathoms’ high and mines and mentioned that Symbãoe meant ‘court’ in the local language. In 1552, the Portuguese historian João de Barros (1496-1570) conjectured that it was the site of Axum, a city of the Queen of Sheba. The stories were heard second-hand from Arab merchants who traded with the peoples of the interior, but the Portuguese merchants did not travel inland.

In 1871, as Europeans began to explore the interior of southern Africa, a Swabian geologist and explorer, Karl Gottlieb Mauch (1837-1875), set out to examine the semi-legendary ruins of Monomotapa that he had heard about from the writings of a German missionary named Alexander Merensky (1837-1918), published in 1867. Setting out with an acquaintance, the ivory collector George Philips, Mauch was able to persuade a local guide to take them to the ruins of Zimbabwe. The ruins were too overgrown to examine closely, although the explorers did meet an elderly local, Babareke, who told them that he was the son of the last high priest of a cult that had once sacrificed oxen in the ruins. Other than this, Mauch and Philips were unable to learn anything about the place.

The Great Enclosure
The Great Enclosure, focal point of the Great Zimbabwe complex

Great Zimbabwe: the site

The site of Great Zimbabwe lies in the broad valley of the River Mapudzi, a tributary of the River Sabi, which enters the Indian Ocean to the south of Sofala. The landscape is granite, with small hillocks and crags, which exfoliates (cracks away) from exposed rock faces as temperatures change through the year. This provides a convenient building material, used by the builders of Great Zimbabwe and nearby sites. Soapstone, found 24 km (15 miles) away, was useful for carving, while slate and quartz were also imported to the site. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe sit on top of a steep-sided hillock and cover an area of 0.65 km2 (about 0.25 square miles). The largest structure is an elliptical enclosure (sometimes called the Temple, the Elliptical Building or the Great Enclosure), with the Acropolis at the top of the hill, 550 m (600 yards) to the north; there are other ruins in the valley bottom to the north and east. As the Arab merchants had told their Portuguese rivals, the buildings were of dry stone construction, although the walls were plastered.

The controversy begins

Like so many European explorers, Mauch published a book about his explorations when he returned to Germany; also, like so many Europeans encountering strange ruins, he tried to explain them in terms of known civilisations and cultures. He thought that Babareke had described a Semitic ritual and that the ruins were those of the biblical Ophir, the site of King Solomon’s fabled mines. One of the ruined buildings, he reasoned, was a copy of Solomon’s Temple, while the great oval enclosure (which he called Zimbabye) was a copy of the palace where the Queen of Sheba had stayed in Jerusalem. He believed that this meant that she had lived at Zimbabwe, built by Phoenician architects.

The iconic soapstone bird of Zimbabwe
The iconic soapstone bird of Zimbabwe

The inevitable looting follows

Mauch’s book caused a sensation in Europe and made the ruins an attraction for treasure-hunters, keen to locate Solomon’s supposed treasures. When Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) established Southern Rhodesia in 1889 (basically a private corporation set up to administer a huge territory at considerable profit), the ruins were part of the estate of the South African settlers Willi and Harry Posselt. Willi had tried to remove a soapstone carving from one of the ruins in 1888, but was driven off by locals. According to one version of the story, in 1889, he cut a carved soapstone bird from its pillar in return for blankets and trinkets offered to a local Chief, Mugabe, and sold it to Cecil Rhodes, while yet another version claims that he hid others, intending to return to the site to collect them later. He subsequently published an account, The Early Days of Mashonaland and a Visit to Great Zimbabwe Ruins, bemoaning the lack of treasure on the site.

Archaeological excavations at Great Zimbabwe and misinterpretations

In 1891, the archaeologist James Theodore Bent (1852-1897) spent two months excavating in the ruins and was able to remove the soapstone birds, which were taken to the museum at Cape Town (they were returned to Zimbabwe in 1981). In the early years of the Southern Rhodesia colony, an Ancient Ruins Company was set up, with the express purpose of prospecting the ruins for treasure. Franchises were sold by the administrator of Mashonaland, Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917), for forty or so sites, which yielded little more than 5 kg of gold but which destroyed their stratigraphic integrity.

Bent concluded from his excavations that the site had been built by Sabaeans, Phoenicians or another Semitic people, just as Mauch had conjectured. This was based on the presence of soapstone phalli, the shape of the conical tower and the oval shape of the Great Enclosure, which resembles a building at Ma’rib (مأرب, Yemen) identified as the harîm of Bilqîs, the Queen of Sheba. He suggested that Great Zimbabwe was identical with both the biblical Ophir and the Punt of Ancient Egyptian texts and that it had continued to flourish under Arab influence into the Middle Ages. He believed that a coin of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE) found in a mine-shaft at Mutale (Zimbabwe, Umtali before 1982) strengthened his case. unfortunately, it seems that this is all we know about the coin.

Later explorers and archaeologists concurred with Bent’s opinion. The first was Karl (or Carl) Peters (1856-1918), the creator of German Tanganyika, who had never visited the site but who had explored ruins further east in 1899-1900. His racist attitudes (he referred to the population of Tanganyika as “sickly and useless rubbish” and believed that they should either be used by white settlers as forced labour or exterminated) clearly coloured his attitudes to who might have built the ruins.

Finally, in 1902, the new legislative council of Southern Rhodesia passed a law protecting the sites and a curator, the journalist Richard Nicklin Hall (1853-1914), was appointed to oversee Great Zimbabwe itself. Hall spent two years excavating the great enclosure, which he published in detail. He believed that he could distinguish two occupations – one sun-worshipping Semitic (perhaps Himyarite Arabs), the other medieval Arab – separated by a long period of abandonment. Hall avowedly wished to free the site “from the filth and decadence of the Kaffir occupation”, deliberately removing anything that might link the site with local African peoples and clearing some twelve feet (1.8 m) of deposits in an operation that was described by a visiting archaeologist as “reckless blundering… worse than anything I have ever seen”. As a result, Hall was dismissed from his post.

The truth will out…

However, the site was far from exhausted and further excavations were conducted by David Randall-MacIver (1873-1945) in 1905. Randall-MacIver’s conclusions were startling to the colonial administration. During his excavation campaign of 1905, he had found nothing but indigenous African artefacts and imported medieval goods (including Persian beads, glass and Chinese porcelains), all of fourteenth-century and later date. His criticism of Richard Nicklin Hall pulled no punches, sparking off a bitter debate that lasted for years.

Renewed excavations in 1929, conducted by Gertrude Caton-Thompson (1888-1985), confirmed MacIver’s discovery that the material was much later than the time of Solomon, although she was able to push the origin of the site back to the ninth or tenth century CE. In 1950, Samuel Dickson Sandes (1899-1984), Warden of Zimbabwe National Park, recovered a wooden lintel that had been used as a drain cover in the Elliptical Building, which was radiocarbon dated to 1304±55 bp, with a 98% probability of falling into the range 619-819 CE. The Rhodesian archaeologist Roger Summers was able to use this date in 1955 to suggest a slightly earlier origin, but still no earlier than the fifth century CE. Summers’ views on the indigenous origin of Great Zimbabwe and related sites brought him into conflict with the colonial administration, which was beginning to take a hard line on interpretations of the site.

Racist misiniterpretation

Randall-MacIver’s discoveries did nothing to silence the proponents of external origins. As well as the Semitic origins that had long been popular, origins in southern India (Dravidian traders blown on the monsoon winds) or Malaya (the origin of the population of Madagascar) were also proposed. The Semitic origin theory had been boosted by Henry Rider Haggard’s (1856-1925) adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines, published in 1895, and this remained the most popular explanation for the ruins, despite the impossibility of the dating.

In 1930, the German ethnologist Leo Viktor Frobenius (1873-1938) announced in a Cape Town newspaper that he had identified the “source of the civilisation which created Zimbabwe and many hundreds of ruins scattered over Rhodesia, Portuguese East Africa and parts of Bechuanaland”. He placed its foundation between 4000 and 1000 BCE, much earlier than indicated by the archaeologists’ discoveries, and believed the builders to have been Sumerians from near the Caspian Sea. Frobenius also claimed that Atlantis was located in southern Africa

It is obvious that the interpretation of site in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was coloured by racial prejudice on the part of white European explorers and, later, settlers. Convinced that so complex a monument could not be of indigenous African origin, explorers, antiquaries and archaeologists ignored, misinterpreted and wilfully destroyed evidence. The excavations carried out on the site for more than a century have shown beyond any doubt whatsoever that Great Zimbabwe is an entirely indigenous monument.

Where are we today?

First settled around the fifth century CE by Iron Age pastoralists of the Gokomere Culture, the great stone architecture has been found to date from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries CE. Sandes’s early radiocarbon date appeared anomalous by the late 1960s and a second sample produced a fourteenth-century date; all but four of the 28 dates now available confirm the dating of the imported ceramics and glassware. The origins of Great Zimbabwe and related sites can now be seen as an opportunistic response to the decline of the Mapungubwe kingdom, a state that lay farther south and which was characterised by its hierarchical society and wide trading links via the ancient port of Rhapta and the Islamic trading post of Kilwa Kisiwani.

Bizarrely, the possibility of a Semitic connection has been raised by DNA analysis of local Lemba people, whose claim to a Jewish ancestry on the male side appears to be confirmed. This has been suggested as the origin for apparently circumcised phallic sculptures found in some of the ruins. However, although the supposed archaeological parallels in burial practice, architectural style and so on have received a great deal of criticism, the Zimbabwean archaeologist Peter Garlake describing them as “worthless polemic”. The Wikipedia article on the Lemba people carries no hint of doubt about the claim, referring to the Lemba as a “Jewish Diasporan subethnic group”; as our understanding of the relatively new science of DNA analysis improves, we may well see these ideas either confirmed or disproved.

During the 1960s and 70s, Great Zimbabwe became a symbol of the African Nationalist movement, as the white government of Southern Rhodesia (which had issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from British colonial rule in 1965) suppressed the overwhelming evidence that it is indeed of African origin. The archaeologist in charge of the site during the latter years of Southern Rhodesia, Paul Sinclair, once said in an interview “I was told by the then-director of the Museums and Monuments organisation to be extremely careful about talking to the press about the origins of the Zimbabwe state. 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. He said it was okay to say the yellow people had built it, but I wasn’t allowed to mention radio carbon dates.”.

In 1964, the science-fiction writer Lyon Sprague de Camp was able to write: -“Zimbabwe had the bad luck to get caught up in the great twentieth-century dispute over differences among the races of men. Those who wanted to show that the white or Caucasoid race is better than other have been eager to show that Zimbabwe was built by whites”. Today, we are less concerned with the characteristics of whole ‘races’ because anthropologists (as opposed to political bigots) no longer view ‘race’ as a useful analytical concept.

When Southern Rhodesia achieved majority rule and became Zimbabwe in 1980, the new nation chose the name of the site to represent the entire country. Despite the political and economic problems the country has experienced since independence, Great Zimbabwe remains a potent symbol of African pride.

32 Replies to “Great Zimbabwe”

  1. Thank you for this. There are still too many people who believe the nonsense spouted by the 18th and 19th century apologists for slavery. I even read a crass remark last week in a local free rag where the columnist suggested that black slaves were actually better off than if they had been left alone in Africa. Unbelievable. This article and others like it might eventually filter out into the larger environment.

  2. Great Zimbabwe is not a temple. it is designed to let water flow inside it. The slowly curving walls and fin-like walls, are a givaway.

    Great Zimbabwe is designed to let in water through the two consecutive cleaves in the wall, at the top.

    Then water is accelerated by passing through the outside trough. The tower is there to increase the speed of water passing through. Afterwards, the water was washing the soil of from he center and finally exit, leaving behind the gold. This is called a hydraulic mine.

    1. That’s a lot of construction to simply wash gold. It looks more like protective structures from predators and other tribes.

      1. Unfortunately, these walls are not made for warfare. There are no places where a man can stand and fire a bow or throw a spear, or even climb them from inside. Any suggestions are welcome, by the way.

        1. I’ve seen some of the reconstruction drawings and they ladders going up against the inside wall of the curved “alley” with guards posted at various points along the wall. This is, of course, based on some conjecture, but what other purpose would 35 foot high stone walls have? You either want to keep someone or something inside the enclosure, or outside.

          From my point of view the curved “alley” looks like a perfect “killing zone.” It’s narrow with a curve that has one entrance and one exit. Once inside attackers have only two directions to go. As they rush inside they become bunched together unable to throw spears or shoot arrows up, while the defenders have clear access to rain down all manner of projectiles, spears, arrows, rocks, boiling water, even poisonous snakes.

          What are your thoughts?

          1. The alley is not particularly well suited for a killing zone. It does not have a straight line-of-sight for that matter, so you can not shoot atackers from sideways. Furthermore, there is not enough room for a lot of people in there. If the attackers were numerous, they would just wait outside for the people inside to run out of supplies. Which also reminds me that there is no water supply inside these walls.
            This is not a fort.

          2. For a kill zone you don’t want a straight line of sight for those attacking you, which is why you would have a curve so they cannot see what’s ahead of them. The defenders would be on the top of the walls and have an exceptionally clear, straight line of sight down to the attackers. Being narrow means the attackers would be bunched together causing them to be at a distinct disadvantage for firing up at the defenders.

            I don’t think this is a fort either, rather it appears to be the homestead of someone of importance and not designed to survive a siege of years, or even a few months, but a structure that could be defended against a moderate number of attackers and/or wild animals.

            That being said, it could just as well be some spiritual site and the curved alley is for meditative purposes, much like a walking labyrinth.

  3. It would benefit the world of authentic history if we could have some people with no preconceived ideas to do the research. I personally believe it benefits no one to conceal the truth from anyone. I would be happy to hear that Zimbabwe was built by native black Africans, but I also must consider that there is not much evidence of other similar structures built by them. It seems that there should be structures all over Africa, if the indigenous people were inclined to build in the manner in which Zimbabwe was structured. I wish beyond all that the natives could have credit, but I am left wondering. Hopefully, future research will provide the real truth.

    1. This is just plain wrong. There are dozens of similar structures, just none on this scale. They are clearly an indigenous development, with Great Zimbabwe the pinnacle of achievement. Its size suggests that this was a royal (or similar administrative) site, its buildings reflecting a centralised control of wealth; the source of the wealth derives from a well documented trade along the east coast of southern Africa and there is no mystery to it. The research has been done by people “with no preconceived ideas” and it strikes me that those who doubt that it was built by “black Africans” are the ones with an axe to grind.

    2. Why would there be similar structures all over Africa? The continent has never been a single culture, you know. Similar structures have been found in neighbouring countries, which do share a common heritage with Zimbabwe.

  4. Ok now what I’m about to tell you is based on simple logic, something you obviously lack, but try to keep an open mind. If this was indeed built by Bantu, why didn’t the technology spread to the rest of the Bantu people’s, there are other numerous examples of technology shared throughout the Bantu people’s. something as obviously advantages as being able to build stone fortresses would have been copied by other Bantu if they had the ability too.

    1. Well one thing Zimbabwe is believed to spawn from Gokomere culture that shows similar architecture and the kingdom itself focused on outside trade. OTHER Bantu people weren’t exactly in the same economic position or they didn’t have contact due to being in different geographies.

  5. The time it was built data are based on carbon dating of wood embedded in the structure. There is no evidence that it was the time it was built or the time the last repair was made. The right way to say this is that it was built on or before that date
    How it was built is plain. Why it was built can be deduced by observing the function it fulfils. Obviously they are not either houses or forts. There are enough such examples worldwide, and these structures are not. On the contrary, curved walls and round towers looks a lot like control structures for flow control. Show them to a mechanical engineer.

    1. The dating is also confirmed by the imported artefacts found at the site, which agree with the radiocarbond determinations.

  6. I am saddened by how SOME whites try to denigrate and deny us of our heritage. Yes we may have problems but why not simply take it for what is there. Would these same people accept it if we said the whites did not build the Stonehenge. Why do we have to put race in issues that have nothing to do with race whatsoever. I am African and Zimbabwean for that matter and Im proud of my Heritage. These so called Archaeologists can claim whatever they want it is fine but Great Zimbabwe will always be in Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans and any visitors who want to come and see our culture and heritage you are welcome

    1. Common sense tells me that if it was natives then it would have been proliferating all over the place. Natives would have been living in similar built stone structures and not mud huts. Does that make sense?

      1. Great Zimbabwe is not alone: there are other, much smaller constructions of dry stone with similar architecture of the same date. It’s the scale of Great Zimbabwe that makes it stand out, not simply its existence.

      2. There are multiple innovative structures throughout Africa. Without the internet and newspapers, however, it would have taken much longer for everyone in Africa to know about how Great Zimbabwe was built… Just because there aren’t ones that exactly relate to Great Zimbabwe’s structures does not mean that people (black, white, whatever) were not thinking of ways to improve their societies…

  7. The artefacts also confirm the THE LAST TIME Great Zimbabwe was used, NOT the time it was built.

    “..(Carbon dating) cannot be applied to inorganic material such as stone tools or ceramic pottery.”

    Furthermore, from a functional point of view, these structures obviously are not built for defensive, administrative or housing purposes. Just compare them with the rest of the Bantu buildings, as Aelfgar suggests.

    So, WHAT IS their purpose?
    When we find their purpose, we could unfold the mystery. And to find their purpose, we should consult people with no preconceived ideas, as N.J. Patton suggests. I would also add to ask people with technical, not archeological background, eg technology historians or civil ,mechanical and mining engineers. If any, they are the most suitable to conceive the original purpose of the structures.

  8. I doubt that anyone taking part in a serious historical discussion has an “axe to grind.” I believe the interest is simply archaelogy, and the content, pro or con, should not be taken as a personal affont to anyone. If the discussion stirs your sensitivities, then you would be well advised to avoid this discussion altogether. Otherwise, there can be no open and honest discussion.

    1. I believe that the deep stone passages were built to inspire awe upon visitors. After traveling over the open planes, being funnelled into the passages, warriors lining the walls above, it could of indeed been a killing zone and the would of inspired awe upon any who entered.

      1. I’m sure you’re right: for people living in the plains of Zimbabwe, with single-storey timber and adobe houses, the stone tower and walls of the Great Enclosure must have been the most amazing structure they had seen.Add to that the possibility of intimidating visitors from neighbouring kingdoms and you have a construction of huge power.

        1. I am a black Zimbabwean. Coincidentally about 10 years ago listening oral accounts from my 100yr+ grandmother talk about my grandfather’s, grandfather, she could account his people’s origins from Tanzania and their roles as educators and builders. What strikes me the most is the assumption that even if the Lemba people had Semitic genetic relationship, by the time they had migrated to the Great Zimbabwe site, they had intermarried and could not be considered anything else but black. Surely the only significance sold be the knowledge that possessed re stone masonry and other skills that party have been passed down orally.

  9. In response to those who keep falsely claiming that black Africans haven’t built anything else (and therefore did not build this), please watch this:

    Keith, have you seen Henry Louis Gates’ PBS documentary on Africa’s Great Civilizations? Is it relatively good reporting of the archaeology?

  10. The whole dispute over the origin of Great Zimbabwe has its roots firmly in white supremacy. The “notion” that black people are sub human, have low IQs and are incapable of producing anything significant is still firmly rooted in the minds of some, & is the primary reason why the settlers refused to accept the obvious origins of the ruins. Since their argument was that they were colonising and civilising an inferior group of people, they would never accept or acknowledge the fact that the native people actually built this impressive structure. Such is the story and narrative of history in some white eyes. If it was built by the Semites or whoever, where are the descendants of these people? their culture? their religion? The are several smaller structures at Khami, Matobo, Mapungubwe etc. So people who say nothing else was built are just ignorant.
    Great Zimbabwe was built by the Rozvi people, whose direct descendants are the Karanga and Kalanga people. The other smaller ruins were destroyed by the invading Nguni people from South Africa. The culture of sculpture and stone masonry is still rife amongst black people in Zimbabwe. As for the Lemba/ Varemba tribe, they were converted to islam by Arab traders, and are just Shona people. Very few of them still practice islam anyway.

    1. I don’t have an opinion yet on who built Great Zimbabwe for several reasons, but I do find this insistence that Great Zimbabwe was definitely built by local indigenous people to be just as political as is claimed of earlier theories. I would point out several obvious things in this article. 1.) “During the 1960s and 70s, Great Zimbabwe became a symbol of the African Nationalist movement.” (Black nationalism has a poor track record, including claims of Egyptian and Hebrew roots.) 2.) “Bizarrely, the possibility of a Semitic connection has been raised by DNA analysis of local Lemba people, whose claim to a Jewish ancestry on the male side appears to be confirmed. This has been suggested as the origin for apparently circumcised phallic sculptures found in some of the ruins.”

      Is circumcision common among indigenous Africans? Since there is no written history and no sculptures of the people who built Great Zimbabwe (besides circumcised phallic sculptures,) it’s my opinion that no one truly knows who built the stone structures considering artifacts from all around the world are found there. I don’t believe finding artifacts similar to African pottery proves anything for several reasons. 1.) It is possible Africans adopted their pottery techniques from a foreign people of the past. 2.) It is possible African pottery was left at the Great Zimbabwe site before it was constructed. 3.) It is possible African pottery was left after the site was abandoned.

      All we know for sure is the site had global trade from many different cultures, including African cultures. The most powerful evidence I have seen for the race of people associated with Great Zimbabwe would be the Semetic DNA found in the local Lemba people mixed with circumcised phallic sculptures. In light of this, I’m thinking Karl Mauch and his theory of Semetic origins might have been correct to begin with. I am interested to see the supposed “similarities” between smaller stone structures in the region as compared to Great Zimbabwe. I would like to compare that, with similarities of Semetic structures. As originally stated, I don’t have a concrete opinion yet on who built this place but I am not convinced it had to be locals. I see lots of claims of racism if anyone doesn’t accept the current day narrative spawned from African Nationalism, which shows just as much political motivation to me as is claimed of prior European colonizers. It shows a lack of critical thinking. All we care about is the truth here, I am simply interested in world history and couldn’t care less about the race of people who made Great Zimbabwe.

  11. Why then are the Zulu people named after the people who they claimed created them to mine gold? ZULU means ‘those gods who came from the sky.’ Evidently, it was the same anunaki that did the same in Sumerian. Inki and Enlil, the two half brothers sent down from Niburu to mine sub atomic gold, and used DNA to modify the natives to work the over 200miles of gold mines. The empty mines are still there are evidence.

  12. This article neglects to mention Great Zimbabwe’s precursor, Mapungubwe, which was built south of the Limpopo river so is now politically in South Africa. One can see a pattern of cities built in a northward direction as the rulers sought to be closer to the trade on the east African coast.

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