Great Zimbabwe has captured the imagination of African and European travelers since the Middle Ages. Its size, mystique, and masterful architecture helped fuel the legend that sub-Saharan Africa’s largest ancient ruined city had a Biblical origin. It did not.
By the 1300s, Great Zimbabwe was the epicenter of a Southern African empire that traded with China, India and Persia. UNESCO designated Great Zimbabwe a World Heritage site in part because it represented a wealthy-but-lost civilization.
Other, smaller ruins were ransacked by European treasure-hunters in the 19th century. These smaller ruins are called zimbabwes and can be found as far as Mozambique.
Great Zimbabwe is the most intact of the ruins and it’s well-preserved, but much about it remains a mystery. This is the story of Great Zimbabwe.
Photos and parts of this article by Becca Blond first appeared in AFKTravel.
For centuries, legends persisted that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe had been the capital of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. In reality it was built by Shona-speaking Bantu people beginning in the 11th century. The city occupies an 800-hectare property (1976 acres) in the lowveld about 30 kilometers from Masvingo in Southeast Zimbabwe.
The Bantu-Shona people founded Great Zimbabwe during the Iron Age in an area said to have been sparsely populated prior to that. Great Zimbabwe continued to thrive from the early 1100s until 1450. It was a nation of herders and stone builders.
Great Zimbabwe’s Golden Age came towards the end of the Middle Ages during the 1400s, when it was the main city in a gold-rich plateau with a population of 10,000 to 20,000. During this time it was a renowned trading center for not only Africa, but the rest of the world.
Zimbabwe means “stone houses” or “venerated houses” in the Shona language. Residents of Great Zimbabwe are considered ancestors of the Shona people. Zimbabwe, which became independent from Great Britain as Rhodesia in 1980, is named for this site.
The reasons of its decline are uncertain. We do know that Great Zimbabwe was affected by a long period of drought. It’s thought that in 1450 the capital was abandoned after life became unsustainable. The city was overcrowded, and the surrounding area had been deforested. People began to migrate to other settlements, and by the 1500s Great Zimbabwe was abandoned.
Europeans stumbled on Great Zimbabwe in 1868, but reports of a city of stone located in Southern Africa had appeared in Portuguese writings almost 400 years earlier. Racist attitudes in the 1800s prevented Europeans from believing the city had been built by Africans. The Queen of Sheba legend persisted for centuries. Another legend said the ruins were a playground of giants.
Archaeological finds at Great Zimbabwe including ironware and pottery shards prove that the city was a civilization of farmers and pastoral activities. It is believed the community had contact with early Christian missionaries. A granite cross was found there.
Great Zimbabwe met the criteria for qualification in three ways. First, it was a unique artistic achievement. “This great city has struck the imagination of African and European travelers since the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the persistent legends which attribute to it a Biblical origin,” according to UNESCO.
The ruins of Great Zimbabwe also bears “a unique testimony to the lost civilization of the Shona between the 11th and 15th centuries,” UNESCO said, and, “The entire Zimbabwe nation has identified with this historically symbolic ensemble and has adopted as its emblem the steatite bird, which may have been a royal totem.”
Excavations at the site uncovered glass beads and porcelain from Persia and China as well as gold and Arab coins from Kilwa — proof that this civilization traded with other parts of the world. It is likely that the local population exported ivory and gold — abundant on the plateau.
Seventeeth-century records of Portuguese royal secretary Luiz de Figuerido Falcao suggested just how extensive this trade was. In a 1607 account of Portuguese imperial wealth, Falcao reported that Sofala, the nearest port to Great Zimbabwe, was the wealthiest of all Portuguese ports on the Indian Ocean. Sofala was located in Sofala Province in what is now modern-day Mozambique. Beira is the capital of the province, named for the ruined port of Sofala, 35 kilometers south.
Masvingo is in Southeastern Zimbabwe, due south of Harare and due east of Bulawayo. It takes about four hours to drive to Great Zimbabwe from either city.
Great Zimbabwe is divided into three main architectural groupings, all of which were built entirely without mortar: the Hill Ruins, the Great Enclosure (pictured above) and the Valley ruins. Each has distinct architectural differences and all should be visited.
Atop a granite outcropping, walls and gigantic boulders merge together to form the fortified Acropolis.
In the valley below sits the Great Enclosure with close to 1 million granite blocks in its outer walls. At some points the walls are 11 meters (36 feet) tall and extend for more than 800 meters (2,625 feet).
The walls that were built most recently stand about double the height and width of the oldest structures. A second wall, a meter inside the enclosure, forms a long, forbidding passage.
Sunrise or sunset are the most impressive times to visit, when light and contrast of shadows are at their best. You can visit on your own, or take a guided tour. There is a $25 US entrance fee for non-Zimbabweans. A tour guide can be arranged at the information center and costs an additional $12 US.
There are not many sleeping options in this region, but you can stay inside the park’s main gate at the Great Zimbabwe Campground and Lodges. There is also the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, Norma Jeane’s Lakeview Resort, and Ancient City Lodge.