ConcepTueel: Great Zimbabwe

This edition of Ancient Engineering dives into the Great Zimbabwe ruins that lies in modern day Zimbabwe, the origins of which is shrouded in mystery and racism. It is the largest collection of ruins in Africa south of the Sahara, with the settlement covering over almost 800 hectares. ‘Zimbabwe’ means “big stone houses” or “venerated houses” in Shona, the language of the Bantu people, and the nation is named after this ancient city. This city, believed to be the capital of a medieval African trading empire, was built and inhabited between 1100 and 1450 AD. In its heyday Great Zimbabwe was a bustling trading city, remnants of Persian pottery, Chinese writing sets, brass ornaments from India, and Arab coins were unearthed by archaeologists. The 10000-20000 inhabitants were mainly cattle-herders who were also skilled metal-workers. Some believe that for three centuries 40% of the world’s total mined gold originated from the 4,000 gold and 500 copper mines that have been found around the ruins, which is equivalent to an estimated 600 tonnes of gold. Little is known about this once great city since no primary written documents telling about Great Zimbabwe’s history was discovered. Any information is derived from archaeological evidence found on the site, and the oral history of the local Shona-speaking people. By the time the one of the first foreigners, Portuguese sea captain Viçente Pegado, arrived in 1531, the site had already been abandoned. While it is not known for certain, it is believed that Great Zimbabwe was deserted once the hinterland was unable sustain its populace due to overpopulation and deforestation depleting its resources.

Lay of the land

Great Zimbabwe can be separated into three sections: the Hill Ruins, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins. As the name suggests, the Hill Ruins is located on the steepest part of the city covering an area that is approximately 100m by 45m. There are indications of construction that date back to 900 C.E., making it the oldest part of the city. It is most likely that this was the site of religious worship. Additionally, its most prominent feature is a large boulder.

Dating back to the 14th century, the Great Enclosure is a walled, circular area below the Hill Complex. The outer walls encircling the Great Enclosure were constructed using close to a million granite blocks, and they were built entirely without mortar, relying on carefully shaped rocks to support their weight. The walls reach up to 11m high in places, covering a circumference of 250 meters—all without any sharp angles. There was also a second wall following the curvature of the outer wall that created a passageway, which was 55m long and 1m wide, leading to a stone tower that is 10m high and with a diameter of 5m. The exact purpose of the enclosure is still uncertain, but it may have been a symbolic grain storage facility or a royal residence.

The Valley Ruins consist of units made out of earthen and mud-bricks (daga) and insulated with dry stone masonry walls scattered throughout the valley. These enclosures resembled later developments of the Stone Age, and display a high standard of craftsmanship. Additionally, a still-functional centuries-old drainage system stretching throughout the site transported water from outside the houses and enclosures down into the valleys. It is suffice to say that people inhabiting Great Zimbabwe were adept builders, constructing impressive structures predating modern engineering resources.

A “civilised” people

European colonisers’ unwillingness to accept that Great Zimbabwe was remnants of an African civilisation makes for an interesting case-study. German explorer Karl Mauch, who visited in 1871, put forward the notion that Great Zimbabwe was an African replica of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem, in his refusal to believe indigenous Africans were capable of building something as impressive as Great Zimbabwe. His racism is unmistakeable when he said only a “civilised nation must once have lived there”. He was not alone though, other European writers speculated that Portuguese travellers, Arabs, Chinese, Persians, Phoenicians or a southern African tribe of ancient Jewish heritage, the Lemba, might have been the true builders. Although their racism stood in the way of seeing the truth, the ruins incurred a lot damage by European colonists who were all too happy to explore and loot the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. Chief among them was British journalist Richard Nicklin Hall, who was appointed curator of Great Zimbabwe by the British South Africa Company in 1902 for the purposes preservation. However, in his plight to remove the “filth and decadence of the Kaffir [ie African] occupation” and his search for evidence of white builders, layers of archaeological deposits up to four metres deep were destroyed. It was only in 1905 when British Archaeologist David Randall-MacIver concluded that the ruins were medieval and built by the local African Bantu people. His findings were later supported by Gertrude Caton-Thompson, another British archaeologist, in 1929. Nevertheless, until 1979 the government of Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe and former British colony), continued to falsify of the city’s origins in official guide books, printing images of Africans bowing down to the alleged foreign builders of Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe is by no means an anomaly, it is one of 150 similar ruins scattered around modern day Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986. Though it is a relic of a once great ancient African empire, decay phenomena have occurred due to variations in temperature, soil moisture content, and tourism pressure, improper preservation methods, and encroaching invasive vegetation threaten the stability of the stone walls. Even though the legacy of the builders of Great Zimbabwe was marred by racism, their skill and craftmanship is undeniable.

Article by Noor Bajracharya