During the early 16th century, hearsay spread across Europe about a puzzling and uninhabited fortress with enormous walls in the African jungle. Sitting on a 900-meter-high hill and ringed by goldmines, Great Zimbabwe was thought to represent the crest of an exceptional African civilization that had traded with China, Persia, and many other distant Asian countries. The city was part of an affluent African trading empire that had control over much of the East African coast between the 11th and the 15th centuries C.E. Great Zimbabwe is the name of the stone remains of an ancient medieval city in southeastern Africa. In Shona, Zimbabwe stands for “stone houses”. Near modern-day Masvingo, Zimbabwe, the admirable city was notorious for its tower and large circular wall. It was around 1100 C.E. that people lived in Great Zimbabwe; however, the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe was abandoned during the 15th century. 

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Great Zimbabwe’s Great Enclosure_©Christopher Scott

The State of the Area | Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe was established over 722 hectares between the 11th and 14th centuries. At its height, the city is believed to have had a population exceeding 10,000, even though the greater number resided distantly from the large stone buildings. Barely 200 to 300 locals from the elite classes are thought to have lodged within the gargantuan edifices of Great Zimbabwe. These stupendous buildings were made of splendid granite walls ornamented with towers, decorations, turrets, and stairways that were sculpted graciously. Moreover, the centuries-old drainage system of the entire site still works, channeling water outside the enclosures and houses down into the valleys. 

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An Artist Rendition of Great Zimbabwe at its Peak_©Avac Zimbabwean Art and Sculpture Hub

Great Zimbabwe’s archaeological site comprises several sections. The Hill Complex is the oldest part of Great Zimbabwe and the city’s first section. This series of structural ruins sits above the most precipitous hill of the site and indicates construction that originates around 900 C.E. It is generally assumed that the Hill Complex was the site’s religious center

The Great Enclosure is the name given to the ruins of the second section dating back to the 14th century. It is a circular, walled area below the first section. The walls were constructed without mortar, relying on rocks shaped meticulously to hold the walls on their own. 

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Remains of the Great Enclosure_©Alamy

Perhaps, the most illustrious building is the 9.7 meters high enclosure whose circumference is 250 meters. Its perimeter columns were embellished with soapstone sculptures exhibiting a silhouetted bird with five-fingered feet and human lips. Seen from above, the enclosure’s walls –which are without sharp angles- are said to mimic a “giant grey bracelet”. Inside the walls, there is a narrow passage leading to a 10 meters high conical tower, the use of which remains undisclosed. Some archeologists argued that it could have been a symbolic grain storage facility or a royal residence. 

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The Great Enclosure’s Conical Tower_©Alamy

The third section is the Valley Ruins which is composed of a remarkable number of houses near the Great Enclosure and made primarily of mud-brick (daga). The number and distribution of these houses highlight the fact that the city of Great Zimbabwe boasted a large population. In 1531, Viçente Pegado who is a Portuguese sea captain wrote: “Among the goldmines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them … This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms high.”

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The Entrance Portal of Great Zimbabwe’s Ruins_©www.sacredsites.com

The Reason behind the Abandonment

Great Zimbabwe controlled trade across the east African coast and its prosperity lasted for centuries. Howbeit, the city’s trading activity started to decline and the site was abandoned to a great extent by the 15th century as the Shona people began to migrate elsewhere. The most common hypothesis to explain the ultimate abandonment of the city is a decline in trade compared to sites further north, food and water shortages, famine, the exhaustion of resources and gold mines, political instability, and overpopulation. Nevertheless, the precise reasons behind the abandonment remain unclear. Another speculation dates back to around 1430 when Prince Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe vanquished Tonga and Tavara and established his dynasty at Chitakochangonya Hill. Within a generation, Mutapa – the land the prince conquered- eclipsed Great Zimbabwe. By 1450, most of the empire had been abandoned.

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Site Plan of Great Zimbabwe_©www.smarthistory.org

The Current Condition | Great Zimbabwe 

In 1986, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were named a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, consequential destruction and looting occurred at the turn of the 20th century due to the crazed plundering of the site by European treasure-hunters, in quest of artifacts that were sent in due course to museums throughout Europe, South Africa, and America. The National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe organization led the preservation of Great Zimbabwe, however; it is the uncontrolled growth of vegetation that poses a significant challenge as it threatens the stability of the site’s dry stone walls. Furthermore, the spread of an invasive flowering shrub called lantana has put additional strain on the preservation work. Still, the legacy of Great Zimbabwe lives on today as one of the most substantial and culturally eminent archaeological sites of its kind in Africa.

The Forgotten African Empire Great Zimbabwe Ruins_©Robin Smith
The House of Stones_©www.erikastravels.com

Reference List:

Education.nationalgeographic.org. 2022. [online] Available at: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/great-zimbabwe

The Guardian. 2022. Lost cities #9: racism and ruins – the plundering of Great Zimbabwe. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/18/great-zimbabwe-medieval-lost-city-racism-ruins-plundering

Sacred Sites: World Pilgrimage Guide. 2022. Great Zimbabwe Ruins. [online] Available at: https://sacredsites.com/africa/zimbabwe/great_zimbabwe_ruins.html

Metmuseum.org. 2022. [online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zimb/hd_zimb.html 

Courses.lumenlearning.com. 2022. Great Zimbabwe | World Civilization. [online] Available at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldcivilization/chapter/great-zimbabwe/ 


Najlaa believes that writing, art, and architecture enunciate one’s inner voice. Through a process of research carried out with scrupulous attention to detail, she seeks to ease curiosity with a pen, and tame the incessant questions of Why and How.