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Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe ruins are the remains of an ancient African city in the south-eastern hills near the town of Masvingo and the Chimanimani Mountains. It’s still a place of mystery and there are some strong theories as to its purpose, despite the lack of written history. The area around Great Zimbabwe is inhabited by the Karanga speaking Shona people who have inhabited this area since the building of the stone boulder city.

Built between the 11th and 15th Century, this is one of the largest and oldest solid structures in Southern Africa. In 1531, Viçente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, described the country thus:

“Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there 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 [22 m] high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.”

The city appears to have been a trading centre, as Chinese pottery shards, Arabian coins and other non-local items have been extracted from the soil around the buildings. The first Europeans to arrive at the ancient city were Portuguese traders and the ruins became well known to English readers under Cecil John Rhode’s time.

The great tower in particular resembles some Swahili architecture on the East Coast of Africa and there are suggestions it was built along with some other stone ruins by the Lemba, an ethnic group claiming ancient Jewish descent (recently, genetic evidence has supported this claim - an investigation that took place whilst trying to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant has suggested the Lemba [formerly Jewish priests] took the artifact south and subsequently lost it - rumour has that it’s in Bulawayo now!).

Spreading over 1,800 acres, it was thought to accommodate up to 18,000 residents at its peak. It is similar to about 300 similar stone buildings in the region, all of which are on a much smaller scale. The Great Enclosure has walls as high as 11m and as wide as 250m making this the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara.

Most archaeologists and historians nowadays agree it was built by people of a Bantu origin and it has become an important symbol of black achievement. At independence in 1980 when Rhodesia was renamed after the ancient city, the famous soapstone bird carving which decorates the ruin was used as the symbol on the country’s new flag.

The book “King Solomon’s Mines” was based around Great Zimbabwe and numerous other books have been written pondering its origin and history. It is well worth a visit if your itinerary takes you down to this part of the country.