Walking up to the towering walls of Great Zimbabwe was a humbling experience. The closer I got, the more they dwarfed me – and yet, there was something inviting about the archaeological site. It didn’t feel like an abandoned fortress or castle that one might see in Europe: Great Zimbabwe was a place where people lived and worked, a place where they came to worship – and still do. It felt alive.
Great Zimbabwe is the name of the extensive stone remains of an ancient city built between 1100 and 1450 CE near modern-day Masvingo, Zimbabwe. Believed to be the work of the Shona (who today make up the majority of Zimbabwe’s population) and possibly other societies that were migrating back and forth across the area, the city was large and powerful, housing a population comparable to London at that time – somewhere around 20,000 people during its peak. Great Zimbabwe was part of a sophisticated trade network (Arab, Indian and Chinese trade goods were all found at the site), and its architectural design was astounding: made of enormous, mortarless stone walls and towers, most of which are still standing.
However, for close to a century, European colonisers of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries attributed the construction to outsiders and explorers, rather than to the Africans themselves.
Indeed, the author of the first written European record of Great Zimbabwe seemed to be staggered by the very idea that it could have been built at all. Portuguese explorer Joao de Barros wrote in 1552 that, “There is masonry within and without, built of stones of a marvellous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them.”
Visitors who come to Great Zimbabwe today can still explore three sections: the Hill Ruins (the oldest, with an acropolis believed to be a royal city); the Great Enclosure (surrounded by a large, high wall and containing an 11m conical tower); and the Valley Ruins (a collection of mud-brick houses where the majority of the ancient population lived). Cynthia Marangwanda, a writer, poet and heritage specialist who writes about Zimbabwean national identity, explained that “some people want to call it ‘the Great Zimbabwe ruins’, but I disagree with that: considering the kind of European meddling it has endured, it has stood up very well.”