Great Zimbabwe Walls
It comes as a shock to many of us who are imbued with an occidental view of history that man was capable of extraordinary feats in what has been dismissively termed the developing world. One such edifice is the Great Zimbabwe walls which formed the perimeter to the Bantu capital of Great Zimbabwe, near the modern day town of Masvingo in the south-east of the country. One of the first westerners to clap eyes on it was the Portuguese sea captain, Vicente Pegado, who wrote, “among the goldmines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers [is a] fortress built of stones of marvellous 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.”
Built between the 11th and 14th centuries CE and covering some 722 hectares, Great Zimbabwe has three main architectural zones. The Hill Complex is the oldest and may well have been occupied from the 9th century, serving as the religious and spiritual centre of the city. There was a boulder shaped rather like the Zimbabwe Bird, upon which the King sat and administered to the religious and secular affairs of the community. A raised platform was to be found directly below the boulder and it was here that sacrifices were performed.
To the south of the Hill Complex is to be found the Great Enclosure with its astonishing walls, some five feet thick and eleven metres tall, made of cut granite and resembling from the air a grey bracelet. Remarkably, there are no angles in the structure. The third area is the Valley complex, a series of living areas made from earth and mud-brick. It is thought that thousands of goldsmiths and potters would live and work here. At its peak around 18,000 people lived in the city, although only a couple of hundred nobles lived in the Great Enclosure.
Great Zimbabwe owed its prosperity in part to its geographic position – it was situated between the gold producing areas inland and the Mozambique ports – and part to its own mineral wealth. More than 4,000 gold and 500 copper mines have been found on the site and it is estimated that between the 12th and 15th centuries 40% of the world’s gold came from the area. Artefacts went backwards and forwards along established trade routes to the Levant, Syria and Persia and China. The city went into decline midway through the 16th century. The reasons are unclear but it may be that the natural resources and food supplies had been exhausted and the population thought it was time to move on.
The tragedy of the walls of Great Zimbabwe was that when white men got to hear about it and see the magnificent structure, they could not believe that it was built by Africans. The German explorer, Karl Mauch, visited it in 1871 and opined that it was a replica of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem and that “only a civilised nation must have once lived there.” Worse still, Richard Nicklin Hall, appointed “curator” of the site by the British South Africa Company in 1902, destroyed up to four metres of archaeological deposits whilst removing what he termed “the filth and decadence of the kaffir occupation” in his frantic search for proof that the city was constructed by white men.
In 1905 sanity prevailed when British archaeologist, David Randall-MacIver, concluded that the site was medieval and had been constructed by local tribes. It is now a World Heritage site and, fortunately, the marvellous bracelet-like walls remain to be enjoyed. And the drainage system still works!