In sub-Saharan Africa, there are the ruins of a once-great city in a desolate are of Zimbabwe near the country’s border with Mozambique. Known as Great Zimbabwe, the ruined city lent its name to the entire country when it was founded in 1965. The complex at Great Zimbabwe is so well-built and massive that when it was first discovered by European explorers, they assumed it was built by outsiders…that it was too sophisticated in its construction to be the work of native Africans. But we now know that that attitude is both elitist and wrong. Great Zimbabwe is a true Africa empire that has yielded many clues about Africa’s rich past.
Great Zimbabwe was the rich and powerful capital of the Zimbabwe Kingdom and the royal home of the ruling class. Archaeologists believe that construction on Great Zimbabwe began in the 11th century and continued until the 14th century. The complex is sprawling, covering more than 1,700 acres. At its heyday, Great Zimbabwe probably housed about 18,000 people.
The word ‘Zimbabwe’ is a Shona word that means ‘city of stone’, which is exactly what Great Zimbabwe is. The ruins boast walls that are more than 16 feet high, grand entries, staircases, pillars, and turrets. What is impressive is that the city was built without the use of mortar to hold the stones together, yet many of the walls and structures are still intact. It is a testament to the workmanship and engineering of the builders of Great Zimbabwe. The name of the city, which comes from the Shona language, gave archaeologists their first clue as to the original builders of the structure.
Many stories surrounding Great Zimbabwe claim that it was a city lost over time and rediscovered by archaeologists. This is not true. The massive city has always been known to the people living in the surrounding area. The site is not obscured by overgrowth or hidden among forests. It is, and always has been, plainly visible to the people of Zimbabwe.
Although the people of Zimbabwe were well aware of the ruins of the great city, European explorers didn’t learn about it until later, after the city had been abandoned and fell into ruins. In 1531, there is a brief mention of the ruins in the journal of Vincente Pagado, a Portuguese captain. He failed at spelling, however, and noted that the ruined city as once called ‘Symbaoe’. In the 1800s, more Europeans stumbled upon the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.
Early European explorers were, as a whole, an elitist, ethnocentric bunch who believed that African cultures were inferior to European ones. Seeing the engineering and complexity of the Great Zimbabwe ruins, they assumed that the site must have been built by European or Asian cultures. They often pointed to the Phoenicians as the possible builders. Great Zimbabwe has helped to open the eyes of the world to the rich, diverse, and advanced African civilizations.
One of the first European explorers to study the ruins of Great Zimbabwe was Karl Mauch. During his research, he claims to have discovered cedar from Lebanon at the ruined city. This led him to theorize that the city was built by the Queen of Sheba, who is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The Queen of Sheba was said to hail from a kingdom to the south, perhaps in Africa, and that she journeyed to the Holy Lands to being an abundance of valuable gifts to King Solomon. As much as early archaeologists tried to prove that Great Zimbabwe was the home of the Queen of Sheba, showing the tangible proof of the Biblical story, there was simply no evidence to definitively link the ruined city to the fabled queen.
Although there may not have been a connection between Great Zimbabwe and the Holy Land, there certainly was one between the ruined city and far-away China. Archaeologists excavating at Great Zimbabwe have unearthed artifacts from China’s Ming Dynasty, coins from Arabia, and pottery from Persia at the site, showing that trade between the people of coastal Africa and far-away places like China was robust during the height of the great city.
Today, it is estimated that only about two percent of Great Zimbabwe has been excavated by archaeologists. Although the people studying the ruins have made significant finds…and continue to learn new things about the ancient city every day…Great Zimbabwe has not yet yielded all of its secrets. There is still much to find at the ruins that will tell us more about the proud and rich people of ancient Africa.