Updated: Jun 28
Great Zimbabwe is a now-ruined city near Masvingo, Zimbabwe, that was continuously inhabited from c. 1100 to c. 1550 CE, flourishing between c. 1300 and c. 1450 CE during southern Africa's Late Iron Age. The site is situated on a natural citadel and includes several impressive monuments constructed using granite blocks with the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, a state of the Bantu-speaking Shona people.
In Bantu, clusters of stone buildings were named Zimbabwe, thus the name of the site and the kingdom. The Great Enclosure, a high circuit wall, and tower made of stone, is Africa's largest ancient monument south of the Sahara. Agriculture, gold mines, and a trade network that reached the East African coast helped the city thrive. In the 15th century CE, it began to decline the Shona migrated northwards to a new site at Mutapa, most likely due to its gold sources being depleted or overpopulation. Several soapstone figurines discovered in Great Zimbabwe portray an eagle, which is depicted on the modern Zimbabwe flag. In 1986 CE, Great Zimbabwe was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Shona, a Bantu-speaking people who first migrated to southern Africa in the 2nd century CE, founded the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, with Great Zimbabwe as its capital. The kingdom's exact boundaries are unknown, but its heartland was in central Mashonaland (northern Zimbabwe). The Zimbabwe plateau, which lies between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers in the south and the Zambezi in the north, is made up of temperate grasslands free of the tsetse fly, though rainfall has always been erratic, with droughts looming at least once a decade.
Great Zimbabwe has many important features to start with;
Great Zimbabwe's position on a natural rise of 80 meters (262 feet) offered a prominent site for rituals as well as an easy-to-defend location. According to radiocarbon dates, evidence of a sparse habitation on the citadel, or Hill Complex, dates back to the 5th century CE, but was disrupted and revived with greater intensity in the 11th and 12th centuries CE. The complex may have served as a worship site or a burial ground for chiefs at a later date. It may also have always been a religious site where ancestors were worshipped and sacrifices and votive offerings were made. On the acropolis, however, there are remains of mud housing with stone foundations, which may have been used as a royal residence.
The valley underneath the citadel was also occupied from about 1000 CE (if not earlier). A large elliptical stone wall, 5.5 meters (18 feet) thick in places and 9.7 meters (32 feet) high, dominates it. Standard channels pass through the base to drain the level interior space, and the wall inclines slightly inwards for added stability. There's also the main entrance door that faces the street.
Within, a second wall matches the contours of the outer wall, forming a narrow corridor in places and leading to a tall stone monument or tower. The conical tower measures 5 meters (16 feet) across at its widest point and rises to a height of 10 meters. The Great Enclosure, a wall, and tower constructed of drystone granite masonry with precise coursing is generally referred to as the Great Enclosure.
Many other individual stone structures, as well as the remains of many large circular mud and pole houses, can also be found in the region, all of which are surrounded by high walls (which pre-date the stone ones). The Valley Ruins are the name for the third region. Since the mud houses are mostly 10 meters (32.8 feet) in diameter, their height with thatch roofs would have been an intimidating 6 meters (19.7 ft)
The number and geographic distribution of these ruins indicate that the city's population grew as it prospered. With such colossal buildings and a land area of 1700 acres (700 hectares), there was undoubtedly a ruling class and possibly a centralized government that ruled over a population of about 18,000 people.
Chikumbirike, J. et al. "A STUDY OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL CHARCOAL FROM GREAT ZIMBABWE." The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 204 (DECEMBER 2016), pp. 107-118.
Cartwright, Mark. "Great Zimbabwe." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified March 14, 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/Great_Zimbabwe/.
Huffman, T.N. "Debating Great Zimbabwe." The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 66, No. 193 (JUNE 2011), pp. 27-40.
Innocent, P. "Great Zimbabwe in Historical Archaeology: Reconceptualizing Decline, Abandonment, and Reoccupation of an Ancient Polity, A.D. 1450-1900." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 47, No. 1, GLOBALIZATION, IMMIGRATION, TRANSFORMATION (2013), pp. 26-37.